Journalists Are Amplifiers

A few days ago, Bee put up a post titled Do We Need Science Journalists?, linking back to Bora’s enormous manifesto from the first bit of the Horgan-Johnson bloggingheads kerfuffle. My first reaction was “Oh, God, not again…” but her post did make me think of one thing, which is illustrated by Peter Woit’s latest (no doubt a kerfuffle-in-the-making).

Bee quotes Bora urging bloggers to keep twirling, twirling, twirling toward the better day when scientists communicate to the general public, without all the hype and exaggeration:

Perhaps if we remove those middle-men and have scientists and the public start talking to each other directly, then we will have the two groups start talking to each other openly, honestly and in an informal language that is non-threatening (and understood as such) by all. The two sides can engage and learn from each other. The people who write ignorant, over-hyping articles, the kinds we bloggers love to debunk (by being able to compare to the actual papers because we have the background) are just making the entire business of science communication muddled and wrong.

It’s a lovely thought, but runs into the problem that journalists aren’t making up the “hype” out of whole cloth. They’re getting it from the scientists.

That’s where Woit’s piece comes in. Like most of Peter’s writing about string theory, it’s a little overheated, but his basic point is similar to the sort of thing Bora’s complaining about: the articles he links to make over-hyped claims about what can and can’t be done with the string theory.

The Symmetry article he cites does get off to a bad start, what with the headline “String theory predicts experimental result” and the opening:

One of the biggest criticisms of string theory is that its predictions can’t be tested experimentally-a requirement for any solid scientific idea.

That’s not true anymore.

That’s certainly exaggerated to the point of not being terribly accurate, at least as I understand the situation. A more accurate statement would be that some of the mathematical apparatus of string theory can be applied in very different contexts to predict some of the properties of strongly interacting fluids. It’s not like they’ve modeled the individual lithium atoms in the Duke experiments as vibrating strings, or somehow managed to bootstrap themselves up from the quark scale to ultracold atoms without actually predicting particle properties along the way.

So, the headline and opening paragraphs are exaggerated, or at least give an exaggerated impression of the results. But is this something the journalist in question made up? Not really.

After all, let’s look at the description of the AAAS panel that sparked the whole thing (helpfully quoted in Clifford Johnson’s epic diary of the event (has anybody ever seen Clifford and Bora in the same place?)):

Physicists built the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC), a particle accelerator at Brookhaven National Laboratory, to recreate a form of matter that last existed mere microseconds after the Big Bang. Their aim was to create and probe this predicted gaseous plasma of free quarks and gluons — the most basic constituents of matter — to better understand the forces that hold the universe and everything in it together. What they found was surprising, and much more interesting, attracting the attention of scientists and others outside their field. Instead of behaving like a gas of free quarks and gluons, the matter created at RHIC appears to be more like a liquid. In fact, it’s the most “perfect” liquid ever observed, with virtually no viscosity, or resistance to flow. As it turns out, calculations of the perfect liquid’s viscosity can be derived using methods of string theory, linking RHIC with that theory’s search for extra dimensions of space and time and theoretical black holes. RHIC experiments may even provide ways to test predictions of string theory, which to date has not been possible. In addition, RHIC’s findings of what happens with hot, dense matter help in understanding ultra-cold matter and possibly even high-temperature superconductors and neutron stars.

And then there’s Clifford, quoted in the Symmetry article:

“We’re still very far from getting string theory in good enough shape to really understand all those questions,” he said. “But what is really encouraging is when that tool box you’ve been working on to gear up to understand those questions, when you find a way of making that toolbox useful in some other experiments. That tells you that your tool is a robust tool that may be on the right track. So we haven’t proven that reality is all about string theory or however you want to put it, but we certainly have indeed found a place, it seems, where string theory has been a useful guide and has made been making some modest but sharp and testable predictions in the lab.”

Both of those carefully avoid saying outright that this work proves string theory, so the claim in the first two sentences of the article is, strictly speaking, exaggerated beyond what they said. But this is not a matter of the journalist inventing unreasonable claims due to scientific ignorance so much as the journalist picking up a really obvious hook that was placed right in front of her with a great big sign saying “Grab the Hook!”

