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Nine ways scientists demonstrate they don't understand journalism
January 19, 2012 11:17 AM   Subscribe

Nine ways scientists demonstrate they don't understand journalism. Ananyo Bhattacharya, chief online editor of Nature, writes in the Guardian that science journalism will never and should never be what some scientists want it to be. Meanwhile, aggregators like Futurity (previously on MetaFilter) and The Conversation are aiming to let scientists present their findings to the public without mediation through the traditional press. Bhattacharya describes both as "a bit dull." Bhattacharya, previously: "Scientists should not be allowed to copy-check stories about their work."
posted by escabeche (42 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
There's a fundamental misapprehension among many in the scientific community that the principal job of science journalists is to communicate the results of their work to the general public. It's not. A journalist might emphasise one part of the research and ignore other parts altogether in an effort to contextualise the story for their readers. That does not, of course, justify spinning the story out of all recognition so that it fundamentally misrepresents the work.

Er, wait, then what is the principal job of science journalists?
posted by Jpfed at 11:26 AM on January 19, 2012


I know a number of scientists who would contend that many journalists don't understand science.
posted by LN at 11:26 AM on January 19, 2012 [6 favorites]


These seem more like nine ways journalists demonstrate they don't understand what the public needs.
posted by DU at 11:27 AM on January 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


This is ridiculous. Please, Ananyo Bhattacharya, tell me again why journalists should be emphasizing hyperbolic potential outcomes from research and not trying to communicate what scientists are really doing?

Oh, wait, I know why. It's the money.
posted by demiurge at 11:32 AM on January 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


There's been some shrewd criticism of the "inverted pyramid" model of writing news but there's a reason we stick to it doggedly. It works.

Where "works" = "sells ads," not "conveys actual information."

The purpose of the headline is to pique the interest of readers without lying.

Then stop lying in headlines.

Was the caveat really essential to someone's understanding of the story? Are you sure?

Yes, it was. If you can't understand why, you need to go back to the Lifestyle section.
posted by darksasami at 11:35 AM on January 19, 2012 [5 favorites]


Research papers contain all the caveats that are essential for a complete understanding of the science. They are also seldom read. Even by scientists.

Take that, research!
posted by theodolite at 11:36 AM on January 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


I thought the article was going to argue that science journalism should be viewed as fact-free entertainment, but it made some reasonable points.

Still, off the top of my head, here are two ways science journalism would be better:
(1) If there is a journal article, abstract, or the like, provide the citation so people can read it for themselves instead of through the filter of the journalist's typically limited understanding.
(2) More scientific details, please. If science journalism had more actual science in it, I wouldn't want to read the original article.
posted by exogenous at 11:37 AM on January 19, 2012 [5 favorites]


One small but significant thing that influences this overall issue (without negating the points already raised here so far): in my experience, experts of many sorts often don't have a solid sense of how to communicate knowledge clearly to others - especially non-experts. In other words, knowing something doesn't automatically include the ability to explain it intelligibly to those who don't already know it.

That does not mean, of course, that scientific journalism couldn't be improved.
posted by Greg_Ace at 11:39 AM on January 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


No the problem is not only that journalists don't understand science but that they don't generally feel the need to. Modern journalism sees no point in understanding, it doesn't seem to sell. Instead we get journalists who never paid attention in college talking to biologists who in trying to describe their work have to re-teach what PCR is, the journalist barely gets that far, and we get another damn article describing the novel discovery of PCR.

Its not just journalists either, its the whole fucking profession. The winners of both the large and small newspaper AAAS awards for science journalism were laid off soon after they won.
posted by Blasdelb at 11:43 AM on January 19, 2012 [4 favorites]


I'm a scientist (or at least, a grad student in the sciences). Reading popular science articles that have obviously missed the point of the research they address, or worse, blatantly mischaracterized the results, is incredibly frustrating for me.

I've taken workshops in the journalism program at my university, meant for students in the sciences. Writing a good piece for a broad audience is really, really hard. There are words in my vocabulary - words I use not only in writing up my research, but that have actually appeared in my day-to-day speech - that just do not belong in popular science writing. And I wouldn't even notice that it was a problem unless someone outside of my field was giving me pointers. (See Carl Zimmer's Index of Banned Words for examples of this.) I also learned that it is very hard to simplify some topics to make them broadly understandable and engaging, without simply making them inaccurate.

