Monthly Archives: August 2014

The Inevitable Fall of Science Journalism

Know what? I’m saying this as a former science journalist. Science journalism, for the public, needs to take a bow and get off the stage. It can’t be done right. Here’s why.

Point one. The majority of science papers are not just sophisticated, they really are boring. Extremely boring. It takes a long sequence of studies and a gauntlet of peer review to prove anything interesting.

Point two. They have a language of their own, not simply limited to the nature of the paper, but to the field. A physicist with no training in biology cannot read a biology paper. This is what field journals are for. It takes years to develop a proficiency in a field, often not just in reading papers but in practicing the subject.

Point three. Journalism is about appealing to a mass audience, and there’s nothing innately wrong with that. However, when a science writer is straining to come up with a front-page story, and happens to notice a few buzz words he can keep on hand whilst whittling the report down to a sixth-grade level (sometimes seventh or eighth for some papers), he creates a report that provides undue emphasis on on either minor, or largely inaccurate, findings. Thus, urban legends are born, and they steal time from real issues that these media outlets are more than prepared enough to cover.

This leads to other awful things like the fabled “evil liberal science conspiracy”, where the inability of an average and untrained man to understand the terminology used in a scientific field is misconstrued as scientists lying to them.

You know what? You don’t even need college anymore. There are numerous MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses) on the internet, from accredited universities, available for free to anyone who will take them. If you want to keep up, great! I applaud you! Join one of those forums, watch the videos, read the material, do the labs and the homework, get the language. and MIT’s Open Courseware are two perfect places to start, so seriously, go for it. But don’t trust the “science” section in your local paper.

You can only “dumb it down” so much before it becomes a sensationalist lie. Click counts or no.

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Posted by on August 6, 2014 in State of the Moment


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