(If you want to find an embarrassing display of scientific ignorance in that article, you need to go to the next paragraph, and the description of John Thomas’s experiments at Duke, including the Hall of Shame sentences: “Then they hit the ball of atoms with a carbon-dioxide laser beam. The atoms started banging into each other and quickly evaporated.” Ow. It’s tangential to the main point, and nobody who reads Symmetry will care, but still. Ow, ow, ow, ow, ow.)

It’d be lovely if we had a totally hype-free world of science communication, but it’s hopelessly naive to think that this can be achieved by eliminating professional science journalists from the communications loop. When you find exaggerated claims printed in the science media, more often than not, they’re not too far removed from things said by the scientists themselves.

To paraphrase something said during the framing fracas a year or so ago, anybody who thinks scientists don’t “frame” their work has never written a research grant. Not a successful one, anyway.

Do journalists strip out the occasional critical qualifier, tipping an inflated-but-not-untrue claim over the line? Sure. But I’ve seen very few cases where that made a qualitative change in the claims that were made by the scientists themselves. Media-savvy scientists, I suspect, will even do this deliberately, saying things that walk right up to the line, knowing that reporters writing about the story will take it across for them.

If the goal is to get rid of “hype” and exaggerated claims in mass media, getting rid of journalists won’t get rid of the problem. As long as scientists have to compete to get funding, and justify their funding once they’ve got it, there will be exaggerated claims made about scientific results. Journalists don’t do anything but slightly amplify claims made by the scientists themselves.

Yeah, you could reduce the total amount of exaggeration somewhat by taking journalists out of the loop. I’m not sure that removing the people who best know how to write a compelling news story is a price we ought to be willing to pay, though.

(For the record, Clifford includes the Symmetry article in his collection of links, but doesn’t comment on its contents. He does correct some things in the Physics World article, and again avoids making really strong claims himself.)

Comments

  1. #1 Lethe
    February 19, 2009

    “Do journalists strip out the occasional critical qualifier, tipping an inflated-but-not-untrue claim over the line? Sure. But I’ve seen very few cases where that made a qualitative change in the claims that were made by the scientists themselves.”

    Stripping out the qualifiers constitues a qualitative change, because the statements in question are true with the qualifiers and false without them. Not that the scientists themselves don’t deserve a significant measure of blame for the hyperventilating tone of most of what passes for science journalism, but there is a meaningful difference between a highly positive spin and an outright misrepresentation, and it seems as if science reporters are quite gleeful in their transformations of the former into the latter.

  2. #2 moshe
    February 19, 2009

    I think both media have failure modes, but they are different. I think on blogs you may get distorted view because they are very focused on the viewpoint of one (or a few) specific people, which may not be representative of their community. Blogging is still not very wide spread in academia, at least not from my own very focused vantage point. I would hope that most people reading blogs are aware of that.

    For a dominant failure modes of journalism, look no further than the NYT article about gravity probe B you referred to yesterday. They concentrated on the personal story, made it a very focused and coherent one, along the way forgetting some facts that did not fit in the story they wanted to tell (like the fact that the consensus of the scientific community is that the analysis in question was not worth doing). My impression is that this failure mode, the attempt to tell one simple story, despite everything, will not be even regarded as such by most journalists.

    As for the specifics of your example, I would comment on it, but I decided to go and extract my own wisdom tooth instead. I think that would be much more fun.

  3. #3 Aaron Bergman
    February 19, 2009

    Don’t journalist have a responsibility to, you know, get it right? Would you absolve a political journalist from just making an eensy, teensy lie to make a story more compelling? I’m sorry that science journalists are beset by an indifferent public or ignorant editors or whatever, but their responsibility is to tell the truth. If you drop qualifiers to get a better story, you’re not doing that, and I don’t see why they should be absolved from this primary responsibility.

  4. #4 Jonathan Vos Post
    February 19, 2009

    Very clear-headed, Chad. Well done.

    Decades ago I applied for membership to the NASW — National Association of Science Writers — “Fosters the dissemination of accurate information regarding science through all media normally devoted to informing the public.”

