By James Dacey
The first science results from the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) present a mixed bag for both scientists and journalists. On the one hand, they show that the machinery of this high-profile $1.5bn mission is actually working. And as my colleague Michael Banks reported earlier today, the excess of positrons, confirming previous measurements, represent an important step in the hunt for dark matter. But on the other hand, this was not a moment to break out the champagne at the celebration of new physics. In reality, it was an important step in testing the precision of the instrument, as well as a reminder that we all need to be patient while we wait for more data.
Given the scale and scope of the AMS mission, it is not surprising that the scientists involved in analysing these first results are keen to share their excitement with the general public. One way they have been doing this is by talking to the media and speculating about the significance of the findings. I find it really interesting to look at how the results have been covered in the headlines of the mainstream media. The BBC ran with “Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer zeroes in on dark matter”. Over the pond, the New York Times went for “Tantalizing New Clues Into the Mysteries of Dark Matter”, adopting the classic science-writing metaphor of a detective story. Both parties presented these early results as an exciting development in a gripping plot to uncover one of the long-standing mysteries of the cosmos.
However, not everyone has been accepting of the way the AMS mission is being portrayed in the media. Among them is the theoretical physicist Matt Strassler, who wrote a detailed blog article yesterday about the new AMS results. In the article he took a swipe at the media coverage: “Despite what you may read, we are no closer to finding dark matter than we were last week. Any claims to the contrary are due to scientists spinning their results (and to reporters who are being spun).”
Just to clarify, Strassler was not referring specifically to the BBC or the New York Times, more the news-making machine in general. The implication is that the scientists involved with the analysis of these first AMS results are responsible for over-hyping the work and thus misrepresenting the science. If you want to get all meta about it, you could say that Strassler is positioning himself as the informed voice of reason among a babble of excitable scientists and journos who are easily misled.
In this week’s Facebook poll we would like you to share your thoughts on this issue by responding to the following question.
Should scientists speculate openly in the mainstream media about new science results?
Yes, this would make science appear more exciting
No, it is only useful to present clear-cut results
As always, please feel free to post a comment either on the Facebook poll, or on this blog entry, to explain your response.
In last week’s poll, we asked you a question relating to another aspect of science communication: “What is the most common problem with academic presentations?” The most common response was failure to engage the audience, which picked up 51% of votes. The other responses were as follows: too long (12%); pitched at the wrong level (21%); dodgy slides (7%); and the use of Comic Sans typeface (1%). The remaining 6% went for the “something else” option. Suggestions included “lack of organisation” and “generally boring”.
Thank you for all your suggestions and we hope to hear from you again in this week’s poll.