The Template For Every Weasely Science Article

Ever read an article about some scientific finding and wondered why you felt like you knew less afterward than you did before? And not in a wow, my mind has been blown, but in a what the heck was that rubbish kind of way. Have heart, as a satirical article in The Guardian skewering the format for every single useless and weasely science story ever written explains why.

A snippet:

This is a news website article about a scientific paper

In the standfirst I will make a fairly obvious pun about the subject matter before posing an inane question I have no intention of really answering: is this an important scientific finding?

In this paragraph I will state the main claim that the research makes, making appropriate use of “scare quotes” to ensure that it’s clear that I have no opinion about this research whatsoever.

Hey man, it’s a grind, someone has got to make the sausage.

This is a news website article about a scientific paper [The Guardian]

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  1. Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

    “This fragment will be put on its own line for no obvious reason.”

    I peed myself.

  2. AnthonyC says:

    This is why I usually no longer read science articles. They’re either written by people who don’t know science, or edited by people who assume no one wants to read about science. Heck, I can’t even watch the Discovery channel half the time, since they make everything sound so dramatic.
    For the record, I’m an engineering grad student with a chem & physics background. Also, I do sometimes read and pick apart especially bad articles that talk about the supposed dangers of this-or-that, just so I know what to say when my family asks me about it :-)

  3. Applekid ┬──┬ ノ( ゜-゜ノ) says:

    Don’t know about you, but this is definitely good news for me. GO SCIENCE!

  4. rdclark says:

    Oh, god. I work for a science institution that is often the subject of these stories. It is true, true, TRUE!

    He only left out one thing:

    “This is the paragraph where I re-state the scientist’s original clearly-written research extract, in the process mis-stating at least two fundamental facts so as to make the article read as gibberish to other actual scientists.”

    • NewsMuncher says:

      ah, I suspected as much. Nice to have that confirmed.
      What bugs me is that if the article is about a study – or really any experiment – rarely is relevant data given.
      E.g. if the study involved 15 people as opposed to 15,000, I would consider that very relevant to the reader if they have even the most basic understanding of statistics. Studies that require use of expensive equipment such as fMRI’s often involve very low sample sizes, and though it’s often groundbreaking research, the sample sizes are so small… so very small.
      But yes, what does this have to do with consumption/consumers?

      • Rectilinear Propagation says:

        How many times doe these articles convince people to start or stop buying something to avoid something that “science now says is KILLING YOU”?

  5. PsiCop says:

    How about the obligatory interview with a different expert, not related to the paper, on the matter? And what about the obligatory claim near the end, by someone who is involved in it, that “more study is necessary”?

    Another brilliant sendup of how journalists report science can be seen here.

    • BigHeadEd says:

      Dead on PsiCop, and I would add that there is always a funding sales-pitch tied to the current scarriest medical or scientific issue.

      In the 70′s, every medical advance had potential application in the “fight against cancer”, in the 80′s it was AIDS, in the 90′s it was to “prevent global warming”, and now it will help in “reversing climate change”.

  6. dreamfish says:

    I think sports and economics are the only areas where you get journalists that have expert knowledge. Science correspondents seem to either regurgitate every/any press release going or treat each scientific story as either a stunning breakthrough that will solve all problems or one that will destroy us all.

    • CookiePuss says:

      I just found out we can all be living on the planet Gliese 581 soon. I already purchased a hotdog stand I plan to take with me and set up there to give people a lil taste of home.

      “Personally, given the ubiquity and propensity of life to flourish wherever it can, I would say, my own personal feeling is that the chances of life on this planet are 100 percent,” said discoverer and astronomer Steven Vogt

      “100 PERCENT! Weeeeeeeeeeee!” said Cookiepuss.

      • tooluser says:

        As someone trained at the college level in the sciences, I can state quite sincerely that those of us in the scientific fields all know with great certainty that something is going on out there. We’re just not quite exactly sure what. But we are quite confident that with continued adequate increases in funding, that we shall endeavor to secure the knowledge that we so seek, and will duly report out to our peers the progress of our endeavors. The general public will thereby, by and large, gain from our advanced understanding of the situation, and so should continue to pursue, with all expedience, the procurement of public funds from all resources so envisioned for such purposes.

    • Shadowfax says:

      Wait, wait. What journalist do you read that’s an expert on economics?

      Hell the economists are clearly not experts on economics.

    • PsiCop says:

      I find I must disagree. When it comes to economics there is no such thing as an “expert.” You can say pretty much anything … anything at all … and contrive something “economic” that backs it up.

      Recent example: Has the economy recovered? Or has it not? Or is is somewhere in between? I’ve seen different stories almost back-to-back which have diametrically-opposed conclusions about that. But both are supported by “experts” on the economy.

      The truth about the “dismal science” is that it is … well! … a “dismal” science, in which nothing is certain, everything is possible, and everyone involved knows everything and nothing, all at the same time.

      In other words, it’s a joke.

  7. PunditGuy says:

    Made me think of The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra for some reason.

    “You know what this meteor could mean to science? If we find it, and it’s real, it could mean a lot. It could mean actual advances in the field of science.”

  8. tungstencoil says:

    I just spit my drink out :)

  9. Caged Wisdom says:

    Am I the only one who glanced at the headline, saw Science & Weas(ley) and thought this had something to do with Harry Potter?

  10. TheGreySpectre says:

    I find that Ars Technica generally has actually well written science and technology news, that is where I tend to go.

    • pj1280 says:

      The Consumerist is another good source (but then again, their writing is excellent across the board).

