Framing Science

It started this morning with the front page story at the NY Times. Tellingly, the article wasn’t hooked around Darwinius masillae as a historic scientific breakthrough but rather as a novel ramping up in communication strategy for science. Now across the blogosphere, the tag of hype has caught on to Darwinius masillae, just notice these google results.

It’s difficult to find fault with the criticism given that the architects of the media blitz are using trigger words like “missing link,” “the eighth wonder of the world,” and “an asteroid falling down to Earth” in the world of Paleontology. Just take a look at this Sky TV report linked to by Drudge, who headlined the discovery for most of the day.

One important thing: Already I am noticing an all too common tendency among science bloggers to blame the media and journalists for the hype. Sorry guys. If the “hype” label is accurate, this one started with the scientific team and the sponsoring organizations, who supplied the language, the imagery, and the roll out.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the innovative strategy, it’s just that as I blogged earlier today, it might not be appropriately used around a single study, and best applied to a body of knowledge and scientific subject generally. Indeed, in this case, the strategy might be larger than the science.

For more on the hype angle, see Charlie Petit at Knight Science Tracker and Curtis Brainard at the Columbia Journalism Review. [Daniel Boorstein might go so far to call this a pseudo-event.]

Comments

  1. #1 Sigmund
    May 19, 2009

    The marketing strategy (and that is about the best way I can put it) for this fossil seems tied to a particularly US based view of evolution as distinct from a general scientific view. The US view is tied up with the notion of proving the theory of evolution, filling in the gaps in the fossil record with the ‘missing links’ and finding our ancestors. It has implicitly recognizes and seeks to counter the challenges of the creationist lobby.
    In the rest of the world this lobby does not exist to anywhere near that extent and so a more measured approach can be taken.

  2. #2 Randy Olson
    May 20, 2009

    “Accurate but unpopular,” or “inaccurate but popular,” that is the question facing the communication of science these days. In my upcoming book (yes, I know, cheap plug, sorry, coming in August from Island Press), in my chapter on storytelling I examine the two global warming movies of 2006 that were both produced by Laurie David. Her movie, “Too Hot Not To Handle,” on HBO was accurate but hardly anybody saw it. Her other movie, “An Inconvenient Truth,” scored over $50 million at the box office, but was rife with flaws and errors. This is the central dilemma that will continue to challenge major science communication efforts. It’s looking like this Ida group opted in the direction of “popular but inaccurate” a little bit with the implication that we are direct descendants of this fossil, making for a stronger media story. The question is what is the threshold for the science world on the inaccuracy side. Most of us would like it to be zero. Is that attainable?

  3. #3 Karen James
    May 20, 2009

    Matt:

    Already I am noticing an all too common tendency among science bloggers to blame the media and journalists for the hype. Sorry guys. If the “hype” label is accurate, this one started with the scientific team and the sponsoring organizations, who supplied the language, the imagery, and the roll out.

    I agree that, at least in this case, much of the blame for the hype lies with the scientists, but based on the blog posts I’ve read today, I have to disagree that the science bloggers are not acknowledging this.

    Randy:

    Nice distillation, though I’m not entirely convinced that “accurate and popular” is unattainable. Are you by any chance coming to the science journalism conference in London? This would be a great venue to discuss such things..