Is the media a reliable source of information about science?
Charles Vest is a professor and President Emeritus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Vest earned his BS in mechanical engineering from West Virginia University and his MS and PhD from the University of Michigan. His academic work focused on thermodynamics and fluid mechanics. Vest joined Michigan's faculty in 1968, became a full professor in 1977, and was promoted to Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs in 1989. In 1990, he was appointed President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a position he held until 2004. Vest has served on both the Bush and Clinton Presidents Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, and has been a director of DuPoint and IBM. In July 2007 he was elected to serve as president of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering (NAE) for six years. He has authored a book on holographic interferometry, and two books on higher education. He has received honorary doctoral degrees from ten universities, and was awarded the 2006 National Medal of Technology by President Bush.
Question: Is the media a reliable source of information about science?
Vest: Well I think the answer is there is some extraordinarily wonderful scientific and technological journalism out there, but you have to seek it out. You have to find it. I’m worried on an even deeper level that so much of our news coverage has become entertainment and is focused on nonsense and peripheral issues; and that it’s not just science and technology – it’s the serious issues that the nation faces that people are not being continually exposed to. So I would like to begin with an even more fundamental level. I’d love to see a resurgence of serious journalism so that people will understand a little bit more about the world and what is going on, and hope that . . . and would ask that science, and technology, and medicine be increasing components of that. Now having said that I think there are extraordinary new spaces out there in communication. I don’t know how they’re really going to be used. I’m 66 years old. I can’t kid you that I really am into the heads of all the young people. But I think that we need to get out there and be using all these new tools of social networking, and YouTube, and Second Life and so forth and so on to kind of present these things and draw young people in in a new way. But at the same time when people of my generation are asked, “Well why can’t you do a better job of exciting young people about science and engineering?” What’s . . . what do we do? We all go off and we immediately start telling what Sputnik did for us in the Apollo program. All of which is true, but that’s equivalent to young people today to somebody saying to me when I was a young guy, “Boy back in 1907 we did these really spiffy things.” So the way to make engineering and science to communicate the excitement of engineering and science, my view is for engineering and science to be exciting. So I think that if we increase our national commitment to these fields, begin raising the quality of education across the board, and keep our research out there at the cutting edge, that those things will start to be communicated through the normal news as well as things that are just focused on the people who want to learn about it. And we can kind of raise it all up at once. So it’s a complicated issue. We need a more serious approach to news, period. And we need to do more to communicate specifically about science and engineering.
Question: Whose responsibility is it?
Vest: I guess my first wish is that within the major journalistic enterprises, that communication about science and technology and medicine would simply be raised to a larger slice of the pie. And the reason I say this is I spend a lot of time around some very committed journalists focused on science and technology. At MIT we run the night journalism fellows program where we have 20 or 25 journalists from all media around the world spend a year there. At the academies I’ve met with a number of people from fields of communication, and I hear personal stories time and time again that as a science journalist, this young man or young woman always feels a bit on the periphery, a bit marginalized. Their parents wonder what the heck they’re doing this crazy career for, and they never quite feel at the center of things – the same phenomenon that we run into in committed math and science teachers and a lot of the secondary schools around the country. So I’d just like to see it viewed as a more integral part of both the human adventure and the . . . the very practical approaches that as a society we have to take to the economic prosperity, and globalization, and our big challenges of water, energy, environment and so forth. Just need to raise it.
Whose responsibility it is? I think first of all it is journalists. Secondly those of us who are in the scientific and engineering communities I don’t think have met our responsibility. And I’ll tell you a little anecdote. I’ve been doing some work with the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and we decided to start a committee on the public understanding of science just to try to answer some of the questions you are asking. When we finished our first meeting, we decided let’s sort of look in the mirror and be honest. What we really need is a committee on the understanding of the public by scientists and engineers. And that is, in fact, what we’re going to try to do. So it’s a two-way street. And I think we have been so busy, so committed in our careers, so just full of assumptions that what we do is so important everybody will just understand it. But as individuals we haven’t taken time to get out to the lay public and talk in simple terms about what we do.
Where does a government come in? I think the government comes in in two ways. One is it needs to strengthen its investment in science and engineering, and mathematics, and computer science education starting first and foremost at the secondary level; and keeping our research universities – public and private – strong and well funded, particularly in these new emerging fields. But my big wish there is that at the highest levels – the levels of presidents, and vice presidents, and key senators and so forth – that again science, technology, their role in moving the nation forward and solving our problems would simply rise up, be more on the front burner and be part of the dialogue that they have with the nation. You know it’s astounding what a few words from a president or a senior senator or what have you . . . that can have huge impact, an impact through the media. And they just need to be saying we’ve got big problems we face, and our young people have to be prepared for this world that is more or less here, but certainly coming and make that a part of what is expected of our national leaders to address. Because at the end of the day, frankly it’s about inspiring people. That’s what happened with the Apollo program and so forth. Sputnik scared everybody to death, but the Apollo program excited people and it inspired them. I have a feeling that we are approaching the point at which the . . . at which finding the proper long term solutions to energy for the United States and for the world, and resolving these really daunting environmental and global change problems – that can have the same kind of inspiration for young people. It’s coming. Some of them are doing terrific work. Some of them are excited. But boy if they heard the leadership of the nation and of the world speaking out about it and telling them that we’re counting on you to do this, it would make a big difference.
It's not the media, Vest says. It's the education system.
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