I don't want popular science articles to look like peer-reviewed journal articles. Scientists shouldn't write for the public in the same style that they use to write to other scientists. But I do want popular science articles to be factually correct, whether it's written by a scientist or by a journalist. There is a middle ground between undistilled academic jargon and wildly incorrect sensationalist headlines.

There are science journalists who DO write science articles that are both engaging and accurate. The fact that this is possible makes it all the more frustrating when research is misrepresented in a less carefully written piece.
posted by pemberkins at 11:43 AM on January 19, 2012 [9 favorites]


"Research papers contain all the caveats that are essential for a complete understanding of the science. They are also seldom read. Even by scientists."

How is it that an editor of Nature has so totally misunderstood the basic purpose of the scientific literature?

Do I really need to know what mouse chow the authors of a study on whether X will give mice cancer in order to understand their work? No, but do I need to be able to easily look that shit up in order to take their work seriously? Fuck yes. Outside of Science and Nature, which really should only barely count as part of the scientific literature, this is the primary purpose of research articles, the pieces necessary to take it seriously. Most real scientists read a fuck ton of abstracts, go to conferences, spread information by word of mouth, and yes read Science and/or Nature when bored.
posted by Blasdelb at 12:00 PM on January 19, 2012 [4 favorites]


Of course, Bhattacharya and the scientists disagree on how to present the work. They have differing goals. Theirs is primarily to communicate the information they've uncovered, secondarily to get their names in print. Hers is to sell magazines or page views. While these goals may not be at odds with each other, there's no reason to expect that what advances one will always advance the other. Fish can't teach birds how to fly, nor birds teach fish how to swim.
posted by tyllwin at 12:11 PM on January 19, 2012


Reading popular science articles that have obviously missed the point of the research they address, or worse, blatantly mischaracterized the results, is incredibly frustrating for me.


Oh boy yes.

There are science journalists who DO write science articles that are both engaging and accurate. The fact that this is possible makes it all the more frustrating when research is misrepresented in a less carefully written piece.

Indeed this is true, but the "mass" media in general do not run these articles.

Most real scientists read a fuck ton of abstracts, go to conferences, spread information by word of mouth, and yes read Science and/or Nature when bored.

I read as much as I can, which isn't nearly as much as I should, and when I'm bored I go to metafilter, not Science or Nature. *chuckle*
posted by zomg at 12:11 PM on January 19, 2012


How is it that an editor of Nature has so totally misunderstood the basic purpose of the scientific literature?

He's not a scientific editor-- he's the online editor. Not involved in peer-reviewed decisions.
posted by beepbeepboopboop at 12:15 PM on January 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


As a scientist who has had two different studies widely reported on, I think some science journalists really don't like science, and just approach the whole process of translating articles into journalism with scorn. I have had reporters get the continent the research was done on wrong, misstate the age of rocks studied by billions of years, and get the name of my institution wrong. I agree that some scientists are not good at translating science talk for general consumption,but it becomes harder if the reporter isn't listening! (that said, the Nature science reporter is the best one I've ever dealt with...)
posted by girl scientist at 12:28 PM on January 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'll push things a step further and say that not only do scientists not read research papers, but reviewers and citing authors often don't read them as well.

And by reading I mean going through the entire text, supplementary information, and cited articles where necessary to understand the paper. If by reading you mean skimming the abstract, glancing at a few key figures and maybe a bit of the discussion then, sure, scientists do that all the time.
posted by euphorb at 12:35 PM on January 19, 2012


Science journalism is far too uncritical of the work it describes, but that is most often the fault of journalists who seem all too willing to extrapolate any incremental discovery into a breakthrough that will lead to flying cars or a cure for cancer.

[Question a journalist would never ask]: How does your method compare to existing approaches?
A: It does maybe 5-10% better in the special cases that I focused on.
Headline: BREAKTHROUGH HERALDS FLYING CARS WITHIN OUR LIFETIMES
posted by Pyry at 12:35 PM on January 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


Indeed this is true, but the "mass" media in general do not run these articles.

Granted. But I sure wish they did.
posted by pemberkins at 12:38 PM on January 19, 2012


See Carl Zimmer's Index of Banned Words for examples of this.
What on earth is wrong with "predator-prey?" It's a perfectly cromulent middle-school level word.
posted by yeolcoatl at 12:54 PM on January 19, 2012


There are words in my vocabulary - words I use not only in writing up my research, but that have actually appeared in my day-to-day speech - that just do not belong in popular science writing.

