Radio Freethinker

Vancouver's Number 1 Skeptical Podcast and Radio Show

Baby Steps: Why Small Science Stories are Boring

Posted by Jenna Capyk on September 27, 2011

We’ve all heard of them, the “Eureka!” moments. Those heart-stopping instances of blinding discovery, overturning paradigms in an instant and making whole fields take notice at once. Yes, we’ve all heard of them. Even in the most complicated scientific fields with the most technical language and concepts a half-decent communicator can make this moments into great news stories that can truly capture the attention and imaginations of the general public. The problem? The vast majority of the time this is not the way that science moves.
For the most part, scientific discovery is like constructing something large and strong out of many many small pieces. In reading the scientific literature it quickly becomes apparent that not only is each piece of the puzzle small, but that standing alone, most of them are pretty unconvincing. Often it’s the mutual consistency of many findings that give them weight within our current theories. In many fields, building scientific understanding involves a model with pieces of evidence either confirming or calling into question this model. These two types of results then lead to either strengthening of the model and current theories, or revision of the model to take into account newer findings. Consider putting together a puzzle with all of the pieces but no template for what it’s supposed to look like. You might have an idea from the individual pieces that it’s a scene of a house and sky. As the pieces come together you might confirm that there is a sky, but find that it’s a fence and not a house. Sometimes, especially if the pieces are small and numerous enough, you might find that what you thought was a sky is actually an ocean, or a mirror, or something else that really changes the model all together. At this point you begin working to test this new premise.

In this metaphor, each puzzle piece represents one small discovery, one finding, one scientific paper. This is what makes it so difficult to write traditional news stories about most scientific findings: they just don’t say much on their own. Imagine trying to get a balanced, accurate, and vivid picture of a whole puzzle by interviewing someone very familiar with one piece. Unless the interviewee is uncommonly enlightened, that interview is going to be slanted toward the minutiae of that piece. Don’t get me wrong, those details can be incredibly fascinating to the correct audience, but will not necessarily capture the attention of many people outside of the immediate field. Further problematic, from a reporting point of view, is the need for endless qualifiers and indefinite language in the description of a single discovery. Because each piece on it’s own doesn’t say too much, a conscientious scientist really can’t say that it does. Often this has the effect of watering down a discovery to the point of complete irrelevance in the minds of many consumers.

As I see it, it follows that one problem with scientific communication in the mainstream media is a need to adapt reporting methodologies to reflect the nature of scientific subjects. Often interviewing a single voice about a “new discovery” results in an unbalanced story or one that is simply boring to most people. For the most part, scientific advancement is pretty hard to pigeon-hole into the “breaking news” category. They’re different kinds of stories, requiring a different communication approach to help everyone see just how amazing they really are.

One Response to “Baby Steps: Why Small Science Stories are Boring”

  1. hence why each new piece of evidence that apparently “CONFIRMS” or “REJECTS” the climate crisis, is nothing more than peanut-gallery banter from the oversimplified minds of the associated choir’s die-hards and blow-hards, respectively.

    Whether the topic is climate change, cancer, string theory, or even public policy – one (and all) must take each new piece of information into context with the cannon of previous observations and data, and still look at the insights from the Whole, before concluding that some great big Game-Changer has occured.

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