Sunday, July 09, 2006

Science Journalism

Some weeks ago I wrote how I was upset about an article in World of Wonders, written by the science journalist Mirko Herr. For one, I did not particularly like the article. Titled 'The World's most Dangerous Experiment',The the scientific content was vanishingly small, sensations were sold on shaky ground, the illustrations had been better used for a sci-fi movie (e.g. a 'black hole' that looked suspiciously like a solar eclipse in a pair of open hands).

But, living in the US, that's something I got used to.

What did upset me about this particular article was that I was being quoted in a context that made my words appear with exactly the opposite intention from what I had. It's like taking a sip from your Starbucks coffee (same as always) and then noticing there is plenty of caramel syrup in it (Yuck).

Okay, maybe I was just upset because I actually found the journalist was a nice guy. The nice guy wrote me an email some days later, and since then we have been in contact. He apologized for quoting me in a misleading way, and we had an interesting discussion about the problems of communicating science to the broad public.

I do not share his opinion in all points, but that's what makes the world interesting. I asked him to write a brief contribution to my blog which you find below. It seems, we also have a different opinion about what 'brief' is.

Paragraphs and bold-faces are mine.

By Mirko Herr

First of all I want to express my gratitude towards Sabine for inviting me to write this piece about science journalism and its pitfalls. Recently Sabine criticized my work and I have to admit that this was not without reason. Scientists, journalists and the media do form a rather complicated ménage a trois. But then, all such relationships are difficult. On the other hand, they can be genuinely exciting and of the greatest importance. If only all the partners involved knew how to deal with the situation. Time and again, I have asked myself a number of questions, concerning the role of science journalism, the mistakes made by journalists and scientists, and my hopes for a bright future of our ménage. The good thing about doing this online is that you can always click on to some cartoon website once you get bored. Feel free to do so.

Unlocking the Ivory Tower - Why we need Science Journalism

Cloning, stem cell research, the Human Genome Project, global warming - these are some science news that made front page headlines all over the world in recent years. The public understands that science is a force to be reckoned with, a force that will shape the future of all of us. Also there are the fields of science that do not or never will affect our everyday life, and yet they are of great interest to the public because they provide answers to philosophical questions. I am talking about fields like cosmology or evolution. So there is a desire for all kinds of scientific news - why not let the scientists quench it? They are the experts, after all. And there is a whole lot of scientists who try to do just that. They write books for a wider public, they publish articles in Scientific American, some even host TV shows. Nonetheless, they are only a minority. Most scientists just do what they are best at: research. And they come up with fantastic results, almost on a daily basis.

Just too bad that nobody takes any notice, because the average person does not read Science or Nature. They do not even know that such magazines exist. The average person, that is my mom. She has always been a housewife in Germany, her education in the early 60’s never went beyond 8th grade. Though she sometimes wonders how the universe came into being or whether it would be possible to clone our family cat, she would never read a book by Steven Hawking or a copy of the German Scientific American. People like my mom make up the vast, vast majority of our societies and to reach them, scientists need the help of mass media. Enter the journalist. I like to compare my trade to that of an interpreter. It is our job to explain science on such a basic level that my mom will understand it. And even more, she has to enjoy reading or hearing about it. In the best case, she must feel entertained and enlightened while reading a piece of science journalism.

And I believe, that a journalist, who has to be a generalist, will rather achieve this goal than the scientist, who has to be a specialist by nature. Grasping the essential point of a study and explaining it in clear sentences without using any technical terms, that is the everyday bread of every science journalist. That is our expertise. And I think it is an absolute necessity to keep the whole public informed about what is going on in science, and not just the few who read popular science books; first of all because science is a wonderful undertaking of our global society and it is terribly exciting, secondly because science touches matters of deep moral questions like human cloning and everybody has to have a chance to come up with an informed opinion, thirdly because virtually all members of society finance science through taxes and should get some learning as a dividend.

When Proteins meet Protons – Where journalists fail

I believe that a good science journalist has to be a generalist. Well, one can not know or read everything. But while the scientist becomes more and more of a specialist, the journalist can keep an eye on a much wider field, seeing connections, that some specialist might miss, asking questions that a specialist wouldn’t ask. And once he has gathered all the information he needs, done so through extensive research, interviews and travels to the most important labs, he may sit down for a couple of weeks and write his wonderfully balanced, almost literary article. After that, he or she may enjoy a cup of tea with the mad hatter and the white rabbit.