Why can't people simply learn new words? Is it really the goal of journalism to have everyone perpetually read at an 8th grade level? It used to be that teachers would recommend having a dictionary handy -- and in fact it's a good lifelong habit. It's a sad thing -- because I'm very sure that if journalists increased the standard of their vocabulary and research, the readers would do likewise. They're essentially doing harm by dumbing it down to the point of uselessness.

And I'm not even speaking as a scientist here, but as the target for their articles -- I've been deceived by shit articles, and I've had to do *more* work just to read between the lines and figure out what's actually going on. Better that "journalists" get some work ethics and write the truth in the first place.

In the list you reference, I see "morphology". Ok, it can be a jargon word, and in fact it can have multiple different meanings depending on the science you're dealing with. However, it's not like "determiner", which I would expect a popular article to either restate some other way or define in line. It does have a consistent prototypical meaning. If you see the word "mophology" in an article and don't know it -- it's probably a good idea to look it up -- like most words. Now that the internet and WP is available, there is literally zero excuse for radically dumbing down vocabulary. Those who are too lazy to figure out won't understand anyway.
posted by smidgen at 1:15 PM on January 19, 2012


What on earth is wrong with "predator-prey?" It's a perfectly cromulent middle-school level word.

I won't defend every entry on that list. But, I would use words like "facilitate" or "regime" or "substrate" without blinking an eye, when I could say what I am trying to say in a much simpler fashion. Little bits of wordiness add up to something that people won't really want to read. I think a good science writer can tone down the wordiness that scientists tend to use in peer-reviewed articles, and define what needs defining, making it more accessible without dumbing it down for a three-year-old or just writing outright lies.

And nobody should say utilize instead of use, for heaven's sake. It's just not necessary.
posted by pemberkins at 1:20 PM on January 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think Bhattacharya's comments are probably pretty fair, but only if they're kept within the context of Science, Nature and other specialist magazines. Remember that they're very unusual in that the reporters, editors and target audience all have a strong interest in -- and generally, have built their careers around -- science. They have both the education to understand a story and the mindset to actually care about accuracy in their reporting of it. More cynically, when their entire business is built around being a trustworthy source of science news and their audience has the education necessary to spot mistakes or misrepresentations, they have a very strong incentive to get things right. So it's not totally insane to let the writers/editors have control over deciding whether that key caveat is really necessary for the story, or to decide how far the headline can be pushed before it's misleading.

Of course, when you get outside those very few publications, the assumptions on which his arguments rest are often no longer true. Even if the journalists are scientists they're almost certainly not specialist and up-to-date in that field, so they're going to have difficulty understanding the subject that they're writing about, and identifying the work's consequences and limitations. Worse, they know that their editors and virtually all of their audience are even less informed: mistakes and misrepresentations will be accepted without challenge. The pressure to present an exciting or entertaining story is the same as ever, but the pressure to get it right simply isn't there any more. So entrusting these people with the final say on where to strike the balance between accuracy and sensation will always lead to the shitty science reporting we're all so used to.

It's true that many (most?) scientists are terrible at talking to the public. Hell, most of us are pretty bad at talking to each other. We spend our lives so immersed in detailed technical knowledge and specialist mental tools that it can be hard to keep track of what we can reasonably expect a layperson to already know about our fields. We probably shouldn't have the last word in writing for the masses. But it's equally true that very few journalists, and probably fewer of their editors, are equipped to understand the science that they're being paid to write about, and in an environment in which the effort necessary for accuracy is rewarded.
posted by metaBugs at 1:26 PM on January 19, 2012


Carl elaborates more on that list here.

I agree, dumbing it down to the point of uselessness isn't helpful. But I think academic science writing can be unnecessarily wordy, and there is a middle ground in writing styles between the way scientists write to other scientists and totally meaningless fluff.

I totally sympathize with the idea that readers should be willing to engage with a piece, and it is frustrating as a scientist to feel like I have to "dumb it down" for anyone to care. So I think of this as a writing style issue more than an intellectual issue.

In short - it's tricky. I know I wouldn't be a good popular science writer, and I admire the writing chops of those who are.
posted by pemberkins at 1:35 PM on January 19, 2012


And nobody should say utilize instead of use, for heaven's sake. It's just not necessary.

