Curiosity to Scrutiny: the Early Days of Science Journalism
1894: “[T]he acknowledged leaders of the great generation that is now passing away, Darwin notably, addressed themselves in many cases to the general reader, rather than to their colleagues. But instead of the current of popular yet philosophical books increasing, its volume appears if anything to dwindle…”
That’s H.G. Wells, in an essay called “Popularising Science” in Nature. In 1894, he wasn’t yet a literary powerhouse. Wells was a biologist, who had just finished a stint as a science teacher, while writing a biology textbook. And he was about to start a period as a science writer. About 90 pieces of his science journalism – or thoughts on it – have been identified, including pieces in London newspapers like the Pall Mall Gazette (precursor to today’s Evening Standard) and the Saturday Review.
It had been 35 years since Darwin’s The Origin of the Species had been a bestseller – and nearly 50 years since the first issue of Scientific American.
Wells was unimpressed, to say the least, with the way scientists were writing for the public: “A few write boldly in the dialect of their science…; but such writers do not appreciate the fact that this is an acquired taste, and that the public has not acquired it”.
What’s more, a style of cataloging of facts instead of storytelling was a problem: “This is not simply bad art; it is the trick of boredom…[T]here are awful examples – if anything they seem to be increasing – who appear bent upon killing the interest that the generation of writers who are now passing the zenith of their fame created, wounding it with clumsy jests, paining it with patronage, and suffocating it under their voluminous and amorphous emissions”.
Wells argued that scientists needed to appreciate how critical science communication was becoming. Scientists couldn’t afford what he called “a certain flavour of contempt” towards those who popularize science. Science was no longer only the province, he wrote, “of men of considerable means”:
“[I]n an age when the endowment of research is rapidly passing out of the hands of private or quasi-private organisations into those of the State, the maintenance of an intelligent exterior interest in current investigation becomes of almost vital importance to continual progress…[N]ow that our growing edifice of knowledge spreads more and more over a substructure of grants and votes, and the appliances needed for instruction and further research increase steadily in cost, even the affectation of contempt for popular opinion becomes unwise”.
I think this essay is a landmark in the early history of science journalism. It came shortly before another: the rapid communication around the globe of a sensational discovery that captured the public imagination.
One night in November 1895, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen saw light glowing from a cathode-ray tube. He’s said not to have left his lab for weeks until he figured out what he called X-rays.
By christmas, he’d written a paper (“Ueber eine neue Art von Strahlen“). It was accepted for publication on 28 December. On New Year’s Day, he posted packets with the paper and photos of X-rays (including one of his wife’s hand) to 90 physicists around Europe. One of the physicists who saw it showed it to his father – the editor of Die Presse, a leading newspaper in Vienna – and it was front page news there the next day, and around the planet in days.
By the time he presented his first lecture to a scientific society on 28 January – usually the precursor to publication back then – it was already an international phenomenon. The photo here is of a colleague’s hand, X-rayed in front of the audience. What’s more, an electrical engineer, A.A. Campbell Swinton, had been able to replicate X-ray imaging – based on the report from a London newspaper alone.
When the first Nobel prizes were awarded in 1901, one went to Röntgen – and his fame helped cement the fame of the new prize. (You can see an example of press coverage featuring Röntgen’s photo here.)
The next landmark, I think, is Carr Van Anda arriving at the New York Times. In, “Too Close for Comfort“, Boyce Rensberger charts this as a key step for science journalism on the road to more scrutiny of science and scientists:
“In 1904 Adolph Ochs, founder of the modern New York Times, hired the legendary Carr Van Anda as his managing editor. Van Anda may have been the most scientifically astute news executive of the twentieth century. He had studied astronomy and physics at university, wrote science stories and encouraged his reporters to cover science. He stressed the need for accuracy: in an often-quoted anecdote, Van Anda corrected a mathematical error in a lecture of Albert Einstein’s that the New York Times was about to print — after, of course, checking with Einstein.”
There was still a strong belief, though, writes Rensberger, “that society was perfectible and that the wonders of science and technology would lead civilization towards this ideal”.
That’s very evident in Paul de Kruif‘s bestseller, The Microbe Hunters, first published in 1927. Here’s a photo of my copy.