    I cited two of my cover articles in Omni magazine (1979, 1980) and a number of refereed papers and research documents I did on Army, Navy, Air Force, NASA contracts.

    They declined my request, dismissing me as “primarily a technical writer.”

    Silly me, both doing real Science and Engineering on one hand, and writing for an international audience of millions, which venue paid $2,500 for a 1,500 word article, which was BIG money in 1979, I assure you.

    Hence I so adore any successful scientist who takes her or his science journalism seriously. I’ll forgive any sin of Carl Sagan or Margaret Mead, who did the research and wrote bestsellers about it.

    In the topic in question, I’ll stand up for the books and TV adaptations of Stuyvesant High school classmates Brian Greene and Lisa Randall (and can’t wait for her opera). This is deeper than String Theory. It’s about the NARRATIVE of Science, too important to be left up the corporations, universities, and governments who fund the work.

  5. #5 ponderingfool
    February 19, 2009

    Shouldn’t journalists be part of the package of cutting through the BS/ the hype? This appears to be a major problem with journalism for profit as a whole, not enough time/effort being put into cutting through the sell job to get to the facts/heart of the matter (WMDs anyone?). The criticism of science journalism is one that has and continues to be applied to political/financial/etc. journalists as well. Politicians hype all the time. They should be called on it. Journalists that don’t do that aren’t doing their job. That is their role. The same with science journalism. They should be calling hype for what it is. That is just good journalism. A journalist who parrots hype is not a good journalist but rather a part of public relations for whom/whatever they are covering.

    I agree with you without journalists, hype would continue. The the pressures faced and human nature favor it. Science journalism ideally should be part of the counter balancing that effect. That in the long term is in the best interest of science, journalism and the public as a whole.

    Just an aside, hype sometimes is generated by sloppiness as well, not by the original writer nor the scientist but by the “operator/phone tree” effect. The university I am at put out a press release on an article that will be appearing in Nature. It was written to be accessible to the general population without hyping. A newspaper picked up on it but instead of talking with anyone turned the one page press release into one paragraph. In the process they juxtaposed ideas together that weren’t so in the press release which in term hyped the results in manner that was just plain wrong.

  6. #6 Eric Lund
    February 19, 2009

    A case of this kind arose not too long ago in my subfield. A group of scientists published a paper in a Glamour Mag about a leading controversy in the field. The press release trumpeted “Problem Solved!!” That’s what got splashed all over the media (so much so that my mother actually got the news before I did). But when I looked at the paper, the first thing I noticed was the weasel word “likely” in the abstract, and upon reading the body of the paper, I (and as I subsequently learned, several others in our subfield) concluded that the published results were not nearly the slam dunk that the press release made it out to be.

    @ponderingfool: Ideally a science journalist should check the hype, but the problem is that a science journalism cannot be an expert in all fields of science. By the nature of the business, the journalist must be a generalist (who knows nothing about everything) interpreting what the scientists (specialists, who know everything about nothing) tell him. He really doesn’t have the means to fact check everything people are telling him, unlike political reporters, who can (but too often don’t) look at the record and figure out who’s blowing smoke. Also, while a political reporter already has contacts with people representing the other side(s) of any controversy, a science journalist typically doesn’t, because he doesn’t always know who is on the other side of a scientific controversy (most scientists are not in the news). I agree with your point that sometimes the editor is at fault (and this often happens in political journalism, too).

  7. #7 David
    February 19, 2009

    I think part of the problem is misplacing the role of the science journalist in the communication stream. I’ve worked with scientists, technologists and engineers most of my career, and all of them–I say from 15+ yrs experience–generally benefit from having a professional communicator in the mix to unravel complexities in their messages so that they become digestible by non-technical audiences. Seen this way, journalism is essential to effective movement of science from an insular technical arena to the public arena.

    What you said about journalists hyping topics that have already been hyped by scientists is very true. Journalists do not have the corner on exaggeration, and it’s often a “garbage in, garbage out” dynamic that plays out. At the same time, journalists are professionals who are obliged to test the merit of their reporting before it reaches more eyes and ears. Sadly, this is not a responsibility taken to heart by all, but many are very committed to this ethic; it’s really the core of what journalism is, otherwise the profession becomes diluted into just another form of public relations.

