Engaging Science! But without the sensationalism

Each Friday I tend to play the office nerdy guy by sending out a little round-up of the week’s significant science news (or at least my own thoughts on it) to my co-workers. And you’d think that would generally look something like this:

“Progress on disease X”
“Ecological concern Y”
“Technological advancement Z”
“Cute animal picture….” (Well, I TRY to avoid these…)

You’d think this would indeed by the case. But as the world of the internet grows louder, more crowded, and ever-increasingly having to compete for our limited attention, what I instead often find myself writing is more like:

“No, we really haven’t discovered aliens yet…”
“Yes, the world is still round and everything we know about physics isn’t wrong…”
“Sorry chocolate isn’t actually the next miracle drug…”
“Cancer isn’t going away yet, but no, that other disease isn’t going to kill the whole world…”

And I imagine you know why. Sensational science stories abound (examples here and here), and there’s been much talk (here, here… or just google it!) on why we should be concerned about them. Unfortunately, as a business strategy, this style of PopSci (popular science) writing is rather booming. For some interesting cases and to get an idea of the degree, check this study on exaggeration in health science news, or this Scientific American article about hype found even in science abstracts (this same article, ironically, hyping its own title a bit). Or simply spend a little time strolling through the big named science news sites while reading with a critical eye.

It’s hard not to follow along with this trend though. After all, it seems to produce results (attention) almost out of thin air. But if we thought about this phenomenon like an economist, our manufactured boom and success in readership will seem likely lead to a bust of sorts — here in terms of the public’s attention and engagement with science. So the critics crying foul have a point. We should be (still) talking about this! Otherwise we’re likely to fall victim to some unfortunate outcomes:

  • More error. This is obvious — it’s hard to be accurate and unbiased when we’re already slanted towards the fantastic.
  • Distrust of science. It’s something we don’t often think about, but why trust “Science” very much when any change in a theory is touted like a complete change in the paradigm of “everything we thought we knew”? For instance, why give the Big Bang much credit if every few times a year you’re reading headlines like “Big Bang Deflated? Universe May Have Had No Beginning?” (even if what the article says is a possible, not yet tested, and really more an adjustment of current understanding).
  • Blasé (“We’ve seen this all before…”). Just how many times have you read an article that made you think the cure for cancer or a practical use of nuclear fusion was just around the corner? Seeing such bold claims enough times without results will eventually lead to disinterest.
  • Journalistic unsustainability. As we continually throw out the super awesome and flashy! headlines, I’d argue we’ll likely find that it will take more and stronger super awesome fantastictness to capture reader attention. In effect, when it comes to pulling in the reader, we may well end up competing against a rising bar of sensationalism of our own making.

Much of this has been discussed before, and generally the prescribed solution is simply that “We should just stop doing that” (or, occasionally, simply blame it on the media). And while I of course do agree with the sentiment of reeling in the over-hype, it’s not something that can easy be stopped just so.

The unfortunate fact of the matter is that, to get Science out there, journalists do have to come up with compelling stories that are worthwhile experiences for the viewer. Furthermore, the internet is turning into quite the big place, and Science does have to compete with the myriad of other things that take our attention away from our (seemingly increasingly) busy lives.

So the issue is complicated.

And what may be missing from this dialogue is more discussion of how we do strike the balance of scientific accuracy while also findings ways to communicate it in a compelling way. For myself, I’m far from the expert, and honestly I really don’t know what the solution to this problem is at large. In fact, it’s a problem that I think we have to address more broadly in our culture even beyond just science communication.

But I have seen some good examples of science writing that have pulled myself into the story, and I have seen some suggestions from others that strike me as relevant. Noting those, if I were to try and give counsel, I would likely offer some other some other ideas to focus on instead of hype or being “flashy” to pull off some good science writing:

  • Focus on the mystery. One of the best things about science is not necessary what we do know, but rather the journey to finding out. And while we may be tempted to emphatically claim the next theory of everything! has been found, sometimes it might well be that basking in the uncertainties and secrets of the universe is far more likely to procure interest. Thus, we don’t have to exaggerate what we know, and sometimes the triumphant declaratives would be far more interesting as interrogatives:  What do we know about…? What happened…? What are the barriers between…? How could this possibly be true…? But the trick with any of these is to not slight towards an answer when it doesn’t yet exist or isn’t established. Enjoy the enigma. It’s part of why science is done and is likely what will keep the reader up at night wondering.
  • Focus on involvement. How can the reader take real ownership of the topic at hand? Is there a way for them to participate in the research? Is there a related citizen science project? Could this be a matter of public (and especially, local) policy? Can they contribute financially? How can the reader follow the work that’s being done? Is there a way to create dialogue on what’s been said? The dual benefit of addressing these questions is the possibility of real social change or an actualized impact. After all, there’s no reason science communication need be a monologue — ideally, it’s a two-way street.
  • Focus on the narrative. This is commonly noted, and it’s a darn reasonable suggestion given some of the existing research. And while narratives can certainly be spun in ways as equally a misrepresentation as a super-hyped headline, it’s also very possible to build the complexities, struggles, and nuances of the real science into your story. An unusual data point does not have to be something to be swept under the rug, and can rather be a point of interest in your tale and a ponderous curiosity. All the same, it seems clear that stories are a great way to connect to the reader, help them visualize the scenario, and then keep it memorable afterwards. And what better way to tell what really happened in science, than to indeed tell the actual path to how we got there?

While I grant that any of these suggestions might not solve the ever-present issue of competing against clickbait (a gargantuan enemy in and of itself), I would argue they do show we have some serious alternatives in style as options to make science communication read-worthy (or watchable, or etc.) without sacrificing the integrity of the science itself.

But I don’t think the discussion is over, and I’d wager the topic of how to pull in public interest while “staying true” will be with us for some time. So let’s chat about it and share our best-practices! We know the problem is out there, and we know it’s not exactly an easy one to address. But if we haven’t started already, now I think it’s time to focus on the solutions.

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