Anatomy of a bad science story.

There are many good science writers and press officers around. This post is not for them, as they will certainly reject all of its key points. Nor is it for the members of the media who are already adept at producing sensationalistic, inaccurate, or downright ridiculous science news stories. This post is for those writers somewhere in the middle who sometimes get it wrong but can’t quite master the art of atrocious science reporting.

Here, then, is a concise guide for how to write really bad science stories.

1. Choose your subject matter to be as amenable to sensationalism as possible.

Some scientific studies may be considered elegant and important by scientists, but if they help to confirm previous thinking or provide only incremental advances in understanding, they are not newsworthy. What you need is something that will generate an emotional rather than intellectual response in the reader.

(If you’re stuck on this step, try coming up with a topic that fits into Science After Sunclipse‘s handy list of categories for science stories.)

2. Use a catchy headline, especially if it will undermine the story’s credibility.

The headline is what draws the reader in, and it is very important that this be as catchy and misleading as possible. Try to focus on outrageous claims. “Such-and-such theory overthrown by this-and-that discovery” is a good template. If possible, have an editor who has not read the story or knows very little about the topic come up with a headline for you.

3. Overstate the significance and novelty of the work.

Do your best to overstate the importance of the new discovery being reported. This is especially relevant if you are writing a press release at a university or other large research institution. The discovery must, at the very least, be described as “surprising”, but “revolutionary” is vastly more effective. Indeed, the reader should wonder what, if anything, those idiot scientists were doing before this new research was conducted (see step 4). Avoid implying that there is a larger research program underway in the field or that the new discovery fits well with ideas that may be decades old. Also, if the discovery — no matter what it is — can be linked, however tenuously, to curing some human ailment, so much the better.

(For writers reporting about genomics: if your story is outrageous enough, you may be eligible for an Overselling Genomics Award; note, however, that competition for this distinction is intense).

4. Distort the history of the field and oversimplify the views of scientists.

Whenever possible, characterize the history of the field in which the discovery took place as simplistic and linear. It is very important that previous opinion in the field be seen as both monotonic and opposed to the new discovery. If there are signs that researchers have held a diversity of views, some of which are fully in line with the new finding, this will undermine your attempt to oversell the significance of the study (see step 3). For this, there are few better examples than recent work on so-called “junk DNA“. Here, authors of news stories have managed to convince readers that “junk” was unilaterally assumed to mean biologically irrelevant, and that it is only in the face of new discoveries that stubborn scientists are being pushed to reconsider their opinions. The fact that both of these are utter nonsense shows how effective this approach can be.

5. Remember that controversy sells, and everyone loves an underdog.

If the results of a new study do not contradict some long-held assumption or incite disagreement among scientists, then readers will have little interest. As a consequence, it is important to characterize science as a process of continual revolutions (see steps 3 and 4) rather than one of continuous improvement of understanding. Refinement and expansion of existing ideas should not be implied. If there is no real controversy, invent one. And, whenever possible, set it up as a “David vs. Goliath” conflict between an intrepid scientist and the stuffy establishment.

6. Use buzzwords and clichés whenever possible.

It doesn’t matter if the words are used inappropriately or appeal to common misconceptions (see step 7), if it is catchy or well known, use it and use it often. This is particularly important if you would otherwise have to introduce readers to accurate terminology and novel concepts. “Genome sequencing” should be dubbed “cracking the code” or “decoding the blueprint” or “mapping the genome”, for example, even though these clichés are quite inaccurate.

7. Appeal to common misconceptions, and substitute your own opinions and misunderstandings for the views of the scientific community.

It is important that readers’ misconceptions not be challenged when reading a news story. In fact, the more a report can reinforce misunderstandings of basic scientific principles, the better. This can be combined with step 6 to good effect. It is also helpful to insert your own views and misunderstandings as though they were those of the scientific community at large. For example, if you find something confusing, mysterious, or (un)desirable, assume that the scientific community as a whole shares your view.

8. Seek balance, particularly where none is warranted.

A primary tenet of journalism is that it present a balanced view of the story and not make any subjective judgments. The fact that the scientific community has semi-objective methods for determining the reliability of claims (such as peer review and the requirement of repeatably demonstrable evidence) should not impinge on this. It is therefore important to present “both sides” of every story, even if one side lacks any empirical support and is populated only by a tiny minority of scientists (or better yet, denialists and cranks). This does not necessary conflict with step 5, because a false controversy can be set up using an appeal to balance. For example, a productive strategy is to provide one quote from someone at the periphery of the field and one quote from a recognized expert to make it seem as though there is debate about an issue within the scientific community. Under no cricumstances should you explain why the scientific community does not accept the views of the non-expert. This has proven very effective in stories about issues that are controversial for political but not scientific reasons, such as evolution and climate change.