The truth is, most journalists work with maddening deadlines, short resources and have hardly any idea what science is all about. The vast majority of my colleagues have studied languages and other humanities. They have the average scientific knowledge of a person with the average higher education background. And that knowledge is scarily scarce. Without the help of wikipedia, they will have trouble explaining the difference between proton and protein or neutron and neuron. I would even go so far as to say that about half of my colleagues do not speak enough English to do an interview in that language or read a text with a deeper understanding. Now, that is the average journalist. A journalist who tries to specialize in science ought to know a bit more about that field. But in about 70 per cent of the cases when you have a journalist at the other end of the telephone line, it will not be a real science journalist. Most of the time, it is somebody working on an article remotely related to a scientific issue and is just looking for an expert to harvest two or three decent quotes.

If lack of knowledge is one of our failures, sensationalism is the other. 30 years ago, in an age without cable TV, the Internet and a myriad of magazines, every article in a magazine, every piece of footage on TV was like a candle in the dark. Its mere existence attracted consumers. Today, a simple newspaper article is still like a candle, only one that is burning in the middle of Times Square. If one wants to be heard in today’s tempest of information, one has to be unique. Some media outlets achieve that by being absolutely impeccable in their reporting. Others achieve it just by screaming out loud. This leads to a reporting that stresses the most sensational aspects. A reporting, that is very unlike the scientific process of carefully drawn conclusions stated in a most technical language. Very often, such a reporting becomes too simplistic and absolutely not to the liking of the scientist. I do not think that such a sensationalism serves the reader or other consumers. Unfortunately, media outlets with a sensationalistic tendency are very successful. And in the media business of today, decisions are not solely made by journalists, managers have a great deal of influence, too. And they, by nature, have to focus on money. With the tempest of information still growing in strength, sensationalism will not go away, it will only get worse.

Word vs. term – Where scientists could improve

A few days ago, I read a press release with the following headline: “Long-lived magnetic fluctuations in a crystal”. It consisted of sentences like: “MnF2, the material studied by the researchers, is an antiferromagnet. In this ionic material, each Mn2+ ion carries a net spin oriented in the opposite direction from that in which its neighbors point.” Who of you wants to know more? (Well, you can, following this link). My mom wouldn’t. She wouldn’t even understand the headline. And it is the headline that catches 90 per cent of the readers. You can not possibly underestimate the importance of the headline. And “Long-lived magnetic fluctuations in a crystal” is an absolute bummer. Now this was not the original publication of the study, which was published in Science. It was a press release by the Max Planck Institute for Solid State Physics. I admit, a press release is not written for the general public, but for a wider public. Most of the readers of a press release are journalists, but most of them would just ignore a press release as the one cited above. I am among them. Even though I grasp the meaning of this study, it is way too far out for a popular science magazine. And even the best science journalist would have to do a complete translation of such a press release.

Most of the time, it is pretty much the same when you talk to a scientist. That is a problem that most specialists have: they find it hard to distance themselves from their technical terms. There is nothing wrong with technical terms as long as you use them while talking to fellow specialists. They are absolutely necessary to clarify details. The general public just doesn’t care for details, and therefore the journalist has to explain things using the most simple words. We would be quite happy if the scientists would meet us somewhere in the middle between lab speak and everyday language. We love the scientist who can explain his work using plain words. When Steven Hawking wrote “A short history of time”, somebody told him that every mathematical formula would cut his readership by half. The same is true with every chemical formula or every word that makes one long for a dictionary. I wish scientists would more often think of my mom when they talk to me, or maybe of their own grandma. If I need more details, more specific information, I will ask for it. And there is one sentence I am to hear in almost every interview I do, a sentence I do not particularly like: “Matters are more complicated, you can not put it that simply.” I know scientists have to worry about the criticisms they might get from colleagues. I know that you want to see coverage of all the details. And that is OK, but please give me a few decent understandable quotes that I can use. And believe me, most of the time matters are not really that complicated.

This shall be enough, I don’t want to fill all of Sabines blog. Let me just and finally say this: I know I have made some gross generalizations in this text. There are scientists with a wonderful talent for getting their message across to the public, women and men who inspire the thoughts of millions. And there are wonderful science journalists, women and men with a deep understanding for the subjects they are writing about, with a great talent for language and simple, but sound explanations. I am striving to become one of them, yet there is still a long way to go. I hope that along the way I will learn a lot more exiting science and get in touch with many more exciting scientists. I would be glad to learn your opinion on these matters. Feel free to send me an e-mail, my address is mirkoherr(at)web(dot)de


  1. Half Time: France 1 Italy 1

    In the same way, the rapid deceleration of RHIC ions as they smash into each other for a very short period of time (about 10^(-23) second) is similar to the extreme gravitational environment in the vicinity of a black hole. This means that RHIC collisions should emit a bunch of thermal particles similar to the “Hawking radiation” emitted by a black hole. Since Hawking radiation is the cause of black hole decay, not formation, its existence would be yet another reason that RHIC cannot produce a real gravitational black hole.