It’s a rip-roaring “great men of science” read from Leeuwenhoek through Pasteur, Koch, Walter Reed and more, ending with a chapter called “Paul Ehrlich: The Magic Bullet”.
Journalism was changing though, and science journalism along with it. The role of the “fourth estate” had long been an issue of contention in Europe particularly, and journalists’ role as agents for public accountability was growing. In the US, David Protess and colleagues point to the end of newspapers being seen solely as means of making profit without moral responsibility. A new tradition was emerging: “the ‘social responsibility theory of the press’. This tradition stems from late nineteenth-century changes in American society and newspaper ownership. The ‘socially responsible’ press is committed to pursuing public enlightenment and to upholding standards of civic morality. The press’s duty is not just to its readers but also to the community and even to society as a whole”.
There had always been social concern, too, about the powers of scientists – Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus in 1818 exemplifies that. By the 1930s, some journalists were beginning to specialize in science, and they were becoming more critical – of the quality of both science and journalism, and social issues around science and scientists. And in 1934, a trio of them founded the National Association of Science Writers (NASW) in the US, with about a dozen members (Rensberger and Dixon ).
One of the 3 NASW founders, the New York Times’ science journalist William L. Laurence, was to become central to another major landmark for science journalism: the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Laurence, embedded with the military, was in the plane that dropped the bomb on Nagasaki and helped sell “the atomic age” to the public:
“Awe-struck, we watched it shoot upward like a meteor coming from the earth instead of from outer space, becoming ever more alive as it climbed skyward through the white clouds. It was no longer smoke, or dust, or even a cloud of fire. It was a living thing, a new species of being, born right before our incredulous eyes…
It kept struggling in an elemental fury, like a creature in the act of breaking the bonds that held it down. In a few seconds it had freed itself from its gigantic stem and floated upward with tremendous speed, its momentum carrying into the stratosphere to a height of about 60,000 feet…
As the mushroom floated off into the blue it changed its shape into a flowerlike form, its giant petal curving downward, creamy white outside, rose-colored inside. It still retained that shape when we last gazed at it from a distance of about 200 miles”.
Meanwhile, the UK’s first specialist science journalist on a major paper, J.P. Crowther, resigned from the then Manchester Guardian in 1945 because he was not allowed to write critically about the implications of the bomb (Dixon ).
And John Hersey told the story of the suffering caused by the bomb in an astonishing series of articles published as a special issue of The New Yorker in 1946. Quickly republished as a book called Hiroshima, it became a bestseller that had a profound impact:
“As Mrs. Nakamura stood watching her neighbor, everything flashed whiter than any white she had ever seen. She did not notice what happened to the man next door; the reflex of a mother set her in motion toward her children. She had taken a single step (the house was 1,350 yards, or three-quarters of a mile, from the center of the explosion) when something picked her up and she seemed to fly into the next room over the raised sleeping platform, pursued by parts of her house.
Timbers fell around her as she landed, and a shower of tiles pommelled her; everything became dark, for she was buried. The debris did not cover her deeply. She rose up and freed herself. She heard a child cry, ‘Mother, help me!’….”
Christopher B. Daly’s article on how Laurence and Hersey covered this story is a compelling read:
“Hersey’s story is a key document of 20th-century history as well as a touchstone for the human imagination in the nuclear age.
His hyperfactual tale of immense suffering has become part of the worldview of most people on the planet. He said almost nothing in his own voice – no pontificating, no summarizing.
Instead, he brought particular people to life by setting them in action and thereby showing the reader what had happened”.
Fast-forward to 1974 for my next choice of milestone – the Salzburg Declaration on science journalism:
“[T]he gap between science and the public is widening…The size and costs of the scientific enterprise today, and its potential for good or bad, oblige the science journalist to be the observer, interpreter and critic of science developments and their political causes and consequences. In our modern world the science journalist must also collaborate with the scientist and politician”.
The European Union of Associations of Science Journalists (EUASJ) had been formed in 1971. The Declaration emerged when journalists from 9 countries attended what Dixon  reports as the first conference of its kind. According to Dixon, the differences among countries were great: by the end of the 1970s, British newspapers had, if anything, a single science journalist each whereas Le Monde, for example, had 10.
