Journalists Are Amplifiers

A few days ago, Bee put up a post titled Do We Need Science Journalists?, linking back to Bora’s enormous manifesto from the first bit of the Horgan-Johnson bloggingheads kerfuffle. My first reaction was “Oh, God, not again…” but her post did make me think of one thing, which is illustrated by Peter Woit’s latest (no doubt a kerfuffle-in-the-making).

Bee quotes Bora urging bloggers to keep twirling, twirling, twirling toward the better day when scientists communicate to the general public, without all the hype and exaggeration:

Perhaps if we remove those middle-men and have scientists and the public start talking to each other directly, then we will have the two groups start talking to each other openly, honestly and in an informal language that is non-threatening (and understood as such) by all. The two sides can engage and learn from each other. The people who write ignorant, over-hyping articles, the kinds we bloggers love to debunk (by being able to compare to the actual papers because we have the background) are just making the entire business of science communication muddled and wrong.

It’s a lovely thought, but runs into the problem that journalists aren’t making up the “hype” out of whole cloth. They’re getting it from the scientists.

That’s where Woit’s piece comes in. Like most of Peter’s writing about string theory, it’s a little overheated, but his basic point is similar to the sort of thing Bora’s complaining about: the articles he links to make over-hyped claims about what can and can’t be done with the string theory.

The Symmetry article he cites does get off to a bad start, what with the headline “String theory predicts experimental result” and the opening:

One of the biggest criticisms of string theory is that its predictions can’t be tested experimentally-a requirement for any solid scientific idea.

That’s not true anymore.

That’s certainly exaggerated to the point of not being terribly accurate, at least as I understand the situation. A more accurate statement would be that some of the mathematical apparatus of string theory can be applied in very different contexts to predict some of the properties of strongly interacting fluids. It’s not like they’ve modeled the individual lithium atoms in the Duke experiments as vibrating strings, or somehow managed to bootstrap themselves up from the quark scale to ultracold atoms without actually predicting particle properties along the way.

So, the headline and opening paragraphs are exaggerated, or at least give an exaggerated impression of the results. But is this something the journalist in question made up? Not really.

After all, let’s look at the description of the AAAS panel that sparked the whole thing (helpfully quoted in Clifford Johnson’s epic diary of the event (has anybody ever seen Clifford and Bora in the same place?)):

Physicists built the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC), a particle accelerator at Brookhaven National Laboratory, to recreate a form of matter that last existed mere microseconds after the Big Bang. Their aim was to create and probe this predicted gaseous plasma of free quarks and gluons — the most basic constituents of matter — to better understand the forces that hold the universe and everything in it together. What they found was surprising, and much more interesting, attracting the attention of scientists and others outside their field. Instead of behaving like a gas of free quarks and gluons, the matter created at RHIC appears to be more like a liquid. In fact, it’s the most “perfect” liquid ever observed, with virtually no viscosity, or resistance to flow. As it turns out, calculations of the perfect liquid’s viscosity can be derived using methods of string theory, linking RHIC with that theory’s search for extra dimensions of space and time and theoretical black holes. RHIC experiments may even provide ways to test predictions of string theory, which to date has not been possible. In addition, RHIC’s findings of what happens with hot, dense matter help in understanding ultra-cold matter and possibly even high-temperature superconductors and neutron stars.

And then there’s Clifford, quoted in the Symmetry article:

“We’re still very far from getting string theory in good enough shape to really understand all those questions,” he said. “But what is really encouraging is when that tool box you’ve been working on to gear up to understand those questions, when you find a way of making that toolbox useful in some other experiments. That tells you that your tool is a robust tool that may be on the right track. So we haven’t proven that reality is all about string theory or however you want to put it, but we certainly have indeed found a place, it seems, where string theory has been a useful guide and has made been making some modest but sharp and testable predictions in the lab.”

Both of those carefully avoid saying outright that this work proves string theory, so the claim in the first two sentences of the article is, strictly speaking, exaggerated beyond what they said. But this is not a matter of the journalist inventing unreasonable claims due to scientific ignorance so much as the journalist picking up a really obvious hook that was placed right in front of her with a great big sign saying “Grab the Hook!”

(If you want to find an embarrassing display of scientific ignorance in that article, you need to go to the next paragraph, and the description of John Thomas’s experiments at Duke, including the Hall of Shame sentences: “Then they hit the ball of atoms with a carbon-dioxide laser beam. The atoms started banging into each other and quickly evaporated.” Ow. It’s tangential to the main point, and nobody who reads Symmetry will care, but still. Ow, ow, ow, ow, ow.)

It’d be lovely if we had a totally hype-free world of science communication, but it’s hopelessly naive to think that this can be achieved by eliminating professional science journalists from the communications loop. When you find exaggerated claims printed in the science media, more often than not, they’re not too far removed from things said by the scientists themselves.

To paraphrase something said during the framing fracas a year or so ago, anybody who thinks scientists don’t “frame” their work has never written a research grant. Not a successful one, anyway.

Do journalists strip out the occasional critical qualifier, tipping an inflated-but-not-untrue claim over the line? Sure. But I’ve seen very few cases where that made a qualitative change in the claims that were made by the scientists themselves. Media-savvy scientists, I suspect, will even do this deliberately, saying things that walk right up to the line, knowing that reporters writing about the story will take it across for them.

If the goal is to get rid of “hype” and exaggerated claims in mass media, getting rid of journalists won’t get rid of the problem. As long as scientists have to compete to get funding, and justify their funding once they’ve got it, there will be exaggerated claims made about scientific results. Journalists don’t do anything but slightly amplify claims made by the scientists themselves.

Yeah, you could reduce the total amount of exaggeration somewhat by taking journalists out of the loop. I’m not sure that removing the people who best know how to write a compelling news story is a price we ought to be willing to pay, though.

(For the record, Clifford includes the Symmetry article in his collection of links, but doesn’t comment on its contents. He does correct some things in the Physics World article, and again avoids making really strong claims himself.)