I meant to simply ignore the whole issue, for I find it quite bizarre. A major daily newspaper reports on an article that hardly anybody in the community cares about, and thereby promotes it to public attention. That in turn annoys those in the community for the reason that it sheds quite an odd light on their own research field. The topic bounces back and forth, thereby only making it seem even more important. We've seen that happening before. Now, yesterday I had an exchange on Facebook on this phenomenon, and I was wondering for your opinion.
It seems that science journalists quite frequently pick out the craziest ideas, especially in theoretical physics. That in itself isn't so surprising. I have earlier written about the tension between capitalism and science journalism, and how the internet has worsened the situation. Journalists have a need to entertain that is frequently in conflict with the wish to educate. They need a good story, something that creates a reaction. And Overbye's article did that.
Is that good or bad? At least it's a way that physics does catch people's attention! One could argue any attention is better than no attention. If you follow this blog you know that I don't share this attitude. I think journalism in general should try to create a realistic picture. If that's dull, well, then that's dull. After all, it's journalism, not fiction. And stories like this recent one, entertaining as they are, just present a very distorted picture of the actual research. And that in a time when more than half of the population doesn't know a laser doesn't work by focusing soundwaves. The laser btw currently celebrates its 50th anniversary. 50 years and they still don't know.
The issue with dullness is that it's relative. Crazy or scary stories create a need of being topped with ever more crazy and scary stories. Unfortunately, we've been running in that spiral for quite a while already. Meanwhile, to excite people you have to tell them at the very least the Earth is about to be destroyed.
But then you can ask if not the crazy and the scary stories, what should they write about instead in the newspaper? I will admit that most of our research indeed is quite boring and repetitive. It's just small variations on always the same theme. I bet it's the same in your job.
When I read popular science articles about other fields than physics, the ones that I appreciate most provide a review on a particular research direction. They tell me what the theories are that are being discussed today, what the evidence is, and what the current controversies are about. They tell me what is presently in the minds of the researchers who work in that field. I suppose if you're among these researchers, that's dull. I also suppose if you're a science journalist who has written about the same thing a dozen of times already, that's also dull. But who are you writing for?
As far as I am concerned, unsolved questions always make good topics. I want to know what's going on at the frontier of research elsewhere. I don't want to know what the crazy outliers do, I want to know what the central problems are. Give me the big picture, give me a basis. If I want to know more details, I'll look for them. Likewise, I would want it to be better communicated why physicists are interested in what they are interested in. And not articles that make it seem like we spend time with things in fact most of us don't care about.
So, what would you want to see an article in the NYT about?
- "There's no sense in telling me
The wisdom of a fool won't set you free
But that's the way that it goes
And it's what nobody knows
While every day my confusion grows"