Aargh, yes. I understand the point of using formal, slightly stylised English when writing papers for an international audience, and the constraints introduced by needing to pack a lot of information into as few words as possible. But I'm convinced that a lot of the weird vocabulary and sentence structures are just there because they sound sciency. It's as if everyone has internalised some sort of caricature of their field's "voice", and thinks that they'll get taken more seriously if they can make their language at least as complex and pompous as that caricature in their heads.

The most depressing part of it is that they're probably right.
posted by metaBugs at 1:36 PM on January 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


The biggest fault I see with science journalism is that it tends to report on papers, which are the publication units of individual scientists, but not the way fields advance. Single papers can be provocative and interesting, but except in exceedingly rare cases they don't actually present a generally useful complete picture. Research has to build up over time, and both the techniques and questions must be refined to actually understand any given subject. Even if you can look back and spot the first paper to observe something new, that paper never explains it all. Science journalism should thus not explain single papers, but the evidence and program of research that has led to scientists believing something new and interesting that they didn't used to. Carl Zimmer is basically the only prolific science journalist I know who gets that, and understands how to communicate it to the public.
posted by Schismatic at 1:52 PM on January 19, 2012 [4 favorites]


"That does not, of course, justify spinning the story out of all recognition so that it fundamentally misrepresents the work."

Who's to judge this? As a scientist I very frequently get questions from friends and family about popular science articles they've read. My friends and family are pretty dang smart and well-read, yet at least 50% of the time, I cannot figure out what they are talking about because the information is so corrupted. If the friend in question has a link to the journalism, I can probably figure it out, but as understood by the reader and reported back to a scientist, yes, many many times the work is entirely unrecognizable.

And what about all the readers who don't have a scientist-buddy they can bug?
posted by nat at 2:06 PM on January 19, 2012


One vote for Futurity as completely not boring.

also
http://deepseanews.com
posted by eustatic at 2:50 PM on January 19, 2012


I was a journalist, am now a scientist. I can confidently state that neither side has the slightest fucking clue what the other does or why they do it.
posted by docgonzo at 3:29 PM on January 19, 2012


And nobody should say utilize instead of use, for heaven's sake. It's just not necessary.

Utilize is a valid word. It's a fancy way of saying "use". People use/utilize it when they want to sound serious.
posted by ovvl at 4:36 PM on January 19, 2012


My favourite bit of funky Science Journalism is the headline "SCIENTISTS FIND 'GOD-SPOT' IN THE BRAIN". To their credit, the editors included the actual quote from the scientist who said: "This does not mean that we have found the 'god-spot' in the human brain".
posted by ovvl at 4:49 PM on January 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


(See Carl Zimmer's Index of Banned Words for examples of this.)

I would really hate to be in Zimmer's course, as he has a big fuss about many words in common modern English usage. I can sympathize if he is frustrated when students attempt to utilize big words in an effort to sound real smart (which is what students have try to do, actually).

Properly defining words is better than banning them: From Archetype to Zeitgeist.
posted by ovvl at 5:27 PM on January 19, 2012


Journalism is an extremely hard field to break into. Science is an increasingly hard field to break into. Media outlets could, if they wanted to, have their pick of science PhDs who can also write. Since reading and understanding science papers is considered a very specialized skill that most people don't master until grad school, it's hard to understand why more of them don't go this route. I can only conclude that the reason they don't is that they would prefer to hire their cronies who know the right people and could afford the right unpaid internships.
posted by Ralston McTodd at 6:46 PM on January 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


And nobody should say utilize instead of use, for heaven's sake. It's just not necessary.

I don't know. I think "utilize" has been unfairly maligned. The word "utilize" is not quite synonymous with the word "use": it carries some extra information. The word "utilize" expresses the phrase "put to (good) use" and/or the phrase "use efficiently or optimally." So, compare:

(1) When I went to Bolivia, I really utilized my Spanish.
(2) When I went to Bolivia, I really put my Spanish to good use.
(3) When I went to Bolivia, I really used my Spanish.

These are very close, but my sense is that (1) and (2) are interchangeable, but (3) says something slightly different. I could endorse (3) even if I had used my Spanish a lot but never did so to good effect. Not so with (1) or (2).

Or compare:

(4) If your car's tires are not properly inflated, it will not use its fuel efficiently.
(5) If your car's tires are not properly inflated, it will not utilize its fuel.
(6) If your car's tires are not properly inflated, it will not use its fuel.

