Science Is Not Irreducibly Complex

The poor coverage of science in the media is an evergreen topic in blogdom, to the point where I’ve mostly stopped clicking on links to those sorts of pieces. This ScienceProgress post about newsroom culture bugged me, though, and it took me a while to figure out the problem. The author worked as a reporter in North Carolina over the summer, covering science topics, and writes about his dissatisfaction with the journalistic template:

I had one editor who required that I give him my story pitches using six words or fewer. But the message wasn’t even simply to shorten; it was to make it punchy. Cutesy. Puns and clever twists of phrases signaled good writing. “Hooking the reader” meant playing with language to get your punch line across as glibly as possibly. A short article was a point of pride.

Cleverly packaged writing is not inherently bad writing, of course. The ability to explain something in a succinct way suggests an impressive grasp over language. It reflects a clear line of thinking. Extra words can take readers on tangents, overcomplicate an idea, and dilute a focus. Writing concisely is a tremendous skill, requiring years of practice.

Yet something strange happens when you take a deep-seated journalistic template and apply it to all subject matter unconditionally. A subject burdened with as much uncertainty and complexity as science requires a bit more nuance in depicting it.

It took me a little while to put my finger on what bugged me about this piece, but in the end, I think it’s that last sentence. Specifically, it’s the fact that you could replace “science” with any number of other words, and have it be just as true. I’ve heard similar complaints about the distortions imposed by newsroom culture from tax policy experts, health care policy experts, foreign policy experts, American history experts, and so on. Any field more complex than weather reporting isn’t particularly well served by the journalistic template, and I’m not so sure about the weather.

This problem is not unique to science. What is unique to science, at least in the blogging corner of science, is what comes after the statement of the problem. Namely a stubborn refusal to do much of anything about it.

I’ve read similar complaints about the distortions imposed by the media from experts in a wide range of policy and social-science fields, but all of those fields also have people– often the same people doing the complaining– working to craft their message in a way that allows a more accurate portrayal within the template. They don’t just gripe about the media and wish for things to be different, they work to shape their message so as to achieve their goals in spite of the uncomfortable fit with the journalistic template.

And there’s a good reason for that. The journalistic model didn’t just come out of nowhere, imposed by some iron-fisted cabal of Perry White/ Jonah Jameson editors. It exists because while it may not be a good format for conveying nuance to the satisfaction of experts, it’s a very good format for conveying information to the proverbial person on the street. Journalists write short, punchy articles with much of the information loaded into the first few paragraphs because it’s an effective technique for getting the stories out to readers who aren’t necessarily willing to read a 10,000 word treatise on some subject.

The journalistic style is there for a reason, and it’s not going to change any time soon. If you want your field to be covered in the media at all, it’s going to have to fit in a short, punchy article or quick video clip. Which is why you have foreign policy experts and health care policy experts and all the rest out there working on shaping their complex messages into a form that can fit in the standard media format.

Science, at least the online corner of it, seems to me to be unique in the insistence that the subject can’t possibly be condensed, and that it’s unreasonable to even suggest that it might. There’s this persistent image of science as a noble and pure pursuit that can’t be sullied with trivial concerns like keeping stories about it to a reasonable length, or compressing the key points down to elevator pitch length. Whenever the subject comes up– pretty much any time Chris Mooney says anything– the discussion runs smack into a stubborn insistence that science is irreducibly complex, that it can’t possibly be broken down into a format that fits the journalistic style.

This is, of course, nonsense, as even a passing familiarity with the work of people like Dennis Overbye and Carl Zimmer would show you. They write really good stories about science that manage to convey an accurate picture of the key ideas within the standard journalistic model. Look closely at one of Overbye’s physics articles for the Times, and you’ll find that he’s doing exactly the thing that people claim can’t be done– the articles are reasonably short, with a good hook and a punchy opening, and you don’t hear all that many physicists denouncing him for it.

Comments

  1. #1 Steve
    December 2, 2010

    I’d have thought the journalistic style you describe isn’t actually a world away from the title-abstract-paper structure that we’re already familiar with. I don’t understand the reluctance of bloggers to adapt that familiar form. Mapping it to headline-hook-article doesn’t seem to be that great a stretch.

