Over the weekend, before the whole Scientific America debacle blew up, Ben Lillie tweeted:
— Ben Lillie (@BenLillie) October 12, 2013
This is, of course, a familiar problem to a lot of people who care about the public dissemination of science. The need for a good “hook” is a constant issue, because without one, you can’t get anyone to pick up a story. And you can’t let one get past, either, leading to a frantic scramble whenever anything happens that has the slightest connection to science. Running this blog has gotten me on the email lists of a whole bunch of PR outits, and whenever there’s a big science story, I get a pile of press releases from various institutions touting their strained and indirect connection to whatever it is– in the wake of the Nobel for Higgs and Englert last week, I got a half-dozen emails from schools whose physics departments contain a faculty member who works at CERN, offering exclusive interview opportunities. These are, at best, third-order relevant, and yet, such is the pull of the news hook.
This is kind of maddening to a lot of scientists, because it means there are only brief windows during which it’s deemed appropriate to talk about the stuff we love. And God forbid you have something else going on during the 24-hour interval when your subject is “news”– writing about old news is probably even worse than writing about stuff that has no hook at all. It smacks of incompetent desperation, like you can’t even do your attention-seeking in a punctual manner.
This is also one of the cultural factors driving Gladwell-ism. The relentless drive to find shiny new hooks forces an emphasis on the very latest results and speculations. But those are, by their nature, the least solid results and speculations in science. All of science is forever provisional, but the shocking new results of a study that came out just this week are the most provisional of all– until more data comes in to confirm the effect, we can’t be sure it isn’t just a statistical fluke. But when the only science people want to talk about is the newest science, people will inevitably spend a lot of time talking about stuff that will later turn out to be just plain wrong.
That’s a major problem for the image of science. Anybody who has paid the slightest attention to medical and health reporting over the last several years has seen this in action. Cholesterol kills, only maybe some of it is good, but you can fix that with these drugs, only they turn out not to have any substantial benefit. Alcohol is bad for you, except people who drink red wine live longer, or maybe it’s mice who drink beer. Cell phones/ power lines/ wi-fi hotspots cause cancer, except no, that’s completely ridiculous.
These stories are generally hung on the hook of some shiny new study, most of which turn out not to be worth much of anything. But it’s years before that becomes clear, in which time we go through another half-dozen shiny new hooks about studies that are also pretty worthless. And the steady accumulation of contradictory claims and studies has a corrosive effect on public trust– when the latest splashy new result comes out, people who remember the last dozen roll their eyes and say “Oh, there those silly scientists go again…”
It also sucks because the fact that some result isn’t new doesn’t mean it’s not awesome. In fact, there are lots of solidly established facts about the universe that are pretty damn amazing in their own right, without being new or hung on some recent hook. I had a bunch of people come up to me and tell me how amazing the stuff in my TED@NYC talk was, and the most recent result I mentioned was first discovered in 1927 (I showed pictures from a more recent demonstration experiment, but the physics involved was old). The stuff in my books is likewise really well established– the most recent phenomenon there is probably quantum teleportation, which dates from the 1980’s– but again, people who have read them often remark on how cool the stuff is.
The frustrating thing is that old well-known stuff is plenty awesome, but the culture of the hook means it’s hard to get people to pay attention to it. When given the opportunity to present it, people are duly impressed by well known stuff, but it’s hard to get that opportunity.
But then, another of the items crossing my social media feeds this weekend was a Guardian interview with Elise Andrew of the Facebook phenomenon I Fucking Love Science. Which, it occurred to me, is largely about the awesomeness of the known– at least, the stuff that I see from her is generally not about wildly speculative material, but cool factoids based in fairly well-known science. I’m not a huge fan of her for reasons of style, not content– the whole Tumblr-ish aesthetic isn’t really my thing, and you kids should get off my damn lawn– but people eat this stuff up. (On looking more closely at the site– as I said, I’m not that big a fan– she has more current news hooks to her stuff than I remembered, but this sent me down a particular line of thought, so I’ll leave it.)
That’s something that you see in a lot of other Internet-based operations– that Veritasium bullte-in-block thing from a couple of months ago doesn’t use any physics that hasn’t been known for a couple hundred years, but 380,000 people have watched it, because it’s awesome (and that’s not even one of their most-watched clips). And there’s Minute Physics, which, again, isn’t doing much of anything but presenting the awesomeness of well known science, in catchy animated video form. These still have hooks of a sort, but the form is the hook, here, not the tie to a current news story. That’s more or less what I did with my books, too– I got to write books about solid, well-understood physics without wild speculations about multiverses and theories of everything because the talking-to-the-dog form is the hook. The fact that
Of course, the key difference here is one of scale. If you’re running a new-media operation out of your spare bedroom, you don’t have to drive all that much traffic to be successful (at least initially– both Veritasium and Minute Physics have viewer bases an order of magnitude bigger than my book-buying audience, but that’s built up over time). If you’re running a major news operation, with lots of employees who need to be paid professional-level salaries, well, you need more of a sure thing. And stories with good news hooks are way more reliable attention-getters than just throwing cool old stuff out there and hoping for some of it to go viral.
But it’s probably worth remembering, for those of us running small Internet based operations, that it is possible to succeed without relying too heavily on news hooks. Old, well-known science is pretty awesome as well, and people can and do enjoy it when you put it in front of them in the right way.