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Jornalismo Científico: teoria e prática

Democracy requires science journalism

Manuel Calvo Hernando*

       Having practised science journalism for half a century, I have a double concern for the popular diffusion of knowledge and for the use of the mass media to enrich the individual, to help him or her become a more complete person and to make it easier for him or her to find a place in a complex, unknown and changing world.
       The communication media share with science and education the beautiful, thought-provoking and risky function of producing and systematising information and knowledge for the public. The social interactions of this combination of phenomena are be exciting and can promote choices for the future that are beginning to be well-regarded and respected today.
       Our day-to-day life, our present and our future depend on science and technology. Ninety per cent of technological innovations in use are less than 20 years old. The pace of innovation has tripled in 10 years. The central message of Alvin Toffler’s book Powershift : Knowledge, Wealth, and Violence at the Edge of the 21st Century (1990) is that the potency of societies is being shifted from military force and wealth towards the growing importance of knowledge. In the advanced economies, knowledge and information are replacing the traditional resources of old and are multiplying the productivity of their societies.

Science, information and democracy

       Today it is recognised, both in political science and communication, that there exists a mutual dependency between science and democracy. ‘Technological democracy’ is spoken of (Fayard, 1990) and ‘the democratisation of knowledge’ (Petrucci, 1990) and awareness is being created of the fact that in order to participate in politics and, therefore, in history, you have to be informed. A democracy will always be incomplete if its citizens continue to lack the knowledge and information that modern societies require in order to participate in a conscientious and thoughtful way in the way society is run.
       In a democratic society, ‘citizens need certain basic knowledge about scientific questions, so that they can take informed decisions and not depend solely on experts’ (Stephen W, Hawking, speech given on receiving the Prince of Asturias Prize).
       How can ignorant public opinion, by nature behind the times, of necessity uninformed, have an influence on the direction and purpose of that blind race towards the unknown which is changing the world that surrounds us and that we believed we knew? (Uslar Pietri, 1990).
       Science journalism ought to become a tool for the democratisation of different kinds of learning, in the following ways:

› Introducing science (aristocracy) into society (democracy). In other words, informing and preparing citizens for more effective participation in political life.
› Contributing so that the average person can take part in decision-making concerning matters related to scientific and technological progress.
› Stimulating a spirit of critical analysis that reveals the limits of science more than its prodigious achievements and the essence of important political decisions.
› Warning against the threats to democracy posed by new technologies and especially those that attack the intimacy of the human being, decentralisation and individual freedom. Today, these combinations of technologies are centred on new technologies of information and advances in biology.
› Combating the perpetuation of systems of inequality and imbalances. This is a mission for journalism in general but especially science journalism with specific regard to science and technology. In short, the ultimate aim of science journalism is preventing lack of knowledge being a factor in political, cultural and economic inequality among people, and preventing both societies and individuals remaining, in a large part of the world, on the edges of advances in knowledge.
› One of the basic tasks of science journalism in developing countries is to fight against technological dependency (Bastidas, 1990). The public must be informed about the risks of such dependency and about the need for integral development.

Programmes that mobilise

       There are no easy remedies for the problems of humanity, since every solution can have prejudicial side effects. However, decisions have to be made at all levels: government, parliament, town councils, etc. The majority of citizens must be prepared to make reasoned judgements and with foreknowledge of motive. Here education plays a decisive but inadequate role. After a certain age, educational structures no longer serve to achieve this function and it is cultural services and the mass media that have to come to the rescue.
       A previous double demand is raised, which is beyond the call of journalists but about which we can, at least, build awareness: the need for primary and secondary education that sees science more as a decisive force of our times together with communication education of the kind UNESCO calls ‘educommunication’.
       The mass media can present the latest discoveries or hypotheses, while study programmes and text books are poor when it comes to current issues and anticipation. The media are more imaginative and able to establish influence based on topics that capture the interest of children and young people.
       School teaching can, however, contribute to better understanding of the information carried by the media and also to shaping the pupil’s capacity for critical judgement. For this reason, science, education and communication must work together.
       It is society that must indicate what resources are to be given to science and technology and what attitude must be taken before the great questions and imbalances due to science’s advances, like birth control, nuclear policy, genetic modification of plants, cloning, the use of poisons in agriculture, the cost of armaments, etc.
       The practise of science journalism has a political dimension. Democracy requires that every enlightened citizen can find out about the state of what is known and what is not known, as well as their ethical aspects. But there is also a scientific dimension. When new fields of ignorance constantly appear, when the application or not of a discovery increasingly determines the future of humanity, it is urgent and necessary to begin a dialogue between the different ways of knowing and questioning (Philosophy Meetings, UNESCO, 14-17 March 1995).
       Tomás V. Unger, the Peruvian engineer and great populariser of science, was talking to me a few years ago about the responsibility of science journalists, which in his judgement is greater today than even they realise. Faced with impressive scientific advances and the lack of knowledge of the greater part of the public, these specialist journalists and writers shape opinion, which can determine the course of politics in their countries. ‘We must not forget,’ added Unger, ‘that the democratic system rests on the quantity and not the quality of the vote, and that the only way of making it work is to boost the quality.’
       As a consequence of what has been said up to now, comes the need for a series of actions and, above all, the planning and development of programmes that mobilise everyone together and that allow societies to benefit from the work of certain professional science popularisers who can bring knowledge to the public and familiarise it with the great questions of science and technology of our times.

