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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research Special issue - November 2005   

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Title  Between fast thinking and genuine culture

"The digital divide will not result so much from access to technology as from the intellectual ability to use it. Some will be able to select information from the virtual world that is useful to them while others will get lost in it. One of the challenges for the information society is to ensure that as many people as possible are able to operate effectively within this virtual world,” believes Vladimir de Semir, a man for whom access to culture, the development of critical faculties and the dissemination of scientific knowledge are all questions of vital concern. RTD info presents the views of a journalist and researcher who also advises the City of Barcelona.

Quantity versus quality

Vladimir de Semir
After many years reporting on science as a journalist, today Vladimir de Semir is Professor of communication at Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra University and head of the Observatory for Scientific Communication, a research centre on the transmission of science to society. He is also Scientific Culture Commissioner with the Barcelona City Council and President of the Public Communication of Science and Technology (PCST) international network.
There are some excellent scientific journalists, a quality written press and some very professional science programmes. But there is also no denying the fact that the media in general are in crisis and likewise media coverage of science. For years, journalists and researchers sought to win more space for science. Today, they have achieved a measure of success in this respect – given the dearth of scientific information in the past – but now find themselves grappling with the issue of the quality of the information. Scientific information is usually briefly reported out of any context as a news item or anecdote and without considering the implications. The media rarely focus on research or the work of scientists. We are plunging ever deeper into the culture of the transient and the trivial. We are operating within what Pierre Bourdieu referred to as the “circular dissemination of information” and – to adopt another of his expressions – in a world of fast thinking, in which we are served up a ready-made cultural ‘diet’ that does not require us to exercise choice or engage in critical reflection.

Sloth and power

This information is all the more superficial as it is gleaned from the same sources. Many journalists are content to sift through the press releases or electronic information they receive from reputedly reliable publications such as Nature or Science, The Lancet or The British Medical Journal. But we must remember that these are all rival publications and thus tend to highlight the dramatic that the global mass media are more likely to pick up on. 

The public is often unaware that the decisions taken by the media can be totally random and that the choice of what information to publish can depend on the mood of the times or even the quality of a photograph. “I read it” or “I saw it on TV” remain references for the validity of a fact, even if large sections of society are abandoning their daily papers and zapping from one TV channel to another, putting their critical faculties on hold. Yet it is the role of the media – and of education – to help develop these critical faculties that are of major importance to a genuine knowledge society. 

Managing communication

Everybody agrees that science must be communicated. The problem is that many researchers or laboratory directors are all too aware that this communication is the necessary route to funding. Subsidies today are not only awarded to those who publish the most at a strictly scientific level, but also to those who have the highest media profile. We are entering a ‘star system’ and the journalists are playing the same game. It is always the same favoured few who are interviewed, while others who are equally capable are ignored. Everyone operates within their own little network. It makes life so much easier…

The Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona offers a Master’s degree in scientific communication for journalists. Its Faculty of Science also runs specific courses in communication, making it something of a European pioneer in this respect. The aim of these courses is to encourage students to really think about the subject matter they are being taught, to give them the tools with which to organise a press conference or write a popular science article, and also to look at how science is treated in the specialist journals or in the press releases they issue. 

The Internet and how to use it

In the space of five years, from 1999 to 2004, readership of the European printed press – in the EU-15 – fell from 80 million to 74 million. During this same period, the number of internet readers increased fourfold and the number of newspapers made available on-line doubled. Today, those who make most use of virtual information sources are the young and the best educated – those who are most demanding and who exercise most social influence. 

Researchers were also among the first to use the internet to communicate their ideas, often with numerous supporting documents and hyperlinks, etc. As a result, anybody who is interested in scientific, technological, environmental or medical subjects can gain access to original information sources. The leading laboratories and research organisations have drawn up a virtual communication strategy that enables them to establish contact with an increasingly large public on every continent. An excellent example of this is what happened early in 2005 with the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn and the first surface landing on Titan. NASA made a wealth of information – texts, photographs, videos – available directly to the general public. Nearly everything that has been written or presented on television since has drawn on these sources. This means that one could learn much more about the subject by going on the internet. It was only the quality newspapers that added an original touch by analysing certain elements or interviewing experts.

This new form of direct access to information and knowledge is still in its infancy, but it is already raising many questions. How will these cohorts of internauts be able to make effective use of this growing if not excessive volume of information? What will our capacity for discernment be? Are we in danger of a surfeit of communication resulting in a paucity of knowledge?

Scientific culture

Scientific culture is part of culture and should be treated as such. It not only concerns scientists and journalists but the worlds of education and politics, too. For my part, I try to act on this assumption in my work for the Barcelona municipal authorities. The city’s Institute of Culture promotes scientific knowledge by organising visits, exhibitions and conferences – and not only in the principal traditional museums but also in local cultural centres, libraries or games libraries. This serves to arouse the interest of people who would not otherwise be particularly interested in science. I am also a great believer in the role of local or regional television. People are interested in what is happening close to home. BTV, the Barcelona municipal channel, has broadcast conferences given by researchers working at nearby laboratories that have attracted audiences of between 20 000 and 50 000. That is ten times as many people as those same scientists could reach in a ‘physical space’.  

It is for the politicians to require public TV channels to respect their charters and not allow themselves to be contaminated by the strategies of commercial television by competing for audiences in the same field. They must also be given the resources. If you allocate a sufficient budget for a cultural or science programme and provide a presenter who is both intelligent and a good communicator, there will be a public who prefer this kind of programme to other simpler programmes that go out at the same time. Media supply is justified by what one believes to be public demand and this public demand is misconceived to justify the banality of what is offered.  

Combating ethnocentrism

When one speaks of scientific communication, it is always from the Western point of view, whereas science, and especially its applications, takes place throughout the world and every culture has a different understanding of it. This is why the work of the Public Communication of Science and Technology (PCST) international network on the communication of science and the transmission of scientific knowledge in all its forms – through education, the media, museums, etc. (1) – is of such value. Its members include specialists from every continent and it is always brought home to us at our meetings that points of view can be very different on subjects of major public debate, such as cloning, GMOs, traditional medicine, etc. People in the West often have a very technological view of science when it would be interesting to have a more social, multidisciplinary and multicultural view – which is not in any way an obstacle to scientific rigour. These different sensitivities have an effect on communication and the media. In a continent such as Africa, for example, when people speak of AIDS and the use of condoms, one is speaking of matters of life and death. Journalists should remember this.

(1) The 9th PCST international conference will take place in Seoul (Korea), during 17-20 May 2006. The theme will be: Scientific Culture for Global Citizenship.

Printable version

Features 1 2 3 4 5 6
  Between fast thinking and genuine culture
  Changing places
  The AlphaGalileo platform
  Science on the web: three Nordic experiences
  The magicians of C'est pas sorcier
  Science stripped bare


When Nature launches the hypothesis of an infidelity gene, a notion that makes the cover of Time magazine and many other media around the world, what precisely is the aim? Scientific or media notoriety?


Features 1 2 3 4 5 6

When Nature launches the hypothesis of an infidelity gene, a notion that makes the cover of Time magazine and many other media around the world, what precisely is the aim? Scientific or media notoriety?

Cover Time