Here, (4) and (5) say the same thing, but (6) says something different and false. Moreover, if you use "utilize" along with the qualifier "efficiently," then you are using it redundantly. So, consider the sentence:

(7) If your car's tires are not properly inflated, it will not utilize its fuel efficiently.

The sentence has a redundancy -- like saying "ATM machine." If you use "utilize" as it has been used in sentence (7), then you are not utilizing it.

Of course, I could just be making all this up to see if anyone is paying attention. ;)
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 7:31 PM on January 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


WE CAN SEE THE DIRTY TRICKS YOU'RE UTILIZING, LIVENGOOD
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 7:59 PM on January 19, 2012


This doesn't read like a serious or substantive response to accusations of poor, wrong, and/or misleading science reporting, such as those in Ben Goldacre's Bad Science. A tabloid headline or a less than clear explanation of a studies limitations is bad, but something like the "MMR causes autism" or other psuedo-science and quack medicines/diets/detoxes are not only wrong factually but harmful and either the result of cultivated ignorance or purposeful misinformation not just an interesting headline.
posted by PJLandis at 10:20 PM on January 19, 2012


The problem that science journalism is biased is much smaller than the problem that science journalism is just factually wrong. This can very likely be empirically measured. One would expect error correction to thus favor the latter error, vs. the former.

As if by magic, that is what we see.
posted by effugas at 2:40 AM on January 20, 2012


As a side note, the BBC occasionally manages good science journalism. They're definitely patchy and I've seen some articles that made me cringe, but better than most. A writer of theirs called Jason Palmer is pretty consistently good: he always links to the research paper he's writing about, and in the articles I feel qualified to judge, I agree with his write-ups. AFAIK, the BBC News site doesn't offer to filter articles by author, so it might take a bit of digging to find his work. Here's one of his, from the current front page.

I was a journalist, am now a scientist. I can confidently state that neither side has the slightest fucking clue what the other does or why they do it.

If you write an article or two aimed at giving scientists and journalists a better understanding of each others' worlds, I promise I'll read it and spread it among my peers. I've only knowingly chatted to one journalist (not a science specialist), and that conversation basically confirmed all of my prejudices: journos (or at least that journo) view their articles as something to entertain people while they look at ads, and truth beyond the standard of not getting sued is simply a bonus. I'd love to see that contradicted and to be reassured that there are some people out there who actually do give a damn.
posted by metaBugs at 3:28 AM on January 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'd love to see that contradicted and to be reassured that there are some people out there who actually do give a damn.

I am a working scientist who also does some journalism, and I can tell you that editors of magazines and newspapers are extremely eager to assign pieces to writers who can engage with the science first-hand. They care about getting things right, and they care about putting stuff that's actually scientifically interesting ahead of stuff that's bad science but good linkbait.

But it's true that editors mostly don't care for pieces whose takeaway is "some people say this, some people say that, we might know in twenty years or we might never know." And on some scientific questions that's the actual state of affairs. Those are the ones that are hardest to write about in the general-interest press.
posted by escabeche at 6:20 AM on January 20, 2012


> "Research papers contain all the caveats that are essential for a complete understanding of
> the science. They are also seldom read. Even by scientists."

A discouraging thought that occurs again and again to those who do read the primary lit: "What if this whole paper sucks as bad as the methods section sucks?" In theory, methods sections tell, in reproducible detail, what the researchers did to get the results they are reporting, and are useful if someone wants to try replicating the results or just learning the techniques. In practice a vast number of methods sections can be fully summarized as "This is where the sausage gets made, and everyone knows you don't want to watch that."
posted by jfuller at 7:54 AM on January 20, 2012


One of the primary ways Journalists demonstrate they don't understand science is with thier use of the word "scientists".
posted by clarknova at 8:40 AM on January 20, 2012


In practice a vast number of methods sections can be fully summarized as "This is where the sausage gets made, and everyone knows you don't want to watch that."

Often this is the fault of the authors, but it is also often the fault of journals that have maximum lengths on the paper. Some are now putting the methods sections online, which allows for more space.
posted by grouse at 12:38 PM on January 20, 2012


> Some are now putting the methods sections online, which allows for more space.

A great step forward, if it works out. Let's have everybody's raw data too.
posted by jfuller at 8:31 AM on January 22, 2012


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