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How Science Reporting Works:

From SMBC Comics. Thanks to GeekPress for the pointer.

wfjag:
How does the example show a difference from non-science reporting?
9.17.2009 3:02pm
Arturito:
Inaccurate science reporting is a cooperative effort of journalists, university PR departments and, unfortunately, often the scientists themselves. Not at all what is painted in the cartoon.
9.17.2009 3:02pm
ruuffles (mail) (www):
9.17.2009 3:12pm
zuch (mail) (www):
... which is why I read the "news" section of Science magazine and Technology Review instead to get my science updates.

There are exceptions; the N.Y. Times hired off the eminently qualified Gina Bari-Kolata from her gig at Science, and she does a good job for the NYT's science reporting. But overall, it's not too far from the comic strip....

Cheers,
9.17.2009 3:22pm
erp:
Science magazine went over to the dark (not a racial slur) side a long time ago.
9.17.2009 3:37pm
NE2d:
The comic that ruufles links is far better.
9.17.2009 3:39pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
With a few exceptions science reporters know little science. What was their major? Most likely journalism, or even worse: Communications. Good scientists are busy doing science and don't want to write for popular consumption.

I think the whole journalism model is now obsolete. With the Internet space no longer constrains the writer, and he can link to sources to back up the text.

Even traditional reporting today is substandard. Newspaper articles are supposed to give you the Five Ws: who, what, how when and why, but often they don't. In many crime stories you have to go to the last paragraph to get the rest of the Ws the lead-in left out. Then we see excessive use of the passive voice. We get "a knife slashed the victim instead of, "the police allege John Jones stabbed Joe Smith." Sometimes it almost seems like reporters is deliberately holding back details. For example they don't like to tell you the race of the perpetrator unless he's white.

With such poor general reporting is it any wonder science reporting is so woefully inadquate?
9.17.2009 3:49pm
Houston Lawyer:
The problem is almost as much the fault of the scientist as it is of the journalist. Few scientists have the verbal skills to explain what they do on a 9th grade level. If a journalist isn't spoon fed it on a 9th grade level, he will just report it in such a manner as supports his belief system. In the rare instance where a reporter gets it right, his editor will surely edit all meaning out of it.
9.17.2009 3:58pm
Mark N. (www):
I suspect a lot of academics who chuckled at that comic weren't quite as happy about the next day's comic, on how academic publishing works.
9.17.2009 3:58pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
Mark N.

Fabulous. Exactly right. Here is a typical series of responses one can get from a journal editor on your submission.

1. It's wrong.

2. Ok, it's not wrong, but it's trivial.

3. Ok it's not trivial, but I thought of this before and you should have referenced me.

4. Ok what I did was completely different, but you still have to re-write the whole thing.

5. Now I can't understand it.

I'm not kidding.
9.17.2009 4:30pm
John Armstrong (mail) (www):
A. Zarkov

Maybe that's just the problem. Maybe there's a social good in mathematicians and scientists writing for the popular press, and trying to get it right. With the current squeeze in the academic market (and the castrations of mathematicians advocated by Freepers) this is an opening for journalism to exploit and start actively offering jobs to Ph.D.s leaving the academy.
9.17.2009 5:22pm
karrde (mail) (www):
ruufles beat me to it: PHD Comics had a much better understanding of how science-reporting works.

And I think Houston Lawyer has the fundamental part of the explanation.

Amusingly, I suspect that it works that way for any specialist-field news which is hard to explain at a 9-12th grade level.
9.17.2009 5:34pm
zuch (mail) (www):
erp:
Science magazine went over to the dark (not a racial slur) side a long time ago.
How so?

Cheers,
9.17.2009 5:42pm
Splunge:
Few scientists have the verbal skills to explain what they do on a 9th grade level.

Bad news. With rare exception, genuine advances on the frontier can't be explained at the 9th grade level, whatever your verbal skills. At least, not without gutting your explanation of any serious accuracy and reducing it to cartoons and metaphors.

