When Science Went Pop: Open SciLogs Update

17 June 2014 by Robin Wylie, posted in Uncategorized

In my penultimate post, I painted a rather bleak picture of the state of science journalism around the time of the Second World War. Judging by the (usefully digital) archives of the New York Times and the UK's Guardian, in the turbulent years of the 1940s, scientific articles seem to have fallen out of print. I'm happy to report, then, that once the dust settled, it looks like science staged a remarkable comeback.

I've now broadened my (r)e-search to include the extensive archives of two other longstanding papers - the Chicago Tribune and (London) Times. After my "Science of War" post, I wanted to learn how the coverage of science reporting had progressed in the decades following WW2 (which, I found, had been just as dire for the science content of the Tribune and Times as it had for the others).

It might not surprise you to learn that things picked up on the scientific front. Apart from the fact that I heavily implied as much in my opening paragraph - well, things could hardly have gotten worse, could they? But from what I've seen, things did more than just pick up. They practically exploded.

From Bust To Boom (and Biology)

Judging by my latest analysis, after 1950, the science coverage in the four newspapers rose swiftly and emphatically out of the wartime slump. By the end of the century, for instance, the number of New York Times articles using the word "science", "scientist" or "scientific" had almost tripled, from an all-century low of 2% in the 1940s, to around 5%. Strangely, the Guardian's archive revealed an almost identical increase over the same period.

The Tribune and the Times, too, grew more scientific. Their archives are less complete (they end before the 90s), but the same upward trend can be clearly seen. The number of "scientific" articles in the Times increased, from a 1940s level of 2.5%, nearly threefold by 1980 - two decades quicker than its New York counterpart took to make the same jump.

More specific word searches suggest an even sharper rise in individual disciplines. The percentage of articles mentioning "physics" (or "physicist" - you get the idea) reached unprecedented highs in the second half of the century in all of the newspapers I checked. Ditto archaeology. Astronomy, geology and many others recorded more modest, but equally clear post-war boosts.

Biology, though, was the big winner. In the pages of the New York Times and the Guardian, by the turn of the 21st century the number of mentioning articles had soared, to five and seven times their wartime levels respectively. In both the Tribune and the Times the incidence of "biological" articles had already quadrupled by the start of the 1980s.

With such broad agreement between four independent, geographically diverse newspapers, I'm ready to call this a trend. It's a strong one, and probably means something. Such a renewed surge in science journalism could reflect the diversion of funds to research after five years of expensive combat. Or a change in public interests; a fresh appetite for the optimism and forward-thinking that (I'm sure we can all agree here) science brings.

In any case, I reckon the answer is probably important enough to risk a blunt ending to a post. I'm going to open the floor on this one: What do you think I'm seeing?



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