Thursday, July 13, 2006

Comment on Science Journalism

I was about to write a comment on the earlier post Science Journalism, but it got too long, so I decided to promote it into a second posting.

Mirko caused some harsh criticism, so let me briefly state my opinion about the complicated ménage a trois between the scientist, the journalist and the public.

The Scientist

It is certainly not an easy task to communicate science to the broad public, but one that I consider to be very important - and neglected. To reach people it is necessary to omit details and technical terms. However, I would be very depressed if the average person from the street was immediately able to understand every detail of what I have been working on for several years. And I admit that this does reflect in my language. Ideally, the science journalist should be able to translate this incomprehensible physics speech into everyday language. To do so, matters must inevitably be simplified and details must be dropped.

I think there is no doubt that this is necessary.

However, the question is how much is necessary? IMO, compromises have to be made on both sides. The journalist wants to have some few, possibly catchy, sentences that excite the reader. The scientist wants to have details mentioned whose importance might not immediately be obvious. This conflict is not solved by retreating to fantastic stories and science fiction, spiced up with deliberately misquoted statements. Science is not just a catchy sentence.

E.g. the article in 'World of Wonders' stated that tiny black holes would be created from colliding protons. This is actually incorrect, as the black holes would be made from parton-parton, not proton-proton collisions. I could now go on and explain you why the difference is enormously important, but I'd agree that this is a point that might be dropped for the sake of better readability.

However, it is a different matter to write about the mini black holes without even mentioning that they undergo Hawking radiation. To stick with the above example, the mentioned article begins by describing macroscopic black holes as monsters of the universe (All-Monster) and murder-holes (Mörderloch), features sentences like the smallest mistake can erase all life on earth (der kleinste Fehler [kann] alles Leben auf der Erde auslöschen), then quotes Sabine Hossenfelder, and goes on by painting a catastrophe: a black wall would swallow the earth almost with the speed of light (Eine schwarze Wand würde die Erde fast mit Lichtgeschwindigkeit verschlingen). The only remotely reasonable statement is a quotation by Bernard Carr, but which also does not mention the evaporation. The article suceeds in completely ignoring the fact that the high temperature of the tiny black holes is THE important difference to the large 'monster-holes'.

The is definitely a 'detail' that should not have been dropped.

The Journalist

Unfortunately, it is my impression that in science journalism the weight is currently strongly on the over-simplified side, and tends towards plump sensations. Obviously, the marketing strategy is to reach as many people as possible with a provocative headline, and entertaining or scary news (Killer Bees Attacking! New Ice Age is coming! Beast Volcano! ). Just get people to buy the magazine or to watch the show. Quality inevitably suffers from this.

However, when working as a journalist - so I imagine - one is forced to play this game to a certain degree. And I understand that Mirko has to fulfill the demands of his employer. Writing articles that won't get printed at all doesn't help either. We all have to live.

So, I can't put the blame on him, but end up - as usually - blaming the 'society', the 'system' or 'the modern times'. It might be more satisfactory to call the single journalist an arrogant idiot, but that also is an oversimplification which omits many details.

Most of the times, I should say, science journalists do a very good job in a complicated field. It probably requires significant diplomatic skills to deal with sometimes hot-blooded scientists. And it requires a lot of verbal practice to make a story out of some equations scribbled on a notepad. As Wolfgang stated correctly, we don't produce fascinating results on a daily base. But then, when written the right way, almost everything can become an interesting journey (with the possible exception of knitting patterns) - this is what good journalism does.

The Public

An attitude that I have met frequently and which always upsets me is that when confronted with physics or maths, many people say something like I never understood that in school and that's it. To big parts, such a perception is based on just being unfamiliar with the matters. And it's this perception of ignorance that is used to argue why the average reader is not capable to understand how a nuclear reactor works (but we all know they are dangerous), what a black hole is (but we all know they are dangerous) or what a free radical is (but we all know they are dangerous, right?).

Now take an average newspaper with a tax-reform debate. How many people actually understand all the terms and arguments used in this debate? Go ask Mike from 7/11 to explain you what inflation, purchasing power, Neo-liberalism or Keynesianism is. But after having read these words repeatedly, people just think they know roughly what is meant. Maybe they do. But more often, the results are some oversimplified conclusions in the manner: If I pay more taxes I have less money. Which are based on very insufficient knowledge of the matter and are dangerously naive on the long run. One way or the other, editors apparently have no problem printing such messy technical language.

Anyway, what I meant to say was that the average reader is capable of much more details and technical terms than he himself might think. It's mostly a matter of being used to technical terms that makes us feel comfortable with them. Lack of knowledge does not equal stupidity.

It's a big advantage of online publications that it is possible to let the reader decide how many details he wants to know by adding some links or references for further reading. Or maybe just by putting the more messy explanations on a separate site. This, I admit, is much more complicated in printed media.

Some words about this blog

As you might have noticed in the side bar, our blog has a new contributor, and I would like to welcome Mirko Herr to this blog. I am looking forward to read more from him.

I also added a section about, where you find some details about us.

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Uncle Al said...

Micro-black holes synthesized in hard vacuum that attempt accretion faster than decay by Hawking radiation will fail. Angular momentum is conserved. Anything orbiting into an event horizon will make very slow progress and must push against a vigorous outflow.

Strange matter recrystallizing the Earth like Ice-9 in Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle doesn't happen from hyperenergetic cosmic rays. 3x10^20 eV is a lot (48 joules), even when center-of-mass scaled. Don't sweat accelerators.

Empirical Mörderloch: IRS Form 1040. Mankind's worst possible engineered fate is jackbooted State compassion. Nothing is more devastating than do-gooders armed with other folk's money being Media-lauded.

QUASAR9 said...

Yes, like the profiles, looks like your pic was taken after a sunny day on the beach in Santa Barbara.
Need a serious science blog with humour, that can dispel gross exaggerations and myths -
and yes very important be clear on the little "details"

Bee, Thanks for the link to my humble blog.

Bee said...

Hi Quasar, I like your blog. Also, I am always happy to read your comments :-) Your guess with the photo is pretty good... Best, B.

Chris said...

Blaming 'the society, the system or the modern times' is not only unsatisfactory. It doesn't chance a thing. Whereas insulting journalists at least heats up the discussion.