    So, I think it comes down to professionals–scientists and journalists–embracing the core ethic of soundly testing truth claims before they release them into the world.

    And let’s not forget, in the end this all comes down to narrative, and narrative is not a quantitative science — it’s malleable and often ambiguous. Even under the best circumstances, once a narrative gets out in the public world, what it then becomes is not something its originators can hope to control.

  8. #8 Jonathan Vos Post
    February 19, 2009

    Talent and drive has produced multiple solutions to the problem: “Is it better to turn an English Major into a Science Journalist by teaching Science; or to turn a Scientist into a Science Journalist by teaching English Literature or Creative Writing?”

    When as a little boy I read Mad Magazine, Punch, the New York Times, Scientific American, Galaxy, Amazing Stories, Astounding, and Science News, I was excited by the CONTENT. I did not at first remember bylines. I didn’t want to BE (respectively) Harvey Kurtzman, Malcolm Muggeridge, Robert Sheckley, E. E. “Doc” Smith, Isaac Asimov, or Kendrick Frazier. No, I wanted to be funny, figure out the aliens on Earth pretending to be humans, build an interstellar spaceship, mess around with robots, and discover what those “Little Green Men” were that were later called a “pulsar.”

    Cool thing is, I am funny (but not as funny as my 1st cousin Rich Vos), I have enough understanding of humans to be a good classroom teacher, I’ve published peer-reviewed designs for interstellar spacecraft, played with robots, and been an Astronomy adjunct prof teaching about pulsars. What would have happened if I’d confused the medium with the message and set out to be a science journalist? I’ll never know.

  9. #9 Jonathan Vos Post
    February 19, 2009

    Internet pioneer and genius inventor John Sokol emailed me to add:

    What about the list below. Aren’t they doing just that, Scientist that are talking directly with the public?

    Neil DeGrasse Tyson
    Dr. Michio Kaku
    Bill Nye – Actually the guy turns out to be really smart.
    Steven Hawking

  10. #10 Jonathan Vos Post
    February 19, 2009

    Internet pioneer and genius inventor John Sokol emailed me to add:

    What about the list below. Aren’t they doing just that, Scientist that are talking directly with the public?

    Neil DeGrasse Tyson
    Dr. Michio Kaku
    Bill Nye – Actually the guy turns out to be really smart.
    Steven Hawking

  11. #11 frog
    February 19, 2009

    Journalist are amplifiers:

    If that’s their major role, then they’re a problem. You don’t hook up an amplifier into a system without a compensating dampener. I thought that journalists, at least nominally, were supposed to play both roles — that they were supposed to be filters taking responsibility for their statements, and for the statements that they were “amplifying”.

    I guess my bad. Journalists are no more than amps — get them too close to the source, and all you’ll get is a blown speaker and a really annoyed audience.

  12. #12 Jonathan Vos Post
    February 19, 2009

    Internet pioneer and genius inventor John Sokol emailed me to add:

    What about the list below. Aren’t they doing just that, Scientist that are talking directly with the public?

    Neil DeGrasse Tyson
    Dr. Michio Kaku
    Bill Nye – Actually the guy turns out to be really smart.
    Steven Hawking

  13. #13 Bee
    February 19, 2009

    Thanks for the link :-) The story about Recreating the Big Bang is also a nice example of hype creation. It is interesting btw to ask how much of this amplifier and “echo-chamber” effect is directly related to the increasing connectivity of our social and information networks.

  14. #14 Janne
    February 19, 2009

    When I reread your quotations above, I’m not sure the journalist even exaggerated what was said.

    One of the biggest criticisms of string theory is that its predictions can’t be tested experimentally-a requirement for any solid scientific idea.

    That’s not true anymore.

    and

    So we haven’t proven that reality is all about string theory or however you want to put it, but we certainly have indeed found a place, it seems, where string theory has been a useful guide and has made been making some modest but sharp and testable predictions in the lab.

    (emphasis mine)

    To me, the journalists version at the top is just a restatement of the quote at the bottom, with no further exaggeration or misrepresentation.