I'm curious where you get this assumption that they usually (as opposed to occasionally) can be. Do you also feel that you could teach calculus to a two-year-old, if you only had top-notch toddler language skills?
9.17.2009 5:53pm
Fub:
Houston Lawyer wrote at 9.17.2009 3:58pm:
The problem is almost as much the fault of the scientist as it is of the journalist. Few scientists have the verbal skills to explain what they do on a 9th grade level. If a journalist isn't spoon fed it on a 9th grade level, he will just report it in such a manner as supports his belief system.
They apparently require spoon feeding several times per day. At least that's what I've inferred from reading newspaper "science" stories over the years.

One bizarre reporting error that seems endemic appears in many, maybe most, news stories about lightning strikes, electrocutions, and other events related to electricity:

"Umpty-do thousand Volts of electricity surged through his body..."
9.17.2009 5:59pm
DiverDan (mail):

With a few exceptions science reporters know little science.


Based on my experience with most MSM Reporters, the same can be said about economics, law, business (except that a majority of reporters know for a fact that profits are evil and businessmen have horns and a tail), the environment, foreign affairs, mathematics, geography, etc., etc.. Indeed, there is even a substantial minority of reporters that can't spell and are completely ignorant about English Grammer (those most of those are quickly moved up to the editorial staff). I'm thinking that a Journalism Major must be the cushiest gig in college - they don't require that you learn anything at all.
9.17.2009 7:24pm
Joe Triscari (mail):
Mark N/A Zarov

I once had a colleague half-boast/half-apologize that he got over 10 peer-reviewed articles (I can't remember the exact number 30 is in my mind but I don't want to be accused of over-stating) out of an initial post-doc idea which was good but would fit on 2 pages.

I've actually been in the strategy meetings depicted in that comic.

Person 1: "We send the first to Journal X, then next Journal Y, .."
Person 2: "No, no a likely referee of Journal Y has a grad student who's doing Z, that wont work."
...
9.17.2009 8:56pm
Joe Triscari (mail):
A. Zarkov: Apologies for getting your name wrong.
9.17.2009 8:58pm
Ben P:

Bad news. With rare exception, genuine advances on the frontier can't be explained at the 9th grade level, whatever your verbal skills. At least, not without gutting your explanation of any serious accuracy and reducing it to cartoons and metaphors.

I'm curious where you get this assumption that they usually (as opposed to occasionally) can be. Do you also feel that you could teach calculus to a two-year-old, if you only had top-notch toddler language skills?


Yes, if you have sufficient imagination. With the caveat that teaching calculus to the two year old is not the same as explaining calculus to the two year old.

A ninth grade level doesn't mean everything a ninth grader would know, it means using "ninth grade level english."

If you can't explain a concept using ninth grade level English, you're not doing a very good job. You don't have to actually explain calculus to explain how scientists modeled X or Y, and probably even less so to merely explain somthing without getting it horrifically wrong.
9.17.2009 10:04pm
arbitraryaardvark (mail) (www):
Some readers here might be unfamiliar with SMBC.
Put your cursor over the red dot bottom left for extra snark.
9.18.2009 2:35am
mrcausality:
HoustonLawyer:

Few scientists have the verbal skills to explain what they do on a 9th grade level.

How do you reach that conclusion? There is no dearth of scientists that make serious and successful attempts to illuminate the lay public through the writing of popular science materials (Gould, Kaku, Hawking, Penrose, to name a few). These books are typically fluff, but their intent is not to train someone but rather to gain some appreciation for a particular field or science. Some of these scientists bother me at the professional/substance level, but it would be difficult to doubt their ability to effectively communicate verbally (aside from Hawking's obvious physical incapacity).

These individuals are by no mean extraordinary instances. Like most academic fields, there is always a contingency of practitioners incapable of clear verbal discussion. I would suspect that the field of law is no different.
9.18.2009 9:37am
Soronel Haetir (mail):

Do you also feel that you could teach calculus to a two-year-old,


Two year old seems doubtful, though I have succeeded at teaching differential calculus to an eight year old to the point he was able to determine the velocity the rim of a spool as material was unwound at a constant rate. There are lots of differentials that are easy to provide concrete examples for.
9.19.2009 11:49am

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