  2. #2 katydid13
    December 2, 2010

    As much as I hate having to reduce a year of research into something that fits on one sheet of paper, with a catchy hook, and ideally a cool graphic, I’ve found it can make my work better.

    I work for a government agency that reports to Congress on well, really almost anything they want us to about how the government spends money. Generally, its not simple stuff, but things like tax policy, fiscal policy, Medicare fraud, and health care reform. We are required to start every report off with a one page summary, that ideally has a hook that grabs people and a cool graphic.

    If I can’t produce one relatively jargon free page that summarized the main points of my message, I probably don’t really have a message that anyone cares about.

    I don’t like writing that one page. There are times I would do just about anything for another line of text. When it’s done, we have a clear focused logical message that is at least hopefully marginally interesting. If we can’t get there, then we have a flaw in the message and we need to refine what we are saying.

    Some groups require that people start with the one page summary and then expand. Since none of us are trained as journalist, but all as researchers, I don’t like this model. However, I am beginning to understand it.

  3. #3 Mark P
    December 2, 2010

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: journalists are, as a group, the least well educated of all professionals. If science journalists were technically educated, it would be one thing, but most newspapers can’t, or won’t, afford to hire scientifically-literate reporters. A few big papers do, and there are, of course, some very good science journalists. But they don’t show up in the vast majority of papers. You could probably count on the fingers of two hands the number of newspapers in the US that have scientifically-literate science reporters.

    Dumbing down stories is another problem, but I have to assume this is not a typical situation. I worked in a newsroom for more than four years in my previous life, and I don’t recall ever getting that kind of direction for any kind of story. That was more than 30 years ago, but surely things have not changed that much.

  4. #4 Paul
    December 2, 2010

    I disagree. You are assuming that any subject can be made “punchy” without distortion or misinformation which is simply not the case.

    Most scientific findings are small steps forward which are exciting only to those working in the field. I’ve read countless examples of such findings being made “punchy” and it is almost always achieved by a mix of exaggeration, omission of important caveats, addition of absurdly grandiose statements about potential applications, or outright fabrication (most often falsely claiming the result is the first of it’s kind). Are you advocating such science reporting?

    Or are you saying that regular mundane scientific findings can be made into short, exciting to general public and *honest* articles? If so how?

  5. #5 Eric Lund
    December 2, 2010

    I’ve read similar complaints about the distortions imposed by the media from experts in a wide range of policy and social-science fields, but all of those fields also have people– often the same people doing the complaining– working to craft their message in a way that allows a more accurate portrayal within the template. They don’t just gripe about the media and wish for things to be different, they work to shape their message so as to achieve their goals in spite of the uncomfortable fit with the journalistic template.

    The problem with this approach is that I don’t see any evidence it’s doing any good in the areas where people are trying it. At best, what happens is a battle of think tanks in which the better-funded and better-connected think tank wins the messaging battle, no matter what the truth is. We have had that problem for more than thirty years now. It should have been obvious that Reagan could not satisfy his promises to cut taxes, increase military spending, and balance the budget simultaneously, and the notion that cutting tax rates would increase tax revenue (bolstered by the ironically named Laffer Curve) should have been seen as dubious. Fast forward to today, where the Washington elites are simultaneously saying with a straight face that we must cut the budget deficit and prevent scheduled tax increases on millionaires, and that we should believe them instead of the lying eyes of our experience over the last thirty years. Journalists are still being misled (or even worse, knowingly allowing themselves to be misled) by these arguments.

    Nor is it true that scientists have made no attempts along those lines. Most scientific societies have a news bureau whose job it is to cover areas of science that fall under their society’s banner. For that matter, my institute (just a part of my university, though admittedly the part with the largest share of extramural funding) has one full-time staffer and pays part of the salary of a second whose job it is to disseminate news about our research. Sometimes, the local/state newspapers and TV stations pick it up.

  6. #6 Moshe
    December 2, 2010

    I mostly agree with what you say, but I do have a real problem with finding good places to read about science, and I suspect I am not alone in that.

