Cobblers does describe most science writing

bollocks by Adam Lerner

Guardian: The Sci Journalism satirist explains himself. If you’re in the biz, read this.
[Via Knight Science Journalism Tracker]

Remember that send-up of formulaic science reporting that Martin Robbins, science writer and blogger at the UK’s Guardian, put up last week and that promptly went viral and got noticed almost everywhere? If you don’t, see ksjt’s previous post, or go straight to Robbins’s post here. In this week’s Guardian he slaps himself a little sober, expresses amazement at this toss-off’s explosive spread (the pub’s most-read article of the week), and essays at length on what he was driving at:

I have quibbles around the edges and things I could discuss -such as not all his “scare quotes” are so scary or off-center from a study’s point – but the upshot: This is terrific. He puts well what I have sometimes referred to as the ability of superior reporters to take ownership of a story. Some commenters noted here that Part I last week was a quick and somewhat easy effort, i.e. perhaps on the shallow (if amusing) side. Read Part II – the author himself is not shallow. It’s BBC-centric, and thus illuminating in additional ways to US readers. It also is written in a land where there not only is the Beeb and a now-standard welter of on line outlets, but half a dozen or more daily, national newspapers with thriving, highly competitive science desks. Nonetheless the core message is universal to the daily science journalism trade


I had mentioned the parody earlier. Robbins explained a little bit why many BBC articles fit the template – the same article has to be able to be reformatted into several different forms, resulting in a style that seems a little stilted in some of them, such as the web.

But, he hits some really important points, ones that many writers should listen to. Scare quotes is one. And this point is dead on:

The defence from some corners is that reporters should be neutral, that their job is simply to report what has been said without passing judgement on it or challenging it in any way.

Cobblers. Ed Yong recently explained how daft this is:

If you are not actually providing any analysis, if you’re not effectively ‘taking a side’, then you are just a messenger, a middleman, a megaphone with ears. If that’s your idea of journalism, then my RSS reader is a journalist.

A science journalist should be capable of, at a minimum, reading a scientific paper and being able to venture a decent opinion. A more reasonable excuse is lack of time. Full-time reporters are expected to cover breaking stories quickly, and churn out several articles a day. Under that sort of pressure, even if the journalist wants to delve deeper into the murky depths of a story they may simply not have the time to do it justice.

I have to look up cobblers. I’m going with Rhyming slang for ‘balls (testicles)’ especially since he uses bollocks later. The British have such wonderful slang.

He has many important tjhings to write. This one displays a very good perspective on science itself:

Another set of problems spring from the attitude journalists seem to have towards science – or at least those who aren’t still describing researchers with the faintly bigoted and dehumanising term “boffins”. Science is all about process, context and community, but reporting concentrates on single people, projects and events.

Science is all about process, how a community of scientists provide context to a set of data resulting in new information leading to knowledge. Then the cycle starts again. Few articles provide the proper perspective on this, leading readers to see science as some sort of personality driven process, with every science paper being the pinnacle of research.

Science, particularly with complex, bleeding edge work, moves in fits and starts, sometimes having to move sideways or readjust itself in order to deal with new data. Science is about generating models to explain the world and then demonstrating whether those models hold up or not. It is seldom a one shot deal. The goal is to get a better understanding of the underlying principles.

And I am really excited to read that the BBC is moving to including links in its stories. The easiest way to tell whether a site gets it is whether they have links to other sites relevant to the story. I read and enjoy sites that give me easy access to the basic information, where I can vouch for myself the veracity of the story or find added facts that enhance it. I get frustrated and stay away from sites that require me to track down the paper myself.

The parody was wonderful but the essay ot led to is marvelous. I will be checking up a lot on Robbins because we have to support the 10% that are not crap.