Monday, 9 March 2015

Scientist, heal thyself

An interesting blog post was brought to my attention in something written by Sabine Hossenfelder, a physics professor who has a real passion for the better communication of science. 

She picked out a passage in the blog, commenting 'spot on':
Sciencey headlines are pre-packaged cultural tokens that can be shared and reshared without any investment in analysis or critical thought — as if they were sports scores or fashion photos or poetry quotes — to reinforce one’s aesthetic self-identification as a “science lover.” One’s actual interest doesn’t have to extend beyond the headline itself.
I must admit, I find that paragraph hard to understand, and while it may sound correct in isolation (if it means what I think it means), it doesn't work in the context of the rest of the text. The central thesis of the post is that scientists aren't making the outrageous claims. It's partly the fault of science journalists ('overblown science headlines are still a major aspect of the problem') and partly the fault of the ignorant unwashed general public ('many of your friends and relatives — and most likely, even you — are now implicated in this onslaught of misinformation').

However, in my experience, these contortions of the true picture of science largely originate with scientists and with university press offices - not the science journalism community or the public at large. I'm not saying science journalism isn't rife with misinformation that has come from the journalist (often not a science journalist but a health or lifestyle correspondent or similar) - but I'd suggest the biggest sources are back at the universities.

Let me give you two examples.

If I am writing about, say, the big bang, I always make sure I include the proviso that what I am covering is the current best-accepted theory given the data we have right now, but that the picture may change in the future. I have lost count of the number of scientists who write something like 'the universe began around 13.7 billion years ago...' and go onto describe the hot big bang with inflation model as if it were absolute fact.

And then there's the matter of light sabers. (I know it should be 'light sabres', but that's the way they spell it.) Here are some newspaper headlines from 2013: 'Star Wars lightsabers finally invented,' 'Scientists Finally Invent Real, Working Lightsabers,' and  'MIT, Harvard scientists accidentally create real-life lightsaber' were among the dramatic headlines. (I love that use of 'Finally' as if it is about time that those lazy scientists managed to get around to something so trivial.) Silly journalists. Now all the common unwashed people will think that light sabers really exist.

Is this what had happened in the lab? Nope. By using a Bose-Einstein condensate, the scientists had been able to create what they called 'light molecules' - pairs of photons that were temporarily linked together. Interesting, and possibly useful in photonics, but not a light saber by any stretch of the imagination. So how did those wacky science journalists come up with the imaginary light saber image? Did they just make it up? No. One of the scientists involved, Professor Mikhail Lukin of Harvard said: “It’s not an inapt analogy to compare this to light sabers.”

Perhaps, then, the answer is that scientists who like the media spotlight should think twice before coming out with such a remark. And then not do it. But to blame this kind of thing on science journalism (why should the journalist know more than the professor?) or the unwashed public (why shouldn't they find a headline like that worth repeating?) is simply wrong.

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