Diagnosing science reporting

3 minute read

The Guardian is running a great editorial about why (and how) science reporting is bad:

OK, here's something weird. Every week in Bad Science we either victimise some barking pseudoscientific quack, or a big science story in a national newspaper. Now, tell me, why are these two groups even being mentioned in the same breath? Why is science in the media so often pointless, simplistic, boring, or just plain wrong? Like a proper little Darwin, I've been collecting specimens, making careful observations, and now I'm ready to present my theory.
It is my hypothesis that in their choice of stories, and the way they cover them, the media create a parody of science, for their own means. They then attack this parody as if they were critiquing science. This week we take the gloves off and do some serious typing.
Science stories usually fall into three families: wacky stories, scare stories and "breakthrough" stories.

They have some apt examples from non-paleoanthropology sciences, but it is easy to think of examples of each kind in paleoanthropology as well:

  • Wacky story: Metrosexual Neandertals, anyone? Generally, most stories about Neandertals fit in this category. People just love hearing the name. That's one reason the "Neandertal tuba" made such headway -- people are just used to hearing weird things about them. Unless it's the "first ever" something (like the "first ever" evidence Neandertals and modern humans overlapped), in which case it is usually billed as a "breakthrough".
  • Scare story: These are actually more rare in paleoanthropology -- it's hard to really be afraid that Neandertals are going to come get you. But I think all those "Pleistocene bottleneck" stories really fall into this category: humans were endangered in the past, and we could be endangered again if climate catastrophe X happens, whether it is another Toba supervolcano, another ice age, global warming, megavirus, or whatever. Lots of guilt stories in this vein also, like "we killed all the mammoths, and now we're killing the elephants." Pretty much any paleoanthropology that works by analogy to the present is filling the role of a scare story.
  • Breakthrough story: How many times have you heard it: "This discovery challenges all previous theories..."? Pretty much every new discovery fits in this category. Especially if it reveals how human evolution was a bush and not a ladder. Or if someone calls it "the last nail in the coffin" of something. That's never a good sign of honesty.

In the editorial's opinion, the main problem with science reporting is that it is too dumbed down:

Why? Because papers think you won't understand the "science bit", all stories involving science must be dumbed down, leaving pieces without enough content to stimulate the only people who are actually going to read them - that is, the people who know a bit about science. Compare this with the book review section, in any newspaper. The more obscure references to Russian novelists and French philosophers you can bang in, the better writer everyone thinks you are. Nobody dumbs down the finance pages. Imagine the fuss if I tried to stick the word "biophoton" on a science page without explaining what it meant. I can tell you, it would never get past the subs or the section editor. But use it on a complementary medicine page, incorrectly, and it sails through.

The editorial also discusses the problems of questionable authority figures, poor statistical understanding, and insufficient information. But the bottom line is one with which I whole-heartedly agree:

For many months I had a good spirited row with an eminent science journalist, who kept telling me that scientists needed to face up to the fact that they had to get better at communicating to a lay audience. She is a humanities graduate. "Since you describe yourself as a science communicator," I would invariably say, to the sound of derisory laughter: "isn't that your job?" But no, for there is a popular and grand idea about, that scientific ignorance is a useful tool: if even they can understand it, they think to themselves, the reader will. What kind of a communicator does that make you?

Write more. Write better.