    I accept that most publications will not be aimed at me, an outlier in my interests and level of education. But, there ought to be some place for people like myself, who are not interested in the fluff, get bored by the “color pieces”, and desperately want the author to filter out for me the nonsense, the outrageous claims that end up (surprise, surprise) being completely wrong. Knowing what I know of their coverage of physics, I simply don’t trust most mdeia outlets to honestly and responsibly report about other areas of science, on which I don’t have the expertise to judge things for myself.

    I can find for myself intelligent and well-written discussions of literature, policy questions, music, and pretty much anything else. Except for science. Maybe I am missing something?

  7. #7 Lynn
    December 2, 2010

    This post reminds me of a [paraphrased] sentiment that my PhD advisor must share with you and Rutherford; that one should be able to explain one’s work to a barmaid, otherwise it is either incomplete or not very good.

  8. #8 Chad Orzel
    December 2, 2010

    Paul: Most scientific findings are small steps forward which are exciting only to those working in the field. I’ve read countless examples of such findings being made “punchy” and it is almost always achieved by a mix of exaggeration, omission of important caveats, addition of absurdly grandiose statements about potential applications, or outright fabrication (most often falsely claiming the result is the first of it’s kind). Are you advocating such science reporting?

    I am saying that many of the examples of things I see cited as outrageous distortions are not, in my opinion. I see a lot of lies-to-children, simplifications that need to be made because the general reader isn’t prepared to deal with the full explanation, but I’m fine with that. Not every simplification is a significant distortion.

    Eric: The problem with this approach is that I don’t see any evidence it’s doing any good in the areas where people are trying it. At best, what happens is a battle of think tanks in which the better-funded and better-connected think tank wins the messaging battle, no matter what the truth is.

    I’m not convinced that it makes no difference. The tobacco industry has spent astonishing sums of money trying to counter medical research, and yet smoking is vastly less socially acceptable than it was even ten or fifteen years ago, thanks to strong advocacy from health experts. The quality of food you see even at fast-food places, as much as they get demonized, is way better than it used to be, thanks to strong advocacy from a variety of health experts. Drunk driving was more or less laughed off when I was a kid, and now it’s frowned upon across the board. Even five years ago, reusable shopping bags were a hippie affectation, and now there are huge signs at the local stores reminding you to bring your own bags.

    Consistent and well-done public advocacy can and will change public opinion, even in the face of well-funded opposition. It doesn’t happen as quickly as advocates of change might like, but if you put in the work to get the message out, change does happen.

    Nor is it true that scientists have made no attempts along those lines. Most scientific societies have a news bureau whose job it is to cover areas of science that fall under their society’s banner. For that matter, my institute (just a part of my university, though admittedly the part with the largest share of extramural funding) has one full-time staffer and pays part of the salary of a second whose job it is to disseminate news about our research. Sometimes, the local/state newspapers and TV stations pick it up.

    This is true, and I should’ve mentioned those. God knows I get enough email from the American Chemical Society press office alerting me to stories I’m not interested in.

    I was primarily thinking of the blogging subset of science in writing this, where I see a lot of resistance, much of which strikes me as unreasonable, to the suggestion that scientists should work with the existing media. Straight political bloggers who complain about media distortions often follow their complaints with suggestions of ways to shape the message to do a better job of getting it picked up by the media– they aren’t always good ideas, and they don’t always agree with each other, but they’re making the effort. Science bloggers are more likely to express open contempt for the media and disdain any attempt at connecting with them in favor of some wildly utopian notion of blogs displacing the whole enterprise.

    Moshe: I can find for myself intelligent and well-written discussions of literature, policy questions, music, and pretty much anything else. Except for science. Maybe I am missing something?

    Maybe you should start a blog…

  9. #9 Brian
    December 2, 2010

    That makes me think of the NASA presentation that many of us just watched… I’m used to science presentations being dry. I’m used to science presentations being animated. What I’m not used to is science presentations trying to make themselves DRAMATIC.