9. Obscure the methods and conclusions of the study as much as possible.

Try not to give many details about the study. A simplistic analogy is much better than actually describing the methodology. Better yet, don’t discuss the methods at all and simply focus on your own interpretation of the conclusions. Be sure to describe said conclusions in terms of absolutes, rather than the probabilistic or pluralistic ways in which scientists tend to summarize their own results. Error bars are not news.

10. Don’t provide any links to the original paper.

If possible, avoid providing any easy way for readers (in particular, scientists) to access the original peer-reviewed article on which your story is based. Some techniques to delay reading of the primary paper are to not provide the title or to have your press release come out months before the article is set to appear. An excellent example, which also combines many of the points above, is available here.

This list is not complete, but it should suffice as a rough guide to writing truly awful science news stories.

15 thoughts on “Anatomy of a bad science story.

  1. Great and funny post (especially point No. 10)! Sarcasm always has a bigger impact. All we can do is to hope this message will be delivered to the targets…

    Anyway, if we should avoid all of these points, what are your tips on how to make science more readable for even laypeople?

  2. Ryan,

    The negative feelings expressed by your sarcasm are funny but unfair – thus unlikely to gain friends for good science reporting.

    Imagine that you would not fully understand e.g. what ENCODE rather cryptically broke to the world on June 14, 2007. Essentially all “axioms” (most dramatically the “Junk DNA” fairy tale) were confessed to be dogmatic and demonstrably untrue, with the originator of massive US taxpayer-financed project (Francis Collins, having conceived and led ENCODE) concluding: “the scientific community will need to rethink some long-held views…”

    Beyond dropping “Junk DNA” as a scientific term, “updating the definition” of what a gene is, moreover formally abandoning the discredited “Central Dogma” of Crick, and recent finding suggesting new mechanisms for evolution, it may not be overly surprising that some science writers are at a loss.

    They need help.

    As a journalist, would you not be a) aware that some major upheaval is going on that must not go unreported and b) quite a bit confused, since scientists in some blogs interpret the ongoing revolution of Genomics diametrically opposed to one-another? For instance, some “generously allowing” that maybe up to 5% of the human genome is, indeed, “not junk” – while e.g. Francis Crick himself is on the opinion that a certain amount of hubris is required for anyone to call any part of the genome ‘junk’? Would you not be flabbergasted if two eminent ENCODE fellows (first author Birney and pioneer Mattick) bet on a case of champagne if the “junk-level” is below or above 20%??

    Perhaps even more importantly, if you and/or your loved one might suffer from a dreadful disease (pick Parkinson’s for a shocker), would you not be outright outraged if it turned out the Genomics and the entire medicine were “barking up on the wrong tree” for decades, trying in vain to “find the single gene of Parkinson’s” – and it turned out that quite likely such effort will never be successful, as “most if not all hereditary diseases have their origin in the “Junk DNA” (Nobelist Sharp)?

    In the interest of you/your loved one suffering from Parkinson’s, would you not directly instruct you Congressperson to re-allocate your tax-dollars accordingly?

    Where else would the “hub of information” be for patient-taxpayers, congresspeople, individual scientists and the “establishment” if not in the media?

    Thus, your “edge” against confused science writers appears particularly unfair e.g. in your point #3 (regarding “human ailment”).

    We are not short in sacrasm, IMHO – don’t we have enough alienation/oppression surrounding the birth of PostGenetics (“Genomics beyond Genes” – or “Genomics beyond ENCODE”, if you like)?

    We are in need of a whole lot more compassion and mutual understanding of common goals of Society (e.g. of International PostGenetics Society), and society at large.

    We may also need more of those “portals” Junk DNA is one of them), where “Popular science writer articles” are cross-referenced with the original science papers – and particular suggestions are provided how to avoid “going wrong” next time (not “in general” as you sarcastically suggest, but in particular, for given cases with given science writers).

    It is my experience that science writers, especially after having been “re-interpreted” can be quite appreciative of help and next time “call ahead” and have their popular science writing checked – not only with fellow-scientists “who were not involved in the study”, but also e.g. with a “PostGenetics Evangelist–” who is a bona fide scientists on one hand, and also very much cares about the public opinion.

