The Trouble with Science News

November 21st, 2018

science news

Science is cool – new discoveries, cures for diseases, going into space, humanoid robots. Who doesn’t want to know about the latest inventions coming out of the lab? But it is hard to follow, especially for non-specialists. Even for specialists, it is hard to keep an eye on developments in other fields. Academic science is a detail-intensive, highly regulated, time-consuming system. Many journals are not available for free, prompting various initiatives to “release them” to wider access. Open access journals and pre-press repositories try to help scientists get their work out to the general public. However, academic papers are a hard read, even for science enthusiasts.

In traditional newspapers and news sites, science news has to compete for space and attention. The work of the science journalist is doubly difficult. They have to be expert enough in their area to navigate scientific journals and understand scientific jargon, but good enough at communicating to explain complex ideas as engaging stories without giving a false impression of what is actually going on. It is likely that they will be expected to cover the whole range of science, technology, environmental, medical and healthcare, and scientific business news. It is also likely that they will not have studied all these fields at a high level themselves. Who has PhDs in physics, chemistry, and biology as well as all the sub-fields?

Science news journalism is hard work

Qualified scientists are in high demand in both industry and academia. The best qualified scientists are more likely to follow lucrative career paths than choose the less well paid and more unstable world of science journalism. So science writers and communicators will often be reporting on work that takes them to the very limits of their knowledge and experience. The volume of academic papers released is so high even academic researchers working in a very narrow field struggle to keep up. Even relying on respected journals to be a “source of truth” no longer guarantees ultimate truth, if dubious research practices and unethical approaches were how a paper was published in the first place.

Many publications rely on Press Releases and publicity from Public Relations offices. Charismatic media-savvy and controversialist figures like Elon Musk, can get their stories covered easily. Large organizations that can afford press and media teams to supply well-packaged releases make life much easier for the hard-pressed journalist. Press releases mean the journalist does not have to spend time re-writing or editing each news article themselves. So, it is far easier for large organizations and institutions to get their coverage into mainstream science publications.

This means that the science news that gets to the mainstream science press is highly selective, with even fewer science reports making it into general news sources. Often general news sources only cover science when there is some sort of political angle as well.

Most mainstream science coverage focuses on the most exciting parts of the scientific process. The first suggestion of a new idea is exciting – the cutting-edge research, the innovative thought experiment, the lone radical researcher challenging traditional thinking, the paradigm shift. The unexpected commercial success of an innovative company is interesting, the gradual establishment of a company doing something less exciting will not make the cut. A terrible failure or spectacular catastrophe is also newsworthy, a slow decline is not.

It’s not all exploding unicorns and flying cars

What this means is that science coverage is patchy and inconsistent. It tends to ignore the routine, painstaking attention to detail, review, and refinement that is the actual work of most scientists. The “breakthrough” is unlikely to be a surprise to those scientists who have been carefully preparing their work for release for a long time. It is the PR office that has chosen to tell the story that way.

An argument or controversy is much more dramatic if it appears to have broken out suddenly. Never mind that the argument being reported on has been simmering away quite happily as a debate between two differing schools of thought for decades. It is much more thrilling to write about it as if two professors have suddenly gotten into a fight.

It’s not all about you

People are drawn to stories about things that affect them personally – which is another reason why coverage of health and medical issues is so fraught with falsehoods and misleading claims. “Miracle cures” attract clicks in desperation, but are unlikely to be true. A small decrease in a statistical risk associated with a modified version of a drug may lead to someone’s life being prolonged, but doesn’t make for such an attention-grabbing story.

People are also more attracted by stories about “cute and cuddly” things. So, pandas and other “charismatic megafauna” get far more press than insects or microbes. Driverless cars get more attention than industrial robots.

So, when you read your science news, remember that it has been filtered and selected in many ways and for many reasons. It is likely to have been written to sound more sudden and dramatic than what you’d see if you looked behind the scenes. For full coverage, you will often need to dig out the fine print yourself.

If you want to get to the original source, you may need to think differently – check the credentials of the original journal paper the article is based on, track down a personal blog by a scientist where discuss their own work in their own terms, look for a confirming report on a university department website or a regulatory filing in a civil court. Finally, keep in mind that even in the science press, if it sounds too good to be true, it has almost certainly been mis-reported!

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Fran Alexander