Why the science newsbite is just the tip of the iceberg

**Note, this is kind of a “venting” post based on some articles that I read last night. Bear with me… please.

Good science reporting is not only a good idea, it is something absolutely fantastic. Furthermore, good science reporting provides an essential service to humanity. I have discussed elsewhere the importance of an educated public. We are fortunate that we are living in times when at least in our country, education (not just in the sciences) is relatively easy to obtain. Even when in some cases formal education may not be an option because of financial or other difficulties, you can educate yourself by being an avid reader. To do that, you can go to a series of ancient and sacred institutions called Public Libraries where they store many of the most mysterious objects, usually made out of dead plant tissue.

These are called books.   (:-)

Of course, nowadays we have many more resources available. Knowledge is as close as a wherever the next keyboard or tablet are, and that is a great thing. However, we have to be aware that we must be very, very careful with the information that we obtain online. We must develop the ability to separate the proverbial wheat from the chaff, as there is a lot of misinformation out there. Remember when in the prehistoric 1980s we said things like “…it’s true, I saw it on TV!”? Nowadays, the most common version of this expression is “…it’s true, I saw it online!”

I hope that you realize that this is potentially dangerous, especially if you get your medical, health & wellness or self-help/mental health information from unreliable sources. Anybody, literally anybody can post whatever they feel like online. And that, as with everything in life, can be a good or a bad thing.

This is not to say that books are completely reliable. There are a lot, and I mean A LOT of “nonfiction ” books with unreliable, misleading or even horribly wrong information (sometimes all three). The thing about it is that the process of publishing a book is much slower than to post anything online. Also, reputable publishers in the sciences usually send book submissions to reviewers, similarly to the process of peer review that I have mentioned before. These two things ideally and in theory act as buffers or filters of bad information.

This is where good science journalism shines. In many cases, the only type of scientific information that some people ever read are popular science articles. Obviously, this is one of the reasons why good science journalism is important. There are a lot of simply stellar science journalists, who actually love and (even better) understand science. Others, well, not so much. You probably know examples of each.

I have two main pet peeves that really drive me up the wall when I see examples of in my opinion, “not optimal” journalism: provocative headlines and bite-size science.

Beware: I’m about to go Walter on you!


Picture credit: http://www.doblu.com/2011/11/20/jeff-dunham-controlled-chaos-review/

Ok, ok, I understand the need of headlines in journalism, I really do. But sometimes provocative headlines can be misleading even if the article itself has the right information; for example, it’s human nature to just remember a headline like:

“Do blackberries cause baldness?”

If you only read this headline and nothing else, you should know better, but I can’t blame you for thinking that blackberries do cause baldness (I happen to be a bald guy who loves blackberries, but one thing has little to do With the other). The next thing that will surely happen is that you mention this “fact” in a conversation. Since you are an honest person, the friend that you are talking to has every reason to think that this specific “fact” is well, a fact. Then your friend talks to another friend and it just snowballs from there.

Give me a break! Science is interesting enough, awesome enough if you will; we do not have to embellish it.


Picture credit: http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=2075

An aspect of this that really gets me going is when everything is left at the headline level. No explanation, no reference at all to the source of information, nothing. Like “mention 5 scientific news this week in 30 seconds” or “our brains are 14 billion neurons short” and that-is-it. Nothing more; zip, nada, niente… The proverbial bite-size science.

Bite-size science gives a very wrong impression of what science is and how it works. Essentially it dismisses the hard work that makes science possible:

From the original observation that gives you the initial spark of an idea, to the initial “quick and dirty” experiments that will give you a better idea of the direction of the research, usually with more experiments, the analysis of the data, the crafting of a manuscript, the submission of  said manuscript, the peer review of a manuscript, the revision and resubmission of your paper and (finally) its publication; then comes the possible applications of that knowledge, as translated into useful technologies, etc…

(I wrote the previous sentence awfully long on purpose to impress upon you a little bit of how elaborate the discovery process is)

There is little doubt in my mind that bite-size science give young minds the wrong idea about what science is (and about the meaning of hard work in general). I do not quite know why and I am sure that many knowledgeable people are thinking about this, but lately, we are being conditioned to expect quick results with minimal effort, with no patience to pay attention to detail or no patience to read something longer than a couple of phrases. It’s happening to all of us and will ultimately affect our ability to do things (I think).

What we sometimes see as science based on sound-bites is just the tip of the iceberg. We do not see the rest of it, what makes the headlines possible. Because of that, we are missing the opportunity of seeing a whole series of noble human activities for what they are…

By the way, Bah! Humbug!

Tip of the Iceberg

Picture credit: http://khongthe.com/wallpapers/nature/tip-of-the-iceberg-90839.jpg

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  1. Intellectual apathy, or is that laziness? When did it become such an imposition on the public to actually have to read or pay attention in order to learn?

    This issue irritates me to no end. Thanks for putting it into words for me.

    1. You have no idea, my friend. I have wonderful students, and then there’s the selected few who complaint about having to go to college for FOUR years, yet many of them want to be physicians! I very much appreciate your kinds words…

  2. I agree whole-heartedly! Bad science writing is quite a disservice; not only does it fail in its task, but it creates an additional burden for other science communicators. I understand that many writers are unfamiliar with the material and I’ll happily forgive honest mistakes, but I get upset with sensationalist reporting that papers over the nuances and uncertainties in our knowledge.

    By the way, your post reminded me of a PhD comic about the science news cycle. 🙂

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