    Since you are outstanding from the viewpoint of such double role, my assumption is that you might find that your directing the public opinions in the middle of a “revolution of a science and technology” to the socially most important (and least divisive) issues would be much appreciated. IMHO, one of them is precisely those “human ailments” that were notoriously neglected, since Modern Genomics (before its PostModern era) “looked only under the lamp” to find “genes” for them.

    Now, as International PostGenetics Society is calling for its 1st World Congress (after its “European Inaugural” in 2006 where it became the organization – before ENCODE – to formally abandon “junk DNA” as a scientific term) it would be great to have you as a positive player to attain some vital goals.

  3. I understand your frustration, but effective science communication is not about a bunch of specialists cracking insider jokes among each other.

    At its essence, science communication should convey the excitement of the discovery to the public who has little or no training (or even deeply entrenched misconceptions) in science.

    It’s not easy to capture the attention of the readers. Some oversimplification or sensationalization is hard to avoid.

    I was a regular reader – you have a really informative and insightful blog, but your latest post makes me sad.

    Thanks for the superb posts in the past, and have a great week ahead.

  4. Funny post, but regarding point 2, you have to know that the vast majority of headlines in the media are not written by the person whose name appears as the byline below them, they are written by headline writers and sub-editors. It is their task to draw in the reader and to catch people’s attention. I have suffered terribly at the hands of subbies over the years 😉

    David Bradley Science Writer

  5. …if I may also add number 11 to your list:

    Come up with top 10 sarcastic comments about science stories to have have your own popular blog story 😉

  6. Splendid guide which has given a real shock of recognition when reading through it – who knew that this was so formalised ;->

  7. Spot on. The “Scotsman”, an Edinburgh based newspaper, regularly has science stories written by someone who follows your guidelines. Frequently it takes me a minute searching the internet to find out what the story was really about and who did the research and what they really said.

  8. I think it’s worth pointing out that these weaknesses don’t just apply to science journalism. They apply to ALL specialist journalism.

    Scientists have a tendancy to assume that their discipline is uniquely “badly” represented in the media. Not so.

    Do you think that lawyers read law journalism and think “wow, that article really captured the technical details of the law, and accurately portrayed how it works.” No. Likewise economists, philosophers, artists, businesspeople, social scientists, etc, etc, etc.

    The basic problem is that the norms of journalism are not the same as the norms of science or any other technical discipline. They never have been and they never will be, because the norms of journalism are all about being noticed, read, enjoyed and understood – on a single read, with no assumption of prior knowledge.

    If we (yes, I’m a SJ) abandoned the norms of journalism for the norms of science, all it would achieve is that nobody on the outside would read our stuff.

    I know which evil I’d choose.

    So your post is spot on, but let me assure you that most science journalists (the decent ones anyway) already know this stuff, and wrestle with it daily.

  9. as a representative from a country that is nervous about its place in the world and a little insecure, we always seem to have to include “world leading” to describe our researchers. if they aren’t already world leading, then what are they researching? apparently some fungi produce small compounds that can kill bacteria!!!

  10. Your post shows that while you may be an avid reader of science stories, you clearly don’t write ’em.
    Writing a good science news story is all about holding people’s attention for long enough to impart the major points. It is sad, but inevitable, that some of the finer detail of the methodology, historical context and implications of the research will be lost.
    I’m sure that many other disciplines than science similarly complain that journalists have “simplified” their work.
    If we followed your rule book, the science stories produced would be dull, but worthy. No one would read them. Many people would miss out on the thrill of science

  11. It is sad, but inevitable, that some of the finer detail of the methodology…

    To the point of being wrong? That’s the problem, if you follow his rules (which many science writers do) you end up writing a story that is wrong. Not just subtly wrong, but fundamentally and completely wrong.

    Take this story:

    A large number of newspapers are now writing that you can extract energy by burning seawater. That’s not a case of “missing small details”. It’s a case of by not checking the details, missing that this is a hoax.

  12. Lim:

    Lighten up, man! This is an important issue. It is simply the truth that at the lower and middle end of science reporting, the scientific work being reported is, to put it bluntly, misreported.

    A result of this is the growth in many areas of science (genetics, human evolution, cancer studies) of a kind of misinformed culture, to the extent that even the better science reporting has to bow to the misconceptions that have emerged in said culture.

    It’s a serious problem that needs to be dealt with.

    (So, I said “lighten up” then I got very serious … what I mean is that you are giving our host a hard time for saying something that needs to be said.)

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