Recommended: Science Fact Clichés

 

Here’s a great piece from NPR this week. In the audio version, NPR Science Editor Geoff Brumfiel and Weekend Edition Sunday Host Lulu Garcia-Navarro banter about science journalism clichés and the news stories that utilize them:

It Sounds Like Science Fiction But … It’s a Cliché

 

Don’t Nibble: Science is Food for Thought

Seven out of ten people on Facebook are malnourished. Intellectually that is. It turns out many folks comment on science stories after only reading the headline. Headlines may be delicious but they are not nourishing. So … Yum, yum! Food for thought. I dare you to go further!

Comment on That Shared Science Story – and Maybe Read it, Too!

Andrew C. Revkin, writer of The New York Times’ Dot Earth opinion blog, wrote the above piece. Did you make it past the headline? How carefully do you consider science coverage before commenting on it? Let me know … if you actually read the article.

Thus Saith the Headline

“What we have are two groups of researchers who are battling it out in the technical literature. Was it an impact or was it not an impact?

“What I see when that is happening is that every time one group publishes a study, it gets reported as if that’s a definitive answer.”

–Steven Novella

The above quote speaks to a broader issue to which I am sensitive. The writing style used to cover science usually employs bold or catchy headlines and may favor declamatory source quotes. I am also reminded of training I received in criticism during college. For example, when writing a movie review a critic may feel pressure to give an unambiguous thumbs up or thumbs down. But what if their feelings about the movie are genuinely in between these absolutist reactions?

Whether in journalism or review writing, especially in the Internet age there is pressure to be simple, brief, and dramatic for attention-grabbing sake. Such stylistic mandates can slant or embellish what ought to be a nuanced, necessarily equivocal rendering of scientific findings.

It may be worth thinking in terms of the inverted pyramid format, wherein the salient points of a story are at the top. Similarly, a science news story may start out sounding like a definitive discovery in the headline and first paragraph. Toward the end though, it might reveal itself to be inconclusive with language that hedges. The burden settles on the audience to read carefully and completely. Now please excuse me so I can go read about any given exoplanet “discovery.”

For the complete story from which the above quote was pulled, visit NASA’s website.

Sceptics’ Guide Host Believes Science Communication Mostly Mediocre

340 Days Equals a Hashtag, Not a Year

In classic nitpicker fashion, when Astronaut Scott Kelly returned to Earth on March 1st after a much celebrated “Year in Space”, I found myself less than fully inspired. I was like…93% inspired. But I was about 7% grumbling. I thought to myself, um…he was only up there 340 days. That’s not a year. In fact, that’s closer to 11 months than 12.

year-in-space-patch
The “Year in Space” Mission Patch, Image Credit: NASA

A simple back-of-the-envelope calculation reveals the above mission patch to be only 93% accurate. Take it from an English Major.

Nevertheless, I joined my fellow space tweeps in welcoming Commander Kelly and Cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko home. I tweeted out, “So ends the #YearInSpace. Let’s do it again soon.” And with that I joined many others in giving credence to a marketing slogan that is in fact not accurate.

What is accurate? Kelly now has over 500 days of time in space, an American record. Also of note, a great deal of research will now be done on the data collected over the course of the mission. This means increased knowledge about the effects of long-term stays in space, with obvious implications for moon bases, Mars missions, and deep space travel.

Still…340 ain’t 365. I can only speak for the reality of Twitter. The hashtag to follow has always been #YearInSpace. The week of Kelly’s return is too late to switch to a less catchy #340DaysInSpace. This may be one of those times a scientific community knows the marketing slogan proved inaccurate but doesn’t need nor care to dwell on the fact. No one is being deceived here. Everyone is using an accurate day count. Besides, the real science deserves all the celebration it can get.

Why did Kelly and Kornienko come back shy of a full year? For that I send you to Tech Insider and a to-the-point piece by reporter Rebecca Harrington:

This is why Scott Kelly’s ‘year in space’ wasn’t actually a full year

Kudos also to NBC’s editors for picking a similarly details-oriented headline:

After Nearly A Year in Space, NASA’s Scott Kelly Is Back on Earth

Lastly, one from NASA. It isn’t really claiming a year if you are only citing the hashtag, right?

Looking Back at the #YearInSpace

Now, if I wanted to overdo my nitpicking I’d say the NASA Editor apparently wants us to look back at the hashtag, not the mission. Okay…I’m stopping now. And do head to the NASA article for a great music video and a rundown of the mission highlights.