Author and former Los Angeles Times science writer K.C. Cole explains why, in her view, print media too often shy away from difficult stories on the science beat.
Itís not that editors arenít smart enough to understand science. Actually, itís the opposite: theyíre too accustomed to being smart, and thus canít deal with the fact that they donít understand it. And because theyíre uncomfortable feeling confused, readers are left in the dark about a universe of research that eludes easy explanation.
I was discussing this problem recently with a colleague who had been beating his head against the wall for months trying to get a story about a mysterious ďdark forceĒ in cosmology past editors at The New Yorker: ďThey kept saying they didnít understand it!Ē he complained. Well, of course they didnít understand it. Nobody understands it. Thatís precisely what makes it so interesting.
In science, feeling confused is essential to progress. An unwillingness to feel lost, in fact, can stop creativity dead in its tracks. A mathematician once told me he thought this was the reason young mathematicians make the big discoveries. Math can be hard, he said, even for the biggest brains around. Mathematicians may spend hours just trying to figure out a line of equations. All the while, they feel dumb and inadequate. Then one day, these young mathematicians become established, become professors, acquire secretaries and offices. They donít want to feel stupid anymore. And they stop doing great work.
Hey, I've edited Cole: what's she trying to say? Her piece is in the Columbia Journalism Review. Her latest book is Mind Over Matter: Conversations with the Cosmos.