Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Science Reporting, a Reader's Perspective

I spent a lot of my childhood reading pop science articles. My parents subscribed to National Geographic and Discover, and the town library had Popular Science, which I'd read waiting for my parents to pick me up or during meal breaks while I was working there. Eventually, I read enough that I a) became seriously oversaturated on the subjects of hominids, dinosaurs, quantum physics, Mars, and the Hubble telescope; and b) decided that there were only a finite number of science article types:

  1. The New Discovery, Hyped Up: This article will take a discovery, usually archaeological/paleontological, and take up 5-10 pages discussing how the artifact or bone was found, what it looks like, and then speculating at length about what the artifact or bone could mean—while couching the speculation in the language of fact. The large collection of hominid bones in this cave suggest a large community over an extended period of time, something that has been unheard of so far. Previously it was assumed that these hominids were nomadic and travelled according to season. "We're going to have to rethink everything," says Dr. Smith.
  2. The Excuse to Show Off The Photographer: The photographer in question generally being a satellite, Martian robot, or Hubble, meaning that the photography is usually of space. Sometimes it's of landscapes or new species of animal, however. This article will have lots and lots of beautiful, glossy photos with captions, and the occasional quote from the photographer or a scientist about the Beauty Of Science.
  3. The General Explanation: This seems to crop up about once a year in each magazine, though not always on the same topic. For instance, you might find the Full and Complete History of Human Evolution, The Birth Of The Solar System, How Old Is The Universe, The First Bird, or What Goes Into An Atom, but you won't find all those articles together. The science in these articles tends to be the accepted, conservative science, but does a good job of giving the gist of things and the history that's intended.

You can see how this could get old, fast, especially to someone with a good memory. Sometimes I think a lot of my cynicism was born from reading variations of the same article and realizing that there was more "maybe" in them than actual "fact". Not what I'd signed up for.

And of course, options 1 and 3 make for bad science reporting. I'm not quite sure why science mags feel they need to dumb down the science quite as much as they do. I'm more sure that there has to be a way to write a science article in layman's terms that actually gets things right. Option 1 is the worst for that, because of all the speculation that goes into things.

A recent case in point is the announcement of artificial life that I talked about here. There's a "rebuttal" to the announcement here that is required reading for anyone interested in Bad Science Journalism. The articles I linked to were all "zomg we're almost God, we're so awesome, major breakthrough", while the rebuttal points out that "hey, guys, this is only a baby step, it's nothing special". Seriously, go read it.

You'll find the same overblown reporting for everything. Yes, we'll need to "rethink everything" about the evolution of birds based on that one fossil, but it's not (usually) as if we'll need a lot of rethinking. So Protobird X has a different kind of tail than Protobird Y, which has a different sort of feather or a different beak. So we've discovered another exoplanet, or a jawbone that might belong to a new hominid. How is this groundbreaking, exactly?

Of course, there are instances where the discovery is considerably more important (water on the moon, water on Mars) and instances where the discovery is in a kind of grey area (life on Titan). Those I can live with. But the journalism that takes one thing and turns it into another? Speaks of agenda and dumbing down and not trying to educate, and that bugs me.

On the other hand, it's occasionally quite fun to take that Bad Science, pretend it's all entirely fact, and see what stories come out of it. If there actually is life on Titan…

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