Scientists are very good at what they do. Not only is the effort they invest in everything under-appreciated (since most of us non-scientists can only begin to imagine how much time one research paper takes), but so too is their wealth of jargon. Popular science exists so as to not exclude those of us who don’t know the difference between isotopes in Chemistry and the Isotopes baseball team in The Simpsons.
Some notable pop science writers are obvious and can be plucked right off the top of your head – Bill Nye the Science Guy and Neil deGrasse Tyson have become internet darlings, Patrick Moore found crossover appeal thanks to his astronomy intelligence in the 90s videogame show Gamesmaster, Steve Irwin was mostly known for doing outrageously dangerous things with animals, and David Attenborough is one of the few things about Britain which makes everyone – no exceptions – proud.
We owe a lot to them for making science more appealing, entertaining, and altogether more accessible. These figures, and many more, have made people interested in everything from the natural world to the outer limits of the galaxy thanks to them extending their hand across the scientist and non-scientist barrier.
The structure of these pop science articles compared to the original scientific publication is significant. Where the original is written clinically and without any real need for a narrative, the pop science version often introduces a protagonist, or an adventure scenario, or an act-structure which leads up to a reveal, or more colourful language that heightens the excitement. None of this exists in academia – in fact, the abstract tells you everything contained in the paper, which is like picking up the Sixth Sense’s DVD case only for it to tell you Bruce Willis is dead the whole time.
This difference leads to things getting a little silly sometimes. A scientific paper from 1980 by David Crews and Kevin T. Fitzgerald called “‘Sexual’ behavior in parthenogenetic lizards (Cnemidophorus)” was later summed up in Time magazine under the headline “Leapin’ Lizards: Lesbian reptiles act like males”. Time‘s story-like article is still informative, but it is made for those who wouldn’t know where to start when it comes to pronouncing cnemidophorus.
Sometimes it gets beyond silly into downright misleading. Huffington Post’s “A Glass of Red Wine is the Equivalent to an Hour at the Gym, Says New Study” headline sounds exciting and will have most people reaching for the merlot, but once you read it, it doesn’t actually mention red wine. What it does say is that resveratrol, which is found in red wine, is beneficial to your health. The article has a small disclaimer saying that everything in moderation is important, it only applies to red wine, and the original study was carried out on rats, not humans.
While a disclaimer is appreciated, this doesn’t even come close. Jason Dyck, the scientist, and presumably angry person who never gets listened to, behind the findings that are being reported on had to give an interview pointing out just how wrong this is. He says no red wine was used in the study, but does concede that resveratrol was found to be good for you.
But, for it to be effective, it has to be used like a performance-enhancer. The science only works if you do the opposite of what the original headline says and that means, yes, you still have to go to the gym. Not only that but the amount of resveratrol found in red wine is so small that, to drink the equivalent used in the study, you would need to drink anywhere from a hundred to a thousand bottles a day. I’m not a scientist, but that does not fall within my definition of “everything in moderation.”
And how else is pop science journalism failing us? That Huffington Post article was published after Dyck’s interview. An eye-catching headline that is almost too good to be true is both clickbait and absolutely too good to be true. The clicks are more important than reporting facts and are a stain to journalism. The Huffington Post article is a rehash of identical clickbait stories from years before when the paper was first published – which leaves it tough to be anything other than cynical when approaching pop science. The headline comes at the expense of the author’s agency and hard work, and the truth.
On behalf of everyone whose closest encounter with becoming a scientist was watching The Martian and thinking “oh I’d love to do something like that” for the following 48 hours – we need pop science, so don’t lie to us. We appreciate the fun little story, we get lost in the flowery language that gives everything a dramatic flair, we love a protagonist who discovers something and becomes a big deal in their field.
We don’t appreciate being lied to and patronised.
[Scott Wilson – @HeartofFire]
Image of Neil DeGrasse Tyson, from parade.com