The Illusion of Science

Delta Winds cover 2009Delta Winds: A Magazine of Student Essays
A Publication of San Joaquin Delta College


The Illusion of Science

Sherry Connell

In "The Scientific Mystique," sociologist Dorothy Nelkin deftly scrutinizes the dubious treatment of science in the press. Through numerous and colorful examples from a variety of media resources, she paints a vivid picture of the harmful interplay taking place among scheming media correspondents, increasingly exalted scientists, and the unsuspecting public. In addition, Nelkin discusses some of the possible repercussions of promoting the image of science as an inaccessible and inexplicable manifestation and scientists as "remote but superior wizards" (808) in what has become common practice among journalists and scientists alike. Far from maximizing our effective use of empirical discoveries, this blatant misrepresentation of the scientific profession can only contribute to a universal stifling of scientific advancement and a vast diminution in the public's understanding and appreciation of this significant field of study.

Nelkin shows no hesitation in making the purpose of her essay known and her claim is explicitly stated with the entire second paragraph, culminating with her assertion that "far from enhancing public understanding, such media images create a distance between scientists and the public that, paradoxically, obscures the importance of science and its critical effect on our daily lives" (808). Nelkin reasserts this main point with her final paragraph, writing that "science remains idealized as an esoteric activity. . . . But by neglecting the substance of science, ignoring the process of research, and avoiding questions of scientific responsibility, the press ultimately contributes to the obfuscation of science" (820).

Although Nelkin remains adamant in her stance against the artificial aggrandizement of science, she fails to provide any real means of rectifying the perceived dilemma, presenting her audience instead with a purely positional argument. To strengthen this argument, Nelkin relies primarily on direct quotations, paraphrasing, and headlines from various published reports, including reference to Time magazine's hasty assertion that "males might be naturally abler than females" (814) and U.S. News and World Report's eager statement proclaiming that "the U.S. has had 26 Nobel winners in science, more than double the number won by second place Britain" (808). Nelkin also provides evidence in the form of historical reference, most notably in a section describing the media's portrayal of female Nobel Prize winners in the sixties, seventies, and eighties (810).

Nelkin's thought-provoking essay maintains a fairly moderate and reasonable tone throughout, though a certain note of bitterness is detectable at times, particularly in her relating of the descriptions given to female scientists by the media, which "described Maria Mayer, who shared the physics prize in 1963 for her theoretical work on the structure of the nucleus, as a 'tiny, shy, touchingly devoted wife and mother'" (810) and again with her note that Maria was shown in Science Digest "not at the blackboard, but at her kitchen stove" (810). Despite her obvious dismay over the current state of affairs, Nelkin skillfully infuses her writing with a small degree of ironic humor, mainly evident in her selection of certain media headlines and quotations, including "Biology Loses her Virginity" (819), a Boston Globe reporter's warning that the "American dynasty may falter in the future because the prizes . . . were for work done in the 1970s" (808), and again with a quotation describing the work of one scientist: "Only an Einstein could say what it means" (809). Nelkin's use of tone, her clear determination in revealing the truth behind the public's perception of science, and her passionate criticism of fraudulent practices all contribute to the distinct persona emanating from the work.

Nelkin's essay on the mystification of scientific practices is clear in its endeavor to inform the public of a critical issue. Her thoughtful yet accessible writing style makes for ideal reading material even for those not especially well versed in scientific writings. The author provides definitions of jargon associated with her topic: "Sociobiology is a field devoted to the systematic study of the biological basis of social behavior" (813). She follows this up with a brief background on the subject. This fact, coupled with the author's aim towards a certain level of public disillusionment over science and the men and women who make it their life's study, suggests that Nelkin's intended audience probably does not consist of those individuals typically prone to reading scientific journals. Nor does this essay resemble the mindless media fodder against which this social commentary is specifically attacking. Nelkin's formal and precise use of diction and syntax is, however, particularly well suited for a critical and scholarly audience. Nelkin's argument is directed specifically to all those concerned with refocusing media attention away from the celebrity status of science and redirecting that attention to the method of research and the vital objectives of scientific exploration, thereby reserving a small measure of accountability in our scientists.

As previously noted, Nelkin states her claim early in the essay, presenting her concerns over the exploitive nature of the relationship between media and the sciences, particularly over the "distanced and lofty image . . . useful for a community seeking public funds with limited public accountability" (808). Nelkin strategically proceeds in the development of her essay by organizing her body of evidence into three distinct parts, each brimming with aptly chosen evidence and examples. The first part delves into the heart of the issue with a striking depiction of the unwarranted, and ultimately counterproductive, fame associated with contemporary science. Examples of the media's comparison of the Nobel Prize with Olympic medals and their emphasis on "the honor, the glory, and the supreme achievement of the prize" (Nelkin 808) more aptly brings to mind a competitive sporting event, rather than a breakthrough in cell research. Nelkin does note one major difference between Nobel awards and sports journalism in that "coverage of sports stars often includes analyses of their training, their techniques" (809), whereas writings on scientific research make no such attempt towards enlightenment, but instead promote an obscure and perplexing image of science in the public eye. The media, according to Nelkin, portrays scientists as superior beings, both unapproachable and incomprehensible, with the notable exception of female scientists, who "must have the ability to . . . be feminine, motherly, and to achieve as well" (811).

Nelkin continues her argument with a probing look at a pervasive abuse by the press of scientific theories used to support controversial positions in the area of sociobiology, noting that "reports on sociobiology have been less concerned with substance than with purported applications" (813). In their rush to apply broad scientific theories as absolute truths, media giants have managed to legitimize rape as "genetically programmed into male behavior," selfishness as "built into our genes to insure . . . individual reproduction" (Nelkin 813) and seemingly everything in between.

The third part of Nelkin's essay focuses on the implicit purity frequently associated with science. Despite a distinct rise in instances of fraud, "journalists often report deviant behavior in a manner that further idealizes science as a pure and dispassionate profession" (816). She explains that deception in the field of science is often classified as an anomaly and that the media maintains the illusion that "corruption in science was an unusual event" (Nelkin 817). Because "science rests on the presumption or honesty in a quest for truth" (Nelkin 819), there is a perceived moral superiority connected with the field. This reality, along with the constant fear of "diverting the scientist from his valuable research mission" (Nelkin 819), has helped to ensure that science is never brought under full scrutiny. Finally, Nelkin concludes her essay by restating her original claim, reemphasizing the media's role in perpetuating "the distance between science and the citizen" (820).

Dorothy Nelkin's essay convincingly calls into question the unscrupulous motives and self-promoting tactics utilized by the media, and even scientists, to maintain an illusion of science as magical and mystifying. Her resourceful selection of specific quotations and headlines from an ample variety of news reports effectively supports her allegations of the media's role in supporting the false image of the divine scientist. Nelkin's unflinching look at our present management of scientific affairs compels the audience to consider the potential consequences of such irresponsible actions and sheds much needed light on a subject too long kept in the dark.

Work Cited

Nelkin, Dorothy. "The Scientific Mystic." Conversations: Readings For Writing. Ed. Jack Selzer and Dominic Delli Carpini. New York: Pearson, 2006. 807-821.