Date: December 10, 2010

Title: The Perils of Science News!


Podcaster: Dr. Alex “Sandy” Antunes

Organization: Project Calliope LLC –

Description: Beware the science that you read! Also, why we scientists don’t write more of it.

Bio: Sandy looks at the science and the people in today’s 9-5 pro astronomy world, delivering monthly here and also twice a week at— and launching the first personal science/music satellite via

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[Dr. Antunes] Beware the Perils of Outreach! [ominous music]

I’m Dr. Sandy Antunes, here to warn you today of the Perils of Outreach [ominous music].

Think about it. Do you really know who I am? [ominous music] Is that person that wrote that last blog post really a scientist? [ominous music] Does anyone have the faintest idea who actually wrote the Wikipedia entry on black holes or string theory? [ominous music] What if everything you’ve read on the web about science was A LIE? [silly music] Err, wrong leit motif.

But the point remains– who is writing science on the web? All too often, it’s not career scientists or researchers.

First, the good news. Much of the science on the web is indeed good. It’s written by science-saavy writers, armchair scientists, or media staff attached to science missions. A heck of a lot of it is written by post-docs– recently minted PhDs who still have idealism and vigor.

Why don’t more working scientists blog, engage on web forums, and update wikis? Unfortunately, there’s a cycle that drives a researcher’s career: Proposals to Research to Papers.

More papers increases the odds a proposal wins. Proposals fund research. Research produces papers. It’s the Carnot Cycle of a Science Job.

Now, most scientists primarily enjoy the research part, the other two are just necessary work. A lot of scientists enjoy outreach and engaging the public. It’s fun! But, given limited time, do you work on papers and proposals so you can keep your job, or work on fun outreach that betters the world but gets you fired? Tough choice.

In fact, I’m talking at the AGU on their Friday session on improving that, but for now, it is what it is.

For you listeners, though, I can provide some advice. There are, alas, two quagmires of bad science out there. [ominous music] The first is mainstream journalism– science on TV, in newspapers, in mass media. It’s good but not great. There are exceptions but…

Okay, here’s an experiment. Grab a newspaper. If you don’t know what one is, look up ‘newspaper’ on Wikipedia, then go out to a 7-11 and buy one.

Find an article on a topic you’re familiar with, an expert in, or an article about one of your hobbies. If you know tech, choose something in computers. If you know education, read on that. If you helped with the State Fair, look up the article about the State Fair. A gold standard is, if someone you know got interviewed, you can find out from them what they actually said and compare it to the article.

Now, find all the things that are not quite right, slightly off. The stuff that ranges from outright errors– which are rare, but there — to the “wait, that’s not how it works” or “that’s not what happened” stuff.

It’s not that journalists get it wrong, but the stuff reported often isn’t quite _right_. It misses stuff, or has an overly broad conclusion, or it quotes something without the full context.

And it’s not the journalist’s fault. They’re just a translator going from source to article to editor to you. And like any translation, there will be gaps.

Once you find those gaps in an article on a subject you know very well, realize those gaps are there for EVERYTHING else in the paper. Science, politics, economics, education, even local events– they all have the same “nearly there but not quite” problem.

And this is the source point for all TV and further media coverage, which can often magnify these over time.

The only exception is sports– those guys and gals really know their stuff. Go figure. Anyway…

Beware the quick media coverage, know that it’s good but has flaws. So try to get the original source, where they got their information from, when possible. With the web today, that’s actually very straightforward.

The second danger zone is a far more serious monster everyone has heard of– agenda-driven loons. These are the isolated single-topic bloggers, the conspiracy theorists, or the all-too-prevalent TV pundits [ominous music] who have an idea that they want to sell you.

The big so-called ‘controversies’ of the day– evolution, global warming, Coke vs Pepsi– are some of these examples. People like Penn & Teller are making a living refuting this sort of thing.

And that teaches us the first rule in navigating the perils of web science– detecting bias.

Here’s an indicator. If someone is talking about huge controversies, of people suppressing ‘the truth’, or of a conspiracy by scientists, just sit back and grab some popcorn, because you’re entering the world of fiction.

Science can be entertaining, but it’s not about conspiracy and suppression. Heck, science is based on change.

We freely admit that today’s knowledge will be replaced by tomorrow’s better understanding.

About the only true fighting controversy in science in whether to name Pluto as a planet or not, and as I’ve talked before, that’s not even science, just taxonomy. Pluto doesn’t change whatever we name it. Back to ideagogues.

Besides the other warning signs I gave, look also for the “They Want You” punch.

Someone says what they believe in, fine. Someone tells you “scientists want you to believe something” for their agenda, epic fail.

We’re scientists, and we don’t want you to believe anything– we want you to understand how things fit together so you can see in your own head what an amazing universe we’re in.

And remember, on big science questions, different people and different scientists hold different views. But not all views are equal, and science is a way of sorting out the true from the guesses and understanding things better, over time.

So support your local scientist, know where your science comes from, and have a happy New Year!

I’m Dr. Sandy Antunes, the Daytime Astronomer, signing off. You can read my work twice a week at Good bye! [music close]

End of podcast:

365 Days of Astronomy
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