We are PART of It!
Phil Plait over at the Bad Astronomy Blog is always battling dumb portrayals of science in movies, on TV, in the media, etc. You know what I’m talking about—wrong lunar phases in movies, stupid things like having Barbie say “Math is hard!” and mis-statements about physics and astronomy in newscasts. It happens every day, and nobody in the media really gives much of a hoot because to them, science is just another beat, another story, another “weird” thing to write about to keep people from worrying too much about all the other problems in the world. Don’t wanna write about the White House breaking the law cuz it’s too hard on one’s reportorial skills or the editor doesn’t want you to? Well, hey, let’s write a story about weird science. That’ll deflect people’s attention! Don’t understand anything about astronomy or physics or math, Mr. or Ms. Reporter? Doesn’t matter as long as you have a snappy lead, right? (And, just for disclosure, I consider myself a journalist too, even got a degree in journalism and mass communications—so I know their jobs and I know their beats. But I still get to call shenanigans on ‘em!)
Okay, so I’m a bit cynical about media portrayals of science and misuse of science terms in movies, TV and news. Wouldn’t you be if your profession were continually misrepresented by the media? If you’re a scientist, you continually read really silly stereotypes about science and scientists, like the one about how scientists are just geeks. Or you go to movies and see scientists being portrayed as loners, or evil geniuses, or lonesome weirdos working at the frontiers of science. Wearing pocket protectors. And thick glasses.
It’s kind of like being an atheist and reading stories about how atheists supposedly worship Satan (hello!! atheists profess no belief in any deity, and last time I looked, Satan was supposedly the Lord of the Underword in several mytho-romantical religious cultures). Or being a Muslim and finding out in the media that you’re a bloodthirsty bomber, or being a Christian and reading that all Christians hate everybody, or being a woman and reading in the media that all women want or need is a good man, or being a teenaged girl and finding out that your biggest goal should be to look anorectic so you can attract boys. Or… well, I could go on and on. Stereotypes and mistakes in the media are an annoyance, but if people who read and watch media are well-educated enough, they can look beyond the stereotype. (And the sad state of science education in my country is another tangent I could go off on, particularly since it seems that many reporters don’t take ONE class in science when they’re in J-School… but I digress…).
What got me up on my Science Mistakes Soapbox today? Reading CNN.com. Which kind of surprised me, because usually their science stories are pretty good and reasonably accurate most of the time. They don’t make the usual bone-headed mistakes that I see so often in much of mainstream media.
So, today I was reading about Sunita Williams, one of NASA’s astronauts on the International Space Station. She was all over the news last week (at least in Boston) because she ran the Boston Marathon in space while the race was being held here on Earth. There was lots of cool coverage about her training and how she’d run it on the treadmill while whirling around the planet at 17,239 miles per hour (27,273 kilometers per hour). Today’s story (which you can read here), talks about Sunita catching a ride home soon, if the Atlantis shuttle launches on time.
The part that set me off on this discussion was the last part of the first sentence (called the “lead” in J-talk), which said:
“…so she doesn’t have to spend more than six months in the cosmos.”
In the cosmos??? That one definitely jarred my attention, and I asked myself, “Okay, what part of “cosmos” doesn’t the story writer understand?”
For those of you following along at home, here’s a nice definition of the word at Dictionary.com. It cites the American Heritage Dictionary’s definition of “cosmos” that says, in part:
“the universe regarded as an orderly, harmonious whole.”
The use of the word “cosmos” in the CNN story is wrong. And you don’t even have to be a scientist to know it. Any reasonably well-educated person should know what the word “cosmos” means, right? Probably the writer didn’t want to say “outer space” or “on orbit” (although I don’t know why not). But, substituting the word “cosmos” is just plain wrong. We’re already IN the cosmos! Earth is part of the cosmos. Low-earth orbit is part of the cosmos.The flowers in my yard are part of the cosmos.
The tale comes from the Associated Press, which I used to admire quite a bit for its accuracy and good writing. But, it seems they’ve let their standards slip a bit. I think that somebody’s writer is a little non-cosmos-mentis. and shame on CNN for just running it as is, without correcting the mistake.