    The main speaker… I couldn’t get past her tone. It was like instead of giving a scientific press conference, she was reading a story to elementary school kids. Not in content, but just in tonality and pacing…

    I’m not sure why it bothered me as much as it did, but it did…

  10. #10 Moshe
    December 2, 2010

    Maybe this is not talking directly to your point, which is how to present your area of expertise to a larger audience. On that topic I pretty much agree with you, but my concern is related. I’ll give you an example. Here is an interesting and well-written by Overbye from today, on a fascinating subject:

    http://nyti.ms/hWciVr

    Are the results reported correct? are they accepted by the wider community, or are they a fringe effort? I honestly cannot be sure. And, where can I read that 10,000 word treatise on that, if I am interested?

  11. #11 Marco
    December 2, 2010

    Moshe: if you are willing to pay a little, Nature might do the trick for you. It does not only contain the scientific articles and letters but also well written summaries (one or two pages) that can be read and understood by any intelligent person. In the Netherlands the rate is about 200€ a year. Given the quality and the on-line access to back issues this is a bargain. You might check out Science, but I can’t comment on that. Reading Nature is all ready rather time consuming.

  12. #12 Chad Orzel
    December 2, 2010

    Moshe: [Re: today's arsenic bacteria story] Are the results reported correct? are they accepted by the wider community, or are they a fringe effort? I honestly cannot be sure. And, where can I read that 10,000 word treatise on that, if I am interested?

    It’s a tough question. I’m not sure there is any one place where you could get that right now. As Marco mentioned, Nature often does a nice job with these things, but a lot of their stuff is paywalled. Science likewise. If you have personal or institutional access to those you can also read the original paper, but that’s probably not all that helpful.

    I think part of the problem is that the norms of modern academic science don’t really include that sort of writing. There are technical papers, written by and for experts in the field, and there are press releases (mostly) written by and for non-scientists, and there isn’t a lot of middle ground, largely because there’s no incentive for anybody to produce it. What you want is probably a long-form article at the level of, say, Physics Today or maybe American Scientist (to cite the two publications in this vein that I get). That would need to be written by scientists, and the current incentive structure of academic science doesn’t really encourage that.

  13. #13 Eric Lund
    December 2, 2010

    You might check out Science, but I can’t comment on that.

    A subscription to Science is included with your membership in AAAS. Being on the west side of the pond, that is what I read. I don’t read that many of the articles, just the ones that are close enough to my field that I might understand them. But I do read the news section which takes up the first part of the journal.

  14. #14 Moshe
    December 2, 2010

    Thanks for the suggestions, they are helpful. This is an interesting discussion, but I suspect we will not resolve things here. I do still think there is something unique about science coverage, beyond the evils of the simple minded “template”. For example I’m bothered by the reliability issues, the fact that it is nearly impossible for an outsider to spot the interesting but not-quite-correct story (which is irresistible because it fits the template so well). I think this is something unique to science stories, but maybe I am deluding myself…

  15. #15 Alexander Woo
    December 2, 2010

    I would like to suggest a different explanation:

    The natural sciences by and large no longer study anything of obvious direct interest. Rather, the natural sciences generate information which can then be applied to questions of obvious direct interest.

    Because science is so old (and has kept all its old facts largely intact), all the questions of obvious interest to an outsider have been largely studied. What scientists study now are questions which are inspired by (partial) answers to the obvious ones.

    So, to really understand a piece of science, one has to understand its context, which is the older piece of science which inspired the investigation in the first place.

    It is obvious to everyone why tax policy is important. It is not obvious why anyone should care about quarks.

    One thing I like about this explanation is that it explains why mathematics has an even harder time, because it is an even older subject and current research is four or five steps removed from obvious questions, rather than just two or three steps as in physics or chemistry. (The same could be said about philosophy.)

  16. #16 Carl Zimmer
    December 3, 2010

    Thanks for the post. I had similar thoughts when I read that piece. I hear “Science is too nuanced for such treatment” a lot, and it usually strikes me as an excuse not to try to write well.

  17. #17 Moshe
    December 7, 2010

    Quick note to give credit where it is due: here’s a Carl Zimmer piece providing precisely the kind of information I find lacking in most reports, in the context of the bacteria story (that story is already unusual in that it is based on a published paper).

    http://is.gd/ilCSO

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.