The bad habits of science journalists

© iStockphoto.com/Christine Glade

© iStockphoto.com/Christine Glade

Adam Ruben is a practicing scientist with a bone to pick over science writing in the popular press. He lets it rip on AAAS's Science Careers site: "Mainstream science articles have become formulaic. And it’s never more obvious than, say, when you read an article about a bold new advance that promises to cure something or fix something or spell certain doom — and then you realize you’re reading an article that’s 20 years old and none of those things happened."

It may be satire, but is it constructive? I don't see what I am supposed to take from this article. I'm stealing a definition from Wikipedia (I know, I know, but it's just a quick definition): "In satire, vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, and society itself, into improvement." I'm specifically looking at the "into improvement" part of the shaming. I thought the point of satire was to instigate improvement.

If, as Ruben says, "mainstream science articles have become formulaic," then what is the improvement to be made? The only thing somewhat like this I see is the final paragraph:

"For this reason, I hereby say to all science reporters: If you ever come to interview me about my research and find any part of it mundane, write it that way. If the implications you want to tack onto my work are far-fetched, don’t write them. If what I do fails to generate legitimate controversy, maybe it just isn’t that controversial. You may not win any prizes for science writing, but rest assured that your friends and relatives have never heard of those prizes anyway, so who are you trying to impress?"

So I would like to know, if the research is mundane, why are we writing about it? I'm not saying that Ruben's points are wrong (over-projected results, for example) but I would seriously like to know...what do you do when you interview a scientist and their work is mundane, there are no interesting implications, and no controversy? Do you even have a story?

This may be the most cynical smear job on science communication I've ever seen. Hyperbole is a useful satirical tool, but the tar-laden brush used here obscures the bright spots in science reporting. Yes, a lot of science writing is formulaic and even wrong, as is science. A lot of it is not, and I believe that there's a lot more interesting stuff to talk about than either scientists or reporters realize. There's a good, engaging story to found almost everywhere, if you know how to look and translate.

It's a shame Ruben's piece appeared in Science, where it will garner attention. Unfortunately, I imagine plenty of scientists nodding their heads and smiling smugly. They are a major part of the problem.

So a lot of writers get these things wrong. I'd argue that at least as much scientific literature is junk (poorly done, wrong) as appears in the popular press. But there is an opportunity to get translation right, and many writers do that. With his attitude, I don't think Dr. Ruben has to worry about having to deal with reporters any time soon. Come to think about it, maybe that's why he published this.