How mammoth cloning became fake news
John Hawks

Amazing article, John Hawks.

I agree with most of your nicely laid out arguments and conclusion; journalists covering science need to be solid on the facts. All too often, in an attempt to generate more clicks, the prospect of some new research gets over-hyped to the point of it being so inaccurate that it is fake news.

As a science communicator, I know that it can be very frustrating for a non-expert consumer to hear a scientists rattle down all the caveats, and I do believe that for telling a good, compelling story, this is not always necessary and can be quite detrimental. However, by omitting most caveats, it falls to the duty of the journalist who writes the story to keep it as accurate and intention-true as possible, even if it means forfaiting tools of engagement like sensationalism.

It is hard to avoid the big negative incentive of sensationalism, for as long as people prefer to click on crazy headlines, journalist have to provide these.

I am by no means an expert in journalism, but what I have learned from my personal engagement with science communication is that a catchy inaccurate headline does give you more interactions/readers than a boring accurate one.

However, what I would urge all science journalists to do is not to continue with sensationalistic claims and fantastic utopian stories, but just dive a little bit deeper into the science and let people experience for themselves the wonder of what these findings could mean for the future. Give the readers the tools to understand the science, and don’t preclude their intellectual journey and inherent creativity by offering bleak and overstated conclusions.

Science communication is about the idea, about inspiration as much as transpiration, and by bombarding the readers with pre-made conclusions, instead of the actual facts, you cheat them out of the great sense of wonder and intellectual curiosity so inherently important to the scientific nature.

For the mammut story, don’t conclude that we’ll de-extinct them within two years, explain that our understanding of genetics is so advanced today that we moved a task (like cloning an extinct species back to life) from impossible to barely possible. Explain the quest of a researcher like George Church (and many of his colleagues!!!!), who spend many decades of their lives to understand genetics, to finally reach a point where he can see a clear roadmap to revive mammuts in the future again. Cover the facts and give tools to empower inspiration.

And as always, be aware of the meta-dynamics of new discoveries;

  • every new technology is always overhyped in the short run
  • fails to meet expectations and thus is subsequently discarded as hyperbole/fantasy
  • but effectively changing the world in the long run

We saw this behavior with the internet (and subsequent bubble burst), artificial intelligence (and subsequent AI winter), cloning (and subsequent vanishing from public ethics concerns). We see it right now with CRISPR-Cas genome editing (although the hype is still growing, some cooling is already there) and about every other major game changer.

If we cover new research better, people will not lose their trust in science so easily when things don’t live up to the initial hype.

If one thing is important for prosperity in this day and age, it is our trust in empirical evidence and science.

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