  2. Well, what was his excuse for the case at hand?

    The simple bottomline in everyday words is: LHC is not dangerous. There is no chance in hell that it could create a blackhole the would eat the earth (though there is always one in mathematics).

    From your description, it sounded like, when faced with this simple and clearly understandable message he did press on for details, to spin the details into another simple and clearly understandable message - opposite to the one you had given.

  3. Dear Mirko Herr and Bee,

    > Most scientists just do what they are best at: research. And they come up with fantastic results, almost on a daily basis

    No they do not. And this is one of the problems of science journalism (at least from my perspective). Every little result and step forward becomes a 'fantastic result', breakthrough, etc.

  4. I quote:

    Without the help of wikipedia, they will have trouble explaining the difference between proton and protein or neutron and neuron.

    And believe me, most of the time matters are not really that complicated.

    And in the media business of today, decisions are not solely made by journalists, managers have a great deal of influence, too. And they, by nature, have to focus on money.

    Bee, the nice guy is an arrogant idiot. Don't waste your time with him.

  5. What is wrong with caramel syrup? Don't be bitter, honey bee. Sensations make life sweet...

  6. What did upset me about this particular article was that I was being quoted in a context that made my words appear with exactly the opposite intention from what I had.

    If that is true, it would be an extremely serious misdemeanour by the journalist in question. You shouldn't have accepted his apology. You need to get a written apology from him, his publication and a written retraction in the publicaton. You can't allow people to go around doing that.

  7. this is one of the problems of science journalism (at least from my perspective). Every little result and step forward becomes a 'fantastic result', breakthrough, etc.

    I agree. There was a discussion at cosmic variance four weeks ago touching on this issue, with a little different focus. The message I got from there was that in science journalism, in-depth background reporting, which is the culmination of investigative journalism in politics or economics, is nearly completely absent. Instead, new, often unconfirmed results are repeated from press releases of universities or research centres.

    In my opinion, some critical reporting with hindsight, along the line "what has happened to this breakthrough and that exciting development", would indeed be interesing and illuminating. And it is just natural that some "exciting results" end up as blunder - for example, the pentaquark could just be such a case - see hep-ex/0606014 for the latest failure to confirm its existence.

    But then, there is the question at which public such reporting should be addressed, because:

    the nice guy is an arrogant idiot.

    I cannot see this at all, and, instead, think that this attitude towards this journal and this journalist is extremely dismissive, and just ignoring the real world.

    In my opionion, this guy tries to explain to us that he is struggeling around to just do the best he can do within the constraints imposed by the journal he is working for, which has, on has to concede, not the highest claims with regard to its scientific standards.

    So, of course, one can dismiss the "Welt der Wunder" as junk and suggest to Mirko that he finds another job at a better paper. That's the point of view from the ivory tower.

    Instead, I have the impression we have to face some inconvenient facts and to address reality.

    I would guess that not more than say one third of all people living in the US or in Europe have ever heard of the "Scientific American", let alone read it once. The "well-educated layman" is, unfortunately, quite rare.

    Now, "Welt der Wunder", and the television series where the journal originates from, tries to catch the interest of those two-thirds who, otherwise, would never have heard anything at all of the LHC.

    Then, is it a bad thing when their readers get some distorted impression of what is going on science instead of knowing nothing at all? I think that this is the real issue at hand that has to be discussed.

    Of course, journals such as "Welt der Wunder" should not convey an idea of science as sheer magic, or reckless, hazardous experimentation, and this piece about Black Holes at the LHC pushes the envelope. But in general, in my opinion, such journals fill an important gap, as long as we do not have any better idea how to communicate science to really everybody. Sniffing at this journal may be justified, but it does not help anyone.

    Best, Stefan

  8. I agree with Stefan. We all know lots of people like the journalist's Mom. Not stupid but way way off the scope for anything technical. And yes these are not only the voters but the overwhelming number of elected officials and politicians. Getting through to them is important! But I don't think replacing MnF_2 with "Magnesium Flouride" is going to help all those folks understand that paper!


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