Friday, 1 February 2008

Science in the media

It has come to my attention that there remains much to be desired in the field of science reporting in the mainstream media (for which I am using the example of BBC News Online). While I'm all in favour of promoting enthusiasm for science, particularly in the younger generations, I do wish they would avoid the sensationalist wording with which this area has seemingly become saturated. At the moment, I have two recent articles in mind which demonstrate this; the first was entitled "'Bizarre' new mammal discovered", and is found here.

Obviously, as soon as I saw this headline pop up in my RSS feed, I was intrigued. The article failed to deliver, however; at first it seems to be claiming that nothing like this has been seen before. But as you read on, it becomes clear that the truth is far more mundane (though certainly big news and very exciting in itself, particularly for the researcher making the discovery). The "bizarre new mammal" is the 16th species of elephant shrew to have been discovered to date; it is distinct from the others by being slightly larger, and of different colouring. That's it. Hardly as impressive as the headline tried to make out.

The second article was a little worse: "Giant palm tree puzzles botanists". I was, once more, intrigued from the start; but already sceptical due to the "puzzles botanists" bit. It turns out that the tree grows to great size, then expends all its energy in an impressive flowering/pollination display, thus earning it the over-the-top moniker "self-destructing palm". Though this fact is the main focus of the article, the "puzzling" part only comes in a discussion of how it came to be there - which is soon explained by a perfectly plausible theory. Certainly the botanists wouldn't be puzzled by the "self-destructing" nature of this plant - it's far from being unheard-of.

I do wish the mainstream media didn't feel the need to dress up truly interesting news with sensationalist language - the bare facts in these cases should be enough to elicit fascination in themselves. In fairness to the good BBC, and in illustration of my point, I give you "Big mammals key to tree-ant team", a truly interesting piece of news, with virtually no "sexing up" involved. This is how it should be done.

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