Science should not be part of the 24 hour news cycle
Quality science publications you can read instead
All of us have been endowed with the power to think. […] I believe that our ability to think may be this greater power and each of us may be participating in an evolution of thought that may transcend infinity and beauty. The learning may never be over. This cannot be a boring nor a finite adventure. I believe we’ve only tasted the satisfaction of this miracle. So keep your thoughts and words coming —
We need you.
The above is from a letter written by Willis M Hawkins, an engineer and pilot who had been working for Lockheed for 58 years, to LA Times columnist Jack Smith. I saw it exhibited at the Huntington Library in 2011 as part of “Blue Sky Metropolis: The Aerospace Century in Southern California.” (Originally included in my Berkeley Science Review post, “Why Be A Scientist”).
The words have stuck with me since, especially the idea that we are all participating in the evolution of human thought. It is with this in mind that I consider science news, and how the quality of the news we choose to read affects our ability to participate.
The corruption of science by the 24 hour news cycle
I think we can all agree that most media outlets adhering to the 24 hour news cycle fail to put news into context. Worse yet, these brief reports tend to be written as click bait, with egregiously misleading titles that are regurgitated through amplifying (and often distorting) media outlets and social media accounts like a game of telephone you didn’t realize you were playing. By the end of the line, the information is so corrupted that no morsel of truth remains, and we are intellectually starved.
Science news is meaningless in the absence of context. How does this discovery build upon or challenge what was understood before, and how will it affect the future direction of inquiry? How many scientists have worked on this question, and are currently working on it? Are there other research groups with competing ideas about what is going on?
Without understanding that the reported discovery is but one step in many steps toward something approaching truth, the reader is being terribly misled. That matters because it sets up a false expectation, and we all know how well people handle it when their expectations aren’t met. We experience the adult version of a tantrum — stress and anger. We lose our trust in the thing causing inner turmoil.
This is a critical point for health related science news. Research pointing to a new factor that increases the likelihood of autism does not mean autism will soon be cured, for example. Presenting the research as getting close to a cure contributes to public distrust in science. Animal based research that reveals a better understanding of disease is the first step toward developing a working therapy in humans, not the final step. Unfortunately these studies are often reported as though they are going to lead to new treatment options. Maybe they will someday. More typically, these foundational studies are not immediately translated into a cure, but they do help us understand animal biology and disease pathology, and that is important in itself.
While the significance, and especially medical significance, of research is often overstated, the scale of effort is often understated. Without understanding that there is a whole community of research groups working on the same or similar questions, the reader imagines that a single lab or individual has figured it out. That matters because then they will never understand why the scientific process requires so much funding. It is important to accurately convey the scale of effort being made.
Truly appreciating the scale of effort requires historical context. How long have scientists been researching this question? What developments along the way made it possible for this particular group to do the experiments that nudged our understanding forward?
In short, the scientific process never ends. Sure, there are the rare ‘Eureka!’ moments, but they inevitably lead to more questions. To represent scientific research accurately, science news must take that into account.
The 24 hour news cycle, which allows little room for proper reporting and exploration of the context of a particular discovery, is thus a poor medium for science news. My suggestion? Don’t even look at it. Don’t click on it. Don’t share it. Don’t waste your time.
Quality science news publications
Thankfully, others have recognized this problem and done something about it, so you have better options to turn to for science news. Below are my top three recommendations. If you have others, please list them in the comments.
Quanta Magazine — Illuminating Science
Quanta covers research in mathematics, theoretical physics, theoretical computer science, and life sciences. This is my favorite publication because of the topics and great writing. I especially enjoy the articles on interdisciplinary research, pulling from two or more of their chosen fields. Quanta has mastered the art of explaining science in a way that is accurate, understandable, and engaging. I think this the best fit for those of you with a science education and research background. I am curious what those without a science background think of it. If that is you, please read an article or two and let me know your thoughts in the comments.
Nautilus: Science Connected
Each month Nautilus explores a single theme from scientific, philosophical, and cultural perspectives. For example, they have had issues on Uncertainty, Consciousness, Boundaries, and Systems. They lean heavily on narrative storytelling to convey big ideas, inspiring curiosity and provoking questions in the mind of the reader, which is no small feat. I recently discovered this magazine through their publication on Medium, and have ordered a one year subscription to the print version of the magazine because it looks so beautiful.
Mosaic uses long form journalism to dive deep into scientific topics. If you are interested in the tangible ways that science may affect you as a human being, this publication is for you. I personally prefer Quanta and Nautilus because of their focus on ideas and the larger context of science, but for those who care more about practical outcomes, Mosaic may be just right. They also repost content to Medium if you prefer to view it here.
Best traditional news organization for science news
During my years as a communications specialist for Berkeley Neuroscience, there were a number of times when a discovery from one of our faculty was picked up by traditional news outlets. In my opinion, one publication stood out above the rest for their quality journalism and ability to put the discovery into a larger context. The Wall Street Journal. I hereby deem it the winner and will now subscribe for the next year. Done.
Room for a more personal approach?
I love science writing with personality. My favorite author is Mary Roach because she lets herself —her intrinsic curiosities, fixation on the gross and weird, and quirky humor — be part of the story. Overall, science writing takes itself too seriously, and Roach is a refreshing alternative. Her books are fun to read and you learn a lot along the way.
Similarly, I enjoy reading science news through blogs because I like to get a sense of the person telling me information. This is very different from journalism, where the author’s voice is supposed to disappear in service to unbiased reporting.
Screw that. Bring on the bias! I want to know the author’s opinion. Strong opinions wake me up and make me question and verbalize my own beliefs. I also enjoy open questions, and an open forum for discussion of those questions. Blogging is a good place for that.
That said, I have found no science themed blogs that have as much personality as Mary Roach. I have found some social media accounts, but no blogs, perhaps because it is harder to find individuals than publications. If you know of any, please share in the comments. In the meantime, I will continue to develop my own voice, in the hope that I may one day be as enjoyable and informative to read as Roach (in my own genuine way of course).
Edit (Jan 17, 2019): I thought of one! Neuroskeptic. Of course, how could I have forgotten. They combine description of the technical details of fMRI experiments with personality and strong opinions. Someone needed to do it. Media descriptions of human fMRI results are the biggest offenders, corrupting information and overstating significance. I know there must be more, please do share.
Thanks for reading
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