  11. Minj says:

    False balance is one of the biggest issues that science reporting has. The idea that there are two sides and that they need to be represented is false. They know this when it applies to other areas but they seem to forget it when it comes to science. They don’t have articles about a child being molested and then interview a molester who says how great it is. But yet they’ll throw in a few crank comments in many science articles because they think it needs to be balanced.

    They also use this balance trick to run fluff pseudoscientific pieces. They’ll have an article on ghosts or UFOs or homeopathy and then have one line from the token skeptic as if that completely validates it as a piece of journalism. A study was done that shows that when you disprove something to someone, that person later on doesn’t remember it as being disproved, instead they remember it as being true even stronger than before. Scary when you think about it and how it relates to these fluff pieces.

    • PsiCop says:

      Re: “False balance is one of the biggest issues that science reporting has. The idea that there are two sides and that they need to be represented is false.”

      +1 on that. Many things have no “opposing” side (at least not one that’s sane). The “duellistic approach” (as I call it) is usually B.S. Could you imagine a “duellistic” approach to, say, the color of the sky? “One expert we spoke to said the sky is blue, however, another contends it’s actually red.”

      (BTW my apparent misspelling of “duellistic” is purposeful.)

      • YouDidWhatNow? says:

        That is an enormous problem…’Mercans especially think that “everyone has their right to their opinion” and that there’s some need to guarantee equal time to different ideas.

        Guess what – other ideas a $#%^ing stupid. And don’t deserve any time at all. And while you may be entitled to your opinion…your opinion may be $%#@ing stupid, and not deserving of any time at all.

        Ultimately, as a group, people are stupid and they like remaining stupid…therefore, they can’t be bothered to read about, write about, or generally comprehend actual science at all.

        • Rectilinear Propagation says:

          There’s a general anti-intellectual sentiment that seems to be growing as well.

          It certainly doesn’t help matters that people are being told and convinced that people who are very smart are eggheads, elitists, and intellectuals (which shouldn’t be an insult but somehow is when they say it). Therefore, they don’t actually know what they’re talking about or are trying to trick everyone and are not to be trusted.

          If you’re smart and knowledgeable enough to be an expert in something then you’re actually stupid. People say this with full sincerity. There’s eye-rolling the second they find out that someone explaining something has a PhD.

          And before anyone asks, it’s not all dirt-poor high school drop-outs doing it either.

    • Phineas says:

      I see an article about once or twice a year that does the balance right. Not where they try to get some completely opposite crank, but somebody who has a slightly different take on the data. Say, in an article interpreting about the most recent data in climate change in Greenland, they interview someone that shows data the permafrost is melting at a slower rate than the first scientist expected. Instead, most reporters would “balance” the article with a crank that goes on about how the earth is actually getting colder because a catholic from Beta Centauri predicted it would.

    • zxo says:

      Huh. I thought that study was disproven.

  12. Consumeristing says:

    This comment blames the OP for something that is not remotely their fault. Then subsequently brag on how you could’ve written this article yourself on an heirloom keyboard.

  13. RogueWarrior65 says:

    Right…it’s all about marketing. See, “global warming” didn’t work out so well because people in lots of places said “Why is it so effing cold?” so they pulled a “Sugar Smacks” to “Honey Smacks” and changed it “global climate change”. But now people are looking at that and thinking “Sh*t, the climate is ALWAYS changing, why should I give a crap?” so now they changed it to “global climate disruption” because that sounds soooo much more scary.

    • rdclark says:

      Does it make you feel better to focus on the label so that you don’t have to think about the ingredients?

      Read what the science actually says, not what ignorant journalists or politicians or bloggers wish that is said.

      That’s the real take-away on this funny article. Don’t read about science stories in the popular press. Seek out the sources.

  14. clownsRcreepy says:

    She blinded me with science…

  15. Sheogorath says:

    This post dedicated to snarky remark about this article having nothing to do with consumers.

    Follow up with insult to poster’s family and speculation about his sexuality.

    dvwld

  16. bon13 says:

    the comments are the best

  17. tooluser says:

    This late night comment creeps in before the editorial deadline, but will be removed before submission for final approval, if I wake up in time.

  18. tooluser says:

    This late night comment creeps in before the editorial deadline, but will be removed before submission for final approval, if I wake up in time.

  19. BigHeadEd says:

    I stopped getting too excited about reports on scientific advances once it seemed that every article was opening with the phrase “Scientists are now rethinking….”.

    Too much conjecture, drawn from limited data, is accepted as fact only later to be replaced by a more interesting explaination.

  20. Sockatume says:

    It’s quite specifically focussed on the Beeb’s web science reporting at that. The bit about everything being a single sentence and them refusing to link to the journal article is a Beeb trait.

  21. SPOON - now with Forkin attitude says:

    This comment documents how amusing this article was.
    This line of this comment states a funny joke about this article.
    This article awards the writer an internet point for the article.

  22. ElizabethD says:

    ROFL. Coming from (formerly) the PR office of a major research university, I totally relate to this hilarious parody.

  23. Captain Walker says:

    This post will provide multiple emoticons and an acronym to indicate that I am physically rolling on the floor and laughing when, in fact, I am still seated and only briefly chuckled once.

  24. Draw2much says:

    Did anyone read the comments to the original link? They’re quite humorous! :D My favorite:
    “This comment, falling in the hinterland between comment 15 and comment 25, will be read until there are 25 or more comments, whereupon it will no longer be read and will suffer the ignominy of being yet another 55 words I have wasted my life on, though fortunately not too much of your time reading.”