    If we were to dump journalists and have all science reporting done by scientists directly, all that would happen is that the researchers most willing to play fast and loose with their results in order to make a good soundbite would be the ones getting published in popular media instead.

  15. #15 Chad Orzel
    February 20, 2009

    To me, the journalists version at the top is just a restatement of the quote at the bottom, with no further exaggeration or misrepresentation.

    I think there are two problematic things about the journalist’s version: 1) it drops the qualifiers in the quote (particularly “modest”), and 2) It gives a strong impression that string theory has made testable predictions that are relevant to its core claims, which is not the case.

    What’s really going on is that some of the mathematical tools of string theory have been used to make predictions in entirely different regimes than the particle physics it purports to describe. It’s a promising sign, but it’s not remotely close to proof that would justify the “That’s not true any more.”

    Attempting an analogy to my own areas of expertise, it’s a little like saying “Light must be made of particle-like photons, because treating lattice vibrations as phonons lets us calculate material properties that we couldn’t otherwise.” It’s a nice result, and all, but it’s not nearly as convincing as anti-bunching in single-atom fluorescence. Which is why the Kimble, Dagenais, and Mandel experiment of 1977 is regarded as the definitive proof of the existence of photons.

    (It’s not a perfect analogy, of course, because there were a whole host of other reasons to believe the photon model of light before that, but it gets the basic idea– the use of an idea as a calculational tool in another field does not constitute proof of the idea in its home field.)

  16. #16 moshe
    February 22, 2009

    I decided to elaborate briefly on my comment regarding the specifics of your example. It is impossible to discuss the scientific issue in this noisy environment, let me just say that your analogy, the fine distinction between “string theory” and the “methods of string theory”, and your insistence of assigning us some “core mission” we are not to deviate from, all miss the point in crucial ways. Again, there is no way to have a clam and informative discussion about this kind of issue, I learned by trying.

    But, the point I was making is that your nitpicking at the working of honest and capable scientist who is committed to public outreach contributes in a small way to a predictable effect, the silencing of anybody who cannot stomach this kind of abuse. If you see anything in the work of Clifford but an honest and moderate attempt to convey our excitement to the public, we have no choice but to forever live under the shadow of your disappointment.

  17. #17 onymous
    February 22, 2009

    Attempting an analogy to my own areas of expertise, it’s a little like saying “Light must be made of particle-like photons, because treating lattice vibrations as phonons lets us calculate material properties that we couldn’t otherwise.”

    I don’t think that’s the right analogy. String theory is a pretty broad construct. I think what’s happening here is more like someone saying “quantum field theory is useful because it lets us treat long-wavelength excitations in solids as a sort of continuum limit”, and someone else objecting “but that doesn’t have anything to do with the Standard Model!” Phonons are not photons, but they’re both quantum fields and described by similar effective theories. Saying that field theory works in one case doesn’t have much to do with whether it does in the other, but it does mean the underlying concepts are useful, and either one is a success of field theory (regardless of which one was the original goal people had in mind when inventing QFT). Similarly, different sorts of physical systems might be described by some sort of string theory, and any of them is a success of the theory, no matter what particular application people had in mind when inventing string theory. (It so happens that that application was strongly coupled physics, incidentally, and the theory has returned to that after a long detour….)

  18. #18 onymous
    February 22, 2009

    (I’m more concerned that approximations used in AdS/CFT-type calculations are only valid for a very limited class of theories, and people are cavalierly pushing them way beyond any reasonable hope of validity, but that’s an argument for some other forum….)

  19. #19 Chad Orzel
    February 22, 2009

    But, the point I was making is that your nitpicking at the working of honest and capable scientist who is committed to public outreach contributes in a small way to a predictable effect, the silencing of anybody who cannot stomach this kind of abuse. If you see anything in the work of Clifford but an honest and moderate attempt to convey our excitement to the public, we have no choice but to forever live under the shadow of your disappointment.

    The point of the post is not really about string theory in general, or Clifford specifically. I’m not trying to claim that he did anything horribly wrong, or, in fact, that what he did is exceptional in any way.

