“Revolutionary!” “Controversial!” What media talk about science really means

October 14, 2013 at 12:38 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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Like science itself, mainstream media reporting of scientific findings can be confusing, not least because ordinary words are given specialised meanings. To help the perplexed, here’s a light-hearted gloss of some of the commonest terms used by media folk to talk about science and scientists.

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“Expert” – knows more than we do.

“A leading …” – we’ve heard of this person (and we can barely spell their research discipline), so they must be important.

“Professor” – can mean either a) a professor or b) anyone with a doctorate.

“Scientists believe …” – the ones we asked said …

“X says [something controversial]” – and so they did, with a little judicious editing. Whaddya mean, out of context?

“New” – almost certainly not, but if even the researchers aren’t thorough about their literature searches, you can’t expect us media types to know about previous work. We can barely remember what happened yesterday.

“Extraordinary” – it sounded weird to us (but then, so does most of this science stuff).

“Important” – we can see how this might have something to do with the real world.

“Groundbreaking” – it’s in Nature, Science, or PNAS. Or, it’s female, disabled, or ethnic minority.

“Breakthrough” – something useful may possibly result from this at some point in the future.

“Landmark” – every scientist we asked, the press release, and the journal’s editorial all said this might make a difference.

“Revolutionary” – contradicts something said by somebody else.

“Controversial” – we suspect the only researchers who think this are the study’s authors, but hey, it’s eye-catching.

“A study suggests” – even we recognize that this one’s so provisional we need to say so.

“Abstract” – we haven’t a clue what this means, let alone if it’s any practical use.

“Theoretical” – see Abstract.

“Challenging” – we have no idea what they were banging on about.

“Developing” – we’re pretty sure they haven’t either.

“Theory” – anything more than a guess, put forward by a scientist.

“Hypothesis” – an irate scientist complained about how we misused the word theory.

“Anecdote” – a term of abuse used by scientists to complain about the media. We prefer to see anecdotes as baby datapoints.

“X causes Y” – X has been linked Y to by some statistical method. You don’t want to know the details, do you? Good.

“Correlated with” – a patient scientist explained to us that correlation is not causation, so now we can show off.

“X doubles the risk of Y (no baseline risk given)” – trust us, we’re headline-writers. And we’re not telling you what the original risk was because it’s so tiny that you’d realise this is a total non-story.

“X doubles the risk of Y (baseline given)” – we know you can’t make any sense of this statement without knowing what was doubled, so we’ve fed you the number. What we haven’t told you is that there are probably so many other factors causing Y that you don’t need to panic over X, at least until you’ve stopped smoking, changed your diet, done more exercise, moved to somewhere less polluted, and stopped worrying about all the crap in the media.

“A gene for X” – this gene produces a protein which may have some small influence on something in the body which eventually has something to do with X.

“Brain regions associated with X” – these brain regions seemed to be doing something when the few people tested in the study were X-ing, so they may have something to do with X. They’ve also been associated with lots of other things, but we like to keep the story clear and simple.

“Brain activity” – some complex statistical measure which some specialised research-folk think may be quite highly correlated with changes in brain cells, and a lot more less specialised folk think may have something to do with the mind, whatever the hell that is.

“Neurologist” – anyone who does anything related to actual brains (i.e. not a psychologist).

“Neuroscientist” – any person working on brains who’s explained to us that they’re not a neurologist.

“Remarkable” – a scientist who shows signs of being successful despite being a woman.

“Brilliant” – this guy’s a better self-publicist than most of his colleagues.

“Maverick” – weird even by scientific standards, and quite likely to be wrong.

“Confident” – probably a bully, and even more likely to be wrong.

“A lone voice” – the probability of wrongness is close to 1.

“Professor X could not be contacted …” – Professor X has had dealings with the media before.

“Fluent communicator” – wow, a scientist who doesn’t just stare at their feet!

“Engaging communicator” – this one smiles!

“Brilliant communicator” – this one can talk and they’re not bad-looking, for a geek.

“Difficult” – we suspect this one has autism.

“Dedicated” – you really chose to spend your career doing that?

“Committed” – it’s ridiculous how seriously you take this stuff.

 

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  1. Laughing. “Brilliant” and “Maverick” may be my favorite.


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