Science Journalism: colorful prose or actual science?

I’ve been accused of bagging on science journalists.  I’ve had my beef before (here and here).  When I bring up how often science journalists fail to get the science right or fail to frame the science correctly, I usually get one of two responses: 1) Scientists can’t write for the lay public, so shut up loser; and 2) People don’t really care about the science, they just want to read about pretty and interesting things.

Chris Wilson has a great article up on Slate, “Why can’t science journalists just tell it like it is when it comes to particle physics?”  Arguably, particle physics could be replaced with any scientific field, but given the press that the LHC has been receiving this is as good as any field to pick on.  The basic thesis of Wilson’s argument is thus:

The color provided by this sort of extravagant prose comes at a cost. It may make for a richer read, but to decorate the science with ornate wordplay has a way of obscuring the very ideas those words are supposed to highlight.

I particularly like this ender:

On the whole, the best writing about physics for a general audience seems to come from physicists, not journalists. […] Journalists writing popular treatments of subatomic physics could take a lesson from the scientists: Tell it straight and have a little faith that the subject matter itself—a major advance in our understanding of the cosmos—can generate its own wonder and excitement.

What do you think? Go read it!

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Dave Semeniuk spends hours locked up in his office, thinking about the role the oceans play in controlling global climate, and unique ways of studying it. He'd also like to shamelessly plug his art practice: davidsemeniuk.com

2 Responses to “Science Journalism: colorful prose or actual science?”

  1. Matthew Regan

    No matter how colourful the verbiage, it doesn’t always dilute the actual meaning of the data in question. Sure, in some cases it does, and that’s bad. But the misrepresentation of scientific data in the popular press is normally the result of the writers themselves, not the ornate language they use. The reason this language is employed in the first place is to pique the collective interest of as large a group of people as possible, and this opens a much larger can of monkeys – that is, how to get people interested in science. Science journalism is one manner of doing so, and it is flawed for a variety of reasons (albeit, reasons generally only perceivable to the scientists themselves; ie, the converted). But its targeted demographic is, by and large, composed of those that will not likely have much resonance on the future of science. So who cares? Perhaps we should instead focus our collective contempt on the current state of scientific education as portraying science as ‘hard’ and only for the very smart kids, an idea which inadvertently closes doors to many would-be scientists who may well have gone on to have happy, successful careers with any amount of potential influence in their respective fields.

  2. Katie

    Maybe the best writing about physics comes from physicists simply because they are physicists. It is easy to design solid analogies about concepts that you are very familiar with and have a firm understanding of.

    However, is it really unreasonable that a journalist, without a background knowledge of even basic physics (or any scientific discourse), might end up conveying a little bit of the mystery they feel when faced with understanding the way the universe works? Being continuously surrounded by people in your own field often lets you to forget that there are people in the world whose minds don’t necessarily process the workings of the world with the same logic. Is it really a bad thing that journalists convey the kind of ‘myteriousness’ they feel when dealing with science when the majority of the world may feel the same?

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