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Viewpoint: The boring and the bombastic

BY BARRY BELMONT

Published February 19, 2013

Continual scientific progress is one of the few things that we can count on in this world. With millions of researchers conducting millions of experiments every year to probe every niche this universe has to offer, we are close to certain that every day we will know just a little bit more about ourselves and our world. Every step made by a researcher may not be in the right direction, but it invariably contributes to science’s ceaseless march forward into the unknown. The work of science is some of the best work that human beings have ever taken up. And yet the journalism describing it is often misguided, overly ambitious or erroneous.

From my experience, the vast bulk of writing on science can take one of two approaches: the boring and the bombastic. Most popular publications let us leave aside the boring for now and focus on the bombastic. Rarely a week goes by without seeing a news outlet declaring some major advance in scientific knowledge that will revolutionize humanity in some way or another. Cures for cancer, new energy sources and genes of all sorts — this is fodder for contemporary science journalism, grist for the 24-hour news cycle milling out content as fast as it can. The journalistic apparatus we have to work with is a great machine for getting facts out, but given the noise from the constant hum of news, if anything is to be heard — such as a great discovery by scientists — the signal must be amplified.

This amplification lies at the heart of the disconnect between science and writing about science, though there are a few overlapping qualities between the fields of science and journalism: curiosity, attempted objectivity and the search for answers. They operate on vastly different time scales and seek vastly different ends. Where scientific writing requires immense context to be understood, journalistic writing should be understood at first glance. The journalistic formula relying on bold, concise headlines and a skeletal structure fleshed out with handpicked quotes doesn’t effectively communicate the scientific enterprise. If a headline in a newspaper read, “Bomb blast in Afghanistan kills dozens,” we would all readily understand it. The significance of something like, “Largest known prime number found,” is harder to assess. This speaks to the chasm between the public’s and the scientists’ understandings of science.

That second approach to scientific writing is partly to blame. It’s boring. Not only that, but leafing through nearly any scientific journal will serve to convince just about anyone that the material is thoroughly unintelligible to the uninitiated. Worse yet, the language scientists use to write to other scientists is often barren, tedious and dreary. Rare is the occasion that one finishes reading a scientific publication with the same excitement with which one began.

There are several reasons for this situation. Partly it’s from the fact that researchers chose to be scientists, not writers, partly because scientists often merely catalogue and report their findings — a rarely inspired form of writing — and partly because there’s an unspoken convention that being too dry is better than personalizing one’s prose. If journalists had to explore journals to get scientific stories, there would be far fewer scientific stories than there already are.

Thus, the rise of the scientific press release. Straddled uncomfortably between the boring and the bombastic, the scientific press release has to express often quite humdrum research in a rousing way in order for it to get published. Unfortunately, this frequently leads to overstated conclusions and deemphasized methodologies, while skirting aspects of peer review and validation. Much of the noise in scientific journalism — that is, much of the confusion among lay readers — comes from the clangs of press releases falling through the press’s echo chambers.

How we express information can be nearly as important as the information we express — the signal matters only if it is sufficiently larger than the noise. The information that scientific enterprises have given us is among the most important we could have. We know where we’ve come from, what we’re made of and how we relate to the entirety of the cosmos because people have sought evidence, created theories and shared what they learned with others. If we are to understand further frontiers, we cannot be afraid to take a moment to assess our situation and discuss it clearly with those around us, be it the bounds of science or the limits of writing about science. If our march forward is to be certain, it helps for us to be as surefooted as we can.

Barry Belmont is an Engineering graduate student.


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