And the difference between how journalists viewed their role, and how scientists viewed it, was often stark, too. Dixon quotes Lord Zukerman writing in The Times Literary Supplement in 1971, suggesting science correspondents’ role was simply to accurately convey scientists’ views and findings:
“[T]hey are essentially reporters…one does not expect them to behave like art critics, who might take differing views of the quality of a new exhibition of paintings or sculpture”.
The problems the journalists discussed in Salzburg came into sharp relief in another milestone a few years later – and again, it was a radiation-related issue. This time, nuclear power. John Wilkes:
“The accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Harrisburg, PA, in 1979 was a watershed not only for the debate around the safety of nuclear energy, but also for science journalism in the USA. CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite dubbed the media coverage of the accident the ‘most confused day in the history of news media.’ The main reason for this disarray among the more than 300 reporters gathered in Harrisburg was the unclear and often contradictory statements from the various experts. But it was also exacerbated by the fact that only a small handful of these journalists possessed a basic knowledge of nuclear physics and the workings of a nuclear power plant”.
That year, according to Wilkes, the US’ first science journalism program was established – at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Now back to London, and a 1985 landmark: “The Bodmer Report” from the Royal Society – The public understanding of science. It was to have a great impact on attitudes towards public outreach by scientists and a range of initiatives. By 1995, a Chair for the Public Understanding of Science was established at Oxford University.
One of the areas stressed by the Bodmer Report was the cultural gap between journalists and scientists: “The mass media, especially the news media, operate in a very different, almost diametrically opposite way” [to scientists]. The report used words like “suspicion” and “ignorance” to describe scientists’ views of journalists, and while encouraging a process of “mutual education”, journalists’ role in public accountability and criticism of science was not touched.
Wilkes, writing in 2002, also discusses the cultural difference. Science journalists have to be more concerned about their obligations to readers, than to science or scientists, he argues. In considering the issue of scientists becoming science journalists: “They must transform themselves, heart and soul, into journalists…a resocialisation process as radical as military training”.
The Bodmer Report regarded the public, on the other hand, with more of a knowledge deficit approach – a profound weakness. This was a tendency in scientists that H.G. Wells had zeroed in on back in his 1894 essay:
“[W]hat he assumes as inferiority in his hearers or readers is simply the absence of what is, after all, his own intellectual parochialism. The villager thought the tourist a fool because he did not know ‘Owd Smith’. Occasionally scientific people are guilty of much the same fallacy”.
The science community – and a lot of science communicators as well – have yet to move past this problem. It’s not just distastefully patronizing – it limits the effectiveness of communication.
In 2012, Ed Yong succinctly noted that we’re really not making much progress on bridging the cultural differences between scientists and journalists either.
Explaining complex technical and social issues is a far easier nut to crack than mutual respect.
This look at the history of science journalism grew out of some work I’m doing for an article related to science and medical journals that I hope to submit to a journal soon. I’d appreciate feedback on others’ ideas about key milestones in early science journalism – and additional sources than those listed below.
Histories of science journalism (chronological order):
B. Dixon (1980). Telling the people: science in the public press since the Second World War. In: A.J. Meadows (ed). Development of Science Publishing in Europe. Elsevier: Amsterdam, New York, Oxford. Pages 215-235.
Boyce Rensberger (2009). Science journalism: too close for comfort.
Bora Zivkovic (2012). Science blogs – definition, and a history.
Cynthia Denise Bennet (2013). Science Service and the origins of science journalism, 1919-1950. (Thesis/dissertation.)
Jennifer Weeks (2014). Duck and cover: science journalism in the digital age.
The cartoon in this post is my own (CC-NC license). (More at Statistically Funny and on Tumblr.) The photos of de Kruif’s Microbe Hunters and the Salzburg Declaration from Dixon  are my own, taken of my personal copies.
Images of Darwin’s The Origin of the Species, Röntgen’s X-ray of von Kölliker’s hand, and Hersey’s Hiroshima, come from Wikimedia Commons.
* The thoughts Hilda Bastian expresses here at Absolutely Maybe are personal, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Institutes of Health or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.