Science of the Times: Open SciLogs Final(ish) Report

14 August 2014 by Robin Wylie, posted in Uncategorized

The history - and the hostility - behind science journalism


In the information age, science news is available from a bewildering variety of sources. Whatever you think about the quality, one thing there certainly is, is choice. So much in fact, it's easy to forget that until recently, most people only read about science in one place - newspapers.

We'd never accept such a narrow view of science today. But it did have its advantages - at least in hindsight: it left a record. When pitching ideas for the Open SciLogs project, it struck me that the history of science journalism might have powerful potential. Arthur Brisbane, one of the 20th century's great publishing magnates, famously saw the newspaper as "a mirror on the public". I wanted to see what science's reflection looked like.

Sense from Stats

In search of something interesting to write about, I turned to the archives of some widely-read, long-lived newspapers, to see how their science coverage had changed over the years; searchable back editions of the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the UK's Guardian and Times are freely available online or in libraries. Some of these archives stretch back to the 1700s, but I decided to stick to the 20th century*. Thirty-six thousand five hundred news days was enough to be going on with.

The image below shows the kind of data my search produced (I'll describe the method I used in a later post): graphs showing how the use of various scientific words and phrases varied in the five publications, in the previous century.


The number of LA Times articles mentioning the word science, scientist, or scientific from 1900-1990 (Click to enlarge).


It was immediately clear that a lot had changed over the 90 years. There didn't seem to be much of a pattern to the variation, though - and in order to glean anything from this messy jumble of statistics, that's what I'd need.

When I finally found one, it was subtle. Initially, it seemed that the number of science articles in the five titles had risen and fallen over the years almost at random. As I looked closer, though, I realised that during two decades in particular, the number of scientific articles had fallen in every single newspaper: the 1910s and the 1940s. War had apparently been bad news for science.

The Unseen Casualty

The fall was emphatic. In the decades of the First and Second World Wars, scientific articles were up to 250% less frequent than in each previous decade. But so what? Surely reduced newspaper circulation during wartime is to be expected? What I found, though, showed that it went deeper than that: the decline in science had been a relative one. Yes, the number of articles - of any kind - fell overall. But scientific articles were hit much harder.

This suggests that the First and Second World Wars had an unusually strong impact on science journalism. I can think of three main reasons for this (which means there are probably loads more, but here goes): 1. Science funding was disproportionately drained by the war effort (i.e. there was less science to write about); 2. Editors were less inclined to print science articles; or 3. People were less interested in reading about science.

I don't have the expertise to say which - hence the "ish" in the title - but I'm sure others do. I've got a few hundred dollars to spend from the Open SciLogs Indiegogo campaign we ran in spring, and in the coming weeks I'll use some of that to interview historians who might be able to offer an insight. The trend I've spotted could reflect some interesting real-world events, and I'd like to find out what. 

But I'm also going to ask them something else. Because another pattern cropped up which is every bit as intriguing. Science may have generally suffered in wartime - but a few subjects seem, strangely, to have thrived.

Downbeat Ending

Despite what I've said about the downturn in science journalism in the 1910s and 1940s, I did find rare exceptions. Some scientific subjects bucked the trend, and actually amassed more column inches - a frankly astonishing feat considering the huge slumps experienced by almost every other scientific subject I checked.

In the decade of the First World War, the miraculous survivor was chemistry. In the 1940s, it wasn’t a science as such, but a word - “atom” - which resisted the slump.

I’ll also quiz my historians about what these outliers could mean. Again, it could be anything. But I think it's worth mentioning one particularly striking possibility. The fact that "chemistry" and "atom" should see such extreme spikes in usage, during WW1 and WW2 respectively, points to an interesting, if grim, conclusion.

It concerns the weaponry that was being used at the time. We developed many terrible ways to kill each other. But the worst - or at least the defining - ways were, eerily, chemical and atomic. The gas attacks in the trenches in the First World War, and the obliteration of Japan which ended the Second, left a scar on humanity. It wouldn't be at all surprising if it also left a mark on the front pages. This could be an example of Brisbane's "mirror" reflecting something rather dark.  


*Well, most of it - from 1900 to 1990. Some of the archives only stretch this far.

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