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Soft science and hard news

ALTHOUGH THE SOCIAL SCIENCES are integral to news reporting, experts say, the public generally doesn't consider these sciences truly scientific. Laypeople and academicians alike tend to judge fields such as sociology, psychology, and political science as "soft" because they are presumed to be understandable, devoid of mathematical rigor, and concerned with everyday concepts such as interpersonal relationships. On the other hand, astronomy, physics, and biology are more "scientific" because they are deemed difficult, demand exactitude, and concern discoveries far removed from routine human experience, such as atomic forces or DNA.

Journalists help maintain this conceptual dualism, say leading Columbia social scientists. It happens, they say, because reporters tend to rely on social scientists as sources for commentary about current events such as crime, politics, or catastrophes. The media doesn't give much ink or air time to new knowledge generated by social science research activity, as it does in the hard sciences. As a result, the public image of social science research is more fluff than tough. This perception doesn't just strike at the self-esteem of social scientists; it potentially affects research funding.

Herbert J. Gans, the Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology at Columbia, points out that social sciences get as much media coverage as the physical sciences without being mentioned directly. "They just don't appear on the science page," he says. Economic trends shape the business section, social policy debates spur editorial columns, and crime statistics often demand the front page, he says. There's just no sociology beat or social science coverage per se.

When reporters approach political scientists, says Lisa Anderson, chair of Columbia's political science department, they don't want to know what research these faculty are doing; they want perspective on the headline of the day. "The social scientist's job, then," says Anderson, "becomes explaining an analytical framework within which to understand a recent political or economic event."

Katherine S. Newman of Columbia's anthropology department fields similar calls from reporters. Newman, who just won an award from the American Anthropological Association for communicating science to the media, agrees with Anderson about the media's preference for interpretations over research findings. She considers such interviews a legitimate function for faculty, believing that social scientists have a responsibility to contribute to public understanding of problems.

That responsibility, explains James W. Carey, professor of journalism at Columbia, stems from the fact that new findings in social research are often volatile and speak directly to social policies. He says that reporters, when they do cover social science subjects, portray them as controversies to take sides on, while depicting the physical sciences as a mystery to explore.

The social and physical branches of science share one common ground, according to Carey, which is the need for federal research funding. Although the debate for monies often gets played out in the media, Carey asserts, the end results for the two branches are that when funding is tight, the social sciences are more likely to get the short end of the stick. Government officials, he noted, will sometimes label social science projects unfairly as research into "what everyone knows anyway" because the topics are, by their nature, closely tied to everyday life.

Carey and the other faculty agree that media coverage of science influences funding. Government allocations for social science research were on the rise through the end of last year, but Gans cautions against assuming that this upward trend will continue during the period of Republican dominance in Congress.

Considering the widespread perceptions of what sociologists, psychologists, economists, and political scientists actually do, researchers in these fields might benefit both the public and their colleagues by drawing reporters' attention to the new knowledge their work generates as well as the conclusions it supports.

-- Pamela Frost

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