Bringing Psychology to the People: How One Woman Helped Establish Science Reporting

In the early 20th century, female journalists covering science and medicine faced immense challenges due to gender discrimination. They were often excluded from academic events and denied access to key sources. Yet a group of talented women at the Science Service news agency persevered, helping to pioneer the new field of science journalism. Among them was Marjorie Van de Water, whose insightful reporting on psychology and psychiatry brought these emerging social sciences to a mass audience.

Van de Water joined Science Service in 1929 after impressing founder Edwin Slosson with her writing skills. Though initially seen as too academic in tone, she quickly adapted to craft compelling news reports accessible to general readers. Her editors at major outlets like the New York World-Telegram soon valued her clear explanations of complex research.

However, covering topics like the criminal mind and mental health required rapport with prominent psychologists willing to share insights. Van de Water attended American Psychological Association (APA) conferences annually starting in 1931, immersed in the latest work on intelligence testing, emotions, child development and more. She described the experience as “Dr. Thorndike explaining connectionism, Dr. Yerkes pleading for lab animals, Dr. Spearman on personality factors—rats in mazes, brain waves, twins separated and raised apart.”

Van de Water gained many psychologist sources by respecting their work and converting “scientific wordage” into “compact and readable” articles on deadline. Though some remained wary of popularization, most welcomed her accuracy and avoidance of sensationalism. Leonard Carmichael of Tufts called her summary of one book “even better than the original.”

Beyond courteous professionalism, Van de Water connected through shared interests like photography. Her striking images earned awards and exemplified how photos could communicate science. Sharing photos taken at conferences nurtured relationships with psychologist-shutterbugs like Weston Bousfield.

While some Science Service trustees doubted the value of reporting on the social sciences, visionary funder Robert Scripps pushed for more coverage. At a 1932 conference organized to sway skeptical scientists, he insisted research must address social issues like poverty, not just laboratories.

Empowered by this mandate, Van de Water interpreted the latest psychology research on contemporary issues. She pioneered new formats like personality quizzes while profiling studies on gender, emotions, and what drives politicians. Her first articles analyzed crime and murder through data and expert sources rather than sensationalism.

When the Great Depression struck, social science insights into unemployment, insecurity and more became especially relevant. As America confronted new perils, Van de Water’s rational explanations of human behavior offered comprehension and hope.

Beyond just disseminating findings, she advocated for psychology's role in society. In an essay, Van de Water argued that unlike physics, the field suffered from popularization and required care to avoid misrepresentation. By spotlighting sound research and building public understanding, her reporting helped establish psychology's place in the media landscape.

Van de Water blazed a trail for women covering academia and empowered mass audiences to engage with social science. She combatted prejudices limiting female journalists through her own skill and success. When one dinner banned women attendees, she exposed the injustice in the press.

By pioneering psychology reporting, Van de Water exemplified Science Service’s vision. She grasped that academic studies only realize their purpose when communicated clearly and applied to people's lives. Her prolific career shows that with creativity and conviction, journalism can make even the most arcane research feel meaningful and relevant.

How Psychological Insights Informed Early Analysis of Financial Markets

In an era of economic catastrophe, Marjorie Van de Water brought psychological perspectives to bear in explaining financial manias and crashes. By interviewing pioneering behavioral finance experts, she uncovered theories on market psychology still relevant today.

In 1932, Yale economist Irving Fisher attributed the stock market crash to debt deflationary spirals and overconfidence during the boom years. Van de Water profiled his ideas on how emotion-driven “waves of optimism and pessimism” fuel bubbles and panics.

She also covered pioneering sociologist William Ogburn's theories of cultural lag - how material conditions evolve faster than folkways, beliefs and habits. Ogburn saw market psychology as plagued by obsolete values like speculative risk-taking.

Other experts she spotlighted implicated flawed ideas of progress and wealth. Philosopher John Dewey described the crash as “the collapse of a cultural world.” Psychologist John Broadus Watson blamed “the vicious pecuniary philosophy of the Nineties and Early Twentieth Century.”

By enlightening audiences about psychological factors in markets, Van de Water foreshadowed modern behavioral economics decades before its formal development. Her reporting remains startlingly pertinent as today's thinkers continue applying insights from psychology to explain financial manias and crashes.

How Can Media Better Communicate Social Science to Strengthen Public Discourse?

With rising polarization and the viral spread of misinformation, improving public comprehension of social science is more vital than ever. Journalists today can learn from pioneers like Marjorie Van de Water who made complex research feel relevant.

Firstly, build genuine rapport and dialogue with academic sources. This ensures accurate interpretation and convinces skeptical scholars that media can responsibly explain nuanced findings.

Secondly, evaluate work on its scientific merit, not just newsworthiness. Ground articles in sound empirical studies to combat pseudo-science entering public discourse. Also acknowledge limits and context of research to avoid misrepresentation.

Thirdly, creatively convey core insights through formats like interactive graphics, not just text. The communication medium can make concepts more accessible. Approach stories through a human angle so findings resonate with audiences on an emotional level.

Fourthly, apply social science directly to current public issues and policy debates. Demonstrate its real-world value in fostering wiser decisions and combatting dangerous misconceptions. This builds public appreciation for social science's role in society.

Finally, feature diverse expert voices, including from historically marginalized scholars. Media coverage long centered white men; bringing in more perspectives enriches public understanding.

With care, creativity and ethics, today's science journalists can build on Marjorie Van de Water's legacy. By making social science impossible to ignore, they can raise the quality of public discourse and strengthen democratic participation in vital debates.

In summary, Marjorie Van de Water pioneered popular reporting on psychology and other social sciences despite the challenges facing women in journalism. She gained unique access to leading researchers by demonstrating rigorous and responsible coverage. Van de Water's insightful writing brought academic studies to life for mass audiences, helping establish psychology's place in media and society. As her career shows, conveying complex ideas clearly and contextually remains key to ensuring research achieves its purpose - advancing public knowledge and welfare.

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