Need for mediators

       It seems that we need to design a project of great magnitude that takes into account all the elements in the chain of popularising: scientists, educators, communicators, mass media, tools and systems for publicly communicating science. And all of this with the sole objective of decreasing the distance between those who create knowledge and those in the public domain that use such knowledge. To achieve this ultimate aim, we need specialist intermediaries, mediators, and communicators.
       In the current ultra-rapid processes of change we are living through, the obligation of those of us who have chosen this fascinating and risky specialisation is to transform journalism, that ‘extraordinary and terrible privilege’ of which Oriana Fallaci speaks, into a positive and creative instrument at the service of popular education and the integral development of the human being.
       Those nations that do not have a modern scientific-technical-productive apparatus, are not independent on the international scene, owe sums of money that upset every relationship between their different social sectors, suffer hunger, high infant mortality and, as often happens, in order to maintain social order in the midst of such adversity, seem obliged to generate authoritarian, top-down and frequently corrupt governments. But even those governments that come out of the most praiseworthy democratic efforts turn out to be impotent in a world where competition is based on knowledge (Cereijido, 1996).
       Today the belief is making its way that, in a society that is ever more dependent on technological knowledge, it is extremely important to have honest, critical and exhaustive information about science and technology. Carl Sagan pointed to the paradox that in societies ever more influenced by science and technology, ordinary citizens know so little about questions that directly affect their individual or collective lives.
       It is strange that not even in democracies is the need to promote public understanding of science, precisely in order to improve and enrich that democracy, taken into account.
       Faced with the third millennium, the societies of our time feel the political, economic, social and cultural need to promote or increase the popularisation of science through the mass media. The holding of the first Congress on the Social Communication of Science (Granada, Spain, March 1999) identified a trend that is not new but which has a new dimension on the threshold of the 21st century: that people of different origins and backgrounds are working in harmony on something that a little while ago was considered a minority problem, but that is now beginning to interest a growing number of people and societies.
       The popularisation of science, science journalism and the public communication of science are today trying to respond to this momentous challenge of our times.
       The above article was published as ‘Democracia y periodismo científico’ in Chasqui No. 66, June 1999. It was translated by Philip Lee.


Bastidas, Aristides (1990). Presentation at the 5th Iberoamerican Congress of Science Journalism, Valencia, Spain.

Bueno, Wilson (1996). ‘Las tareas irrenunciables del periodismo científico’, in ¿Más calidad o cantidad de vida en Chile?, Santiago, Chile.

Calvo Hernando, Manuel (1988). ‘Los nuevos desafíos del periodismo científico’, in Arbor, July-August. Madrid, Spain.

Cereijido, Marcelino (1996), in Interciencia, March-April, Caracas, Venezuela.

Fayard, Pierre (1990). ‘La culture scientifique. Enjeux et moyens’, in La Documentation française, Paris, France.

Petrucci Vera, Lúcia (1989). A democratiozaçao de conhecimento científico e technológico. 2nd Brazilian Congress of Science Journalism, São Paulo, Brazil, 18-20 October.

Uslar Pietri, Arturo (1990). ‘El saber peligroso’ in El Correo Español-El Pueblo Vasco, Bilbao, Spain, 20 February.


Publicado no site da WACC - World Association for Christian Communication (http://www.wacc.org.uk) e está disponível também na revista Chasqui, número 66, de junho de 1999, onde foi publicado originalmente com o título Democracia y periodismocientifico.


*Manuel Calvo Hernando é jornalista e professor, com doutorado em jornalismo científico pela Universidad de San Pablo, em Madrid, tem mais de 30 livros publicados e é o atual presidente da Associação Espanhola de Jornalismo Científico.

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