    Quite the contrary. My point has to do with the “exaggerations” attributed to journalists in the endless noble-bloggers-vs.-grubby-journalists arguments here. Clifford’s comments in the article and elsewhere are exactly the sort of thing that any successful scientist talking to the media would do– he made the strongest claims possible about the results he was promoting, in order to convey the excitement of the result. The final article took those claims a tiny bit further, to the point of giving a false impression of the state of play.

    This happens all the time, in every field. Anybody who is any good at the business of science does exactly this sort of thing. String theory served as the example in this post only because Woit’s post turned up in my feed reader very shortly after Bee’s post quoting Bora. Had a “slow light” article come across my feeds first, I would’ve written about that (and nobody would’ve cared…).

    My point was that, contrary to what you might think from reading some blogs, “exaggerated” claims in the mass media are not there because science journalists are a bunch of dim-witted English majors who know so little about science that they distort it beyond recognition. It’s much more common to find journalists making very small changes to statements by scientists, who are doing most of the “exaggerating” themselves.

  20. #20 moshe
    February 22, 2009

    Chad, I’m completely with you on the general message, I guess everybody just likes feeling superior. As I wrote above, every medium has its own unique flaws, and it is wise to be aware of them. I am much more concerned about the attempt to package things in simple narratives than any specific factual accuracies, because in my view these simple narratives tend to stick, even if they have no basis in reality, whereas factual errors can be relatively easily corrected.

    But, this is not written in a vacuum, and as you are probably aware, partially due to the success of such simple narratives, we are now in a unique situation that every word that we say in public is endlessly scrutinized and analyzed, not always in the most generous way. In this context, I thought Clifford did an incredible job in repeatedly qualifying his statements, making sure they are completely accurate, including clarifying what he is *not* saying. This goes well beyond anything usually done when discussing scientific results with the public.

    The simple fact is that many of us are excited about making contact with experiment, which is a first for us. There is now healthy dialogue going on with experimentalists, which is historically the best way of developing a new theory. Should we avoid talking about this?

  21. #21 Peter Woit
    February 22, 2009

    Moshe,

    I read through Clifford’s slides, the quotes from him in the various pieces, and the long comment about one of the pieces that he posted. Nowhere in any of this does he clarify that the contact with experiment he is excited about has nothing to do with the well-known controversy about the lack of any contact between the hypothesis of string theory as a TOE and experiment. Actually he does the opposite, muddying the distinction by claiming that maybe results from heavy ion physics will lead to such contact in the TOE case.

    As Chad notes, the science journalists involved are not fools. They are well aware there’s a controversy over string theory and experiment, and they were reporting what they were told: string theorists are excited about a dramatic new connection between string theory and experiment. Looking at Clifford’s slides I don’t see how they could have failed to make the mistake of thinking that the two things have to do with each other. After the initial Symmetry Magazine piece appeared, Clifford was in contact with the author over various small inaccuracies in it, and evidently he made no effort to point out that the title and lead paragraphs were completely misleading.

    You are quite right that the public claims made by string theorists are nowadays examined with a high degree of skepticism. This is because of a 25 year history of overselling and hype, coupled with a refusal to admit that things haven’t worked out. The kind of thing that went on here, feeding more hype to the press in a way designed to lead to misleading headlines doesn’t help this situation one bit. String theorists now have a huge credibility problem with the public and their colleagues. They need to think about how to address this, not about how to put out new sorts of misleading hype, with the excuse that they are just “trying to transmit their excitement”.

  22. #22 moshe
    February 22, 2009

    From the post above, for example:

    “So we haven’t proven that reality is all about string theory or however you want to put it, but we certainly have indeed found a place, it seems, where string theory has been a useful guide…”.

    Your concerns have been answered, again and again. Time to move on and discuss new issues for a change.

  23. #23 moshe
    February 22, 2009

    And with that I’ll bow out and not get into this painful territory once again (no doubt because my arguments are very weak etc.), life is too short. Enjoy the rest of the weekend everyone!

  24. #24 Peter Woit
    February 22, 2009

    Moshe,

    Acknowledging that heavy ion experiments do not “prove” that string theory is a TOE is very different from acknowledging that they have nothing to do with whether or not string theory is a TOE. What you quote in no way clarifies for a journalist this issue, quite the opposite.

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