Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Why Can't Science Journalists Just Tell It Like It Is?

While I may not entirely agree with this article, it is nevertheless a very entertaining read. The article in chastised many journalists covering the LHC for overextending the "color commentary" about the LHC. The author cited several prominent newspapers that were guilty of using prose that really did not convey the content, but rather paid more attention to style in trying to grab an audience.

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. Such language gives science a flavor of the mystic and inaccessible, which is exactly the opposite of what it is: messy, full of false starts and wrong ideas, but ultimately committed to making the universe more coherent.

The author also said this at the end:

On the whole, the best writing about physics for a general audience seems to come from physicists, not journalists. This isn't due to the fact that physicists understand the subject matter better—if anything, people who spend all day in the lab are often the worst at explaining the big picture. Rather, they're better at writing about physics because they don't try so hard to make you care. They don't believe their readers must be seduced with colorful wordplay or end-of-the-world melodramas. 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.

While in general, I tend to agree with all this, I'm of two minds with regards to this as well. I think communicating, as accurately as possible, the idea is the most important thing we can do. To do this, we must be able to convey the idea in a manner that is understandable to the audience we are talking to. So this is the substance.

However, the public often are more "seduced" by the style. For a scientist, he/she must start to realize this because there have been way too many instances where science was defeated by style without any substance. So we DO have to try harder to make people care, and the politicians to care, because if not, we end up in this situation where the importance of science has taken the back seat, and so has the funding.

One thing that this article did do is to prove my point that science cannot be done in the popular media.


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