Journalists vs Scientists: summarised by an animated GIF



Some context: To advertise the collaborative-editing capabilities of Google Drive, Google ran a campaign two years ago using the Hall & Oates song Maneater, featuring the eponymous musicians simultaneously using a Google Docs file to come up with lyrics to the hit. They also gave us the “Gone Google Story Builder” tool, allowing anyone to make a short clip of their own in similar fashion.

Shortly after the discovery of a new type of particle that we now believe is a Higgs boson, I made the above clip to illustrate the difficulties of communicating science, highlighting the differences between scientists’ need for 100% accuracy and journalists’ need to tell a compelling and understandable story. I shared a link with my friends on Facebook to lukewarm response and forgot all about it.

Today, while going through my Facebook profile looking for something else, I came across the link to the original clip and decided (as you do, these days) to make an animated GIF of it and share it on Google+, a social network that has supported such files for quite some time. I was a little surprised by the reaction. As of writing this entry, the post on Google+ has 53 +1s and 77 re-shares, and has been seen over 27,000 times. That is by far the most successful thing I have ever posted on Google+.

A few people, though, missed my point.

Peter Smalley, for example, said, “This is exactly how media sources get science wrong – except usually scientists don’t get to be involved at all.”

That’s not what I was going for at all. The point isn’t that journalists get science wrong (I’m not saying they don’t), it’s that those on the other side of the fence are rarely receptive to their needs. Scientists regularly give the journalists what they assume will be sufficient: objective facts. This is usually accompanied by an insistence that the wording of the journalistic piece reflect the terminology and caveats that are present in the scientific publication. I’ve also found scientists reacting with shock when journalists ask them questions that seem simple or basic, not accounting for the fact that journalists have to cover a wide range of topics and don’t typically have the luxury of writing about just the field of the scientist in question.

I thought I should clarify that my sympathies, in this case, lie with the journalists!

I welcome your feedback.

  • Alex Brown

    It’s a tricky one, indeed.

    As with a lot of these kinds of discussions, part of the problem lies in lumping together “all scientists” and “all media”. I like Ed Yong’s take on journos “versus” scientists in diagram form:

  • dusanmal

    And, sometimes, scientists and media are together. Than, we need to worry.
    CERN director announces ban on interpretation of certain data because it is “controversial”.
    Scientists: ” ”
    Media: ” ”
    Galileo, Copernicus, … turn in their graves.

    • Can you please give me a concrete example of this? Since you mentioned CERN…

  • Dave J. Doyle

    Journalist (and science graduate) here.

    This made me laugh. I was a bit miffed at what I inferred as the “aren’t journalists stupid” message, until I read the post. Thank you for understanding, Achintya!

    • Thanks, Dave. I’m a freelance journalist myself, although now thoroughly embedded in the particle-physics community, so I’ve seen both sides of the issue.

      • I’d argue that even “CERN discovers God particle!” is acceptable, as long as the next few pars explain the attention-grabbing headline.

        I think problems arise when journalists don’t temper their enthusiasm with a bit of healthy scepticism, as any decent scientist would. That’s how you end up offering false hope or scaremongering.

      • The term “God particle” is never acceptable. ;)

      • Why so? It’s catchy and evocative; so long as you’re not implying that this particle corroborates creationism, I think you’re all right.

        If it’s made clear that the ‘God particle’ name is a physicists’ in-joke, then the headline becomes a sort of self-aware dig at media hype.

        How about “CERN discovers ‘God particle'”?

      • That’s the thing, it’s not an in-joke. Ask any CERN physicist, chances are they’ll tell you they hate the term.

        There’s a lot of misunderstanding with that term and it’s best if it’s not used.

      • Take that up with Dr Lederman!

        I’d stand by my last point, though. What’s the harm, apart from pissing off a few scientists?

      • Also, given Dr Hawking’s recent comments about catastrophic vacuum decay and the end of the universe, it seems even more apt.

      • It’s not about pissing off a few scientists, it’s about using an intentionally inflammatory(?) term that the scientists involved in the research have distanced themselves from.

        And re. Hawking: