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Should scientists speculate openly in the mainstream media about new science results?

By James Dacey

Read all about it! (Courtesy: iStockphoto/DNY59)

Read all about it! (Courtesy: iStockphoto/DNY59)

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.

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  1. M. Asghar

    The AMS data collected over 18 months, do show the excess of positrons going up to 350 GeV, which seems to be independent of direction and time. However, at present, one just CAANOT talk about its pertinence to dark matter. The data at higher energies may reveal something more meaningful backing or excluding some theories about the nature and properties of dark matter. Of course, the hype of the media due to some researchers themselves, is very unhealthy.

  2. John Duffield

    That sure was a good article by Matt Strassler*. I found the poll a bit tough though. I think scientists should speculate, but there’s a big difference between honest speculation and misleading hype.

    * It says Stassler in the blog entry.

  3. Peerally

    The theme of the article is an important one and needs serious discussion but we cannot guarantee any fruitful outcome. To start with the mainstream media falls in the private sector and scientific comments will always thrive whether the author gives his real name or not as with this comment here. The intellectual culture of the whole world is rapidly changing and the public earnestly wishes to engage in the scientific debates. This is something nobody can alter.On the other hand the media has become so pervasive that scientists, who are also humans, want to be seen to be talking. However not all can be objective as is required in scientific ethics. The other big new development is the contemporary development of social scientific themes, sometimes backed by huge quanta of followers. They constitute pressure groups and can be unpredictable as to how they, including their peers, interface with society. On the whole science academies ought to study how scientists should conduct themselves when it comes to scientific reporting. However even such a move will be very problematic because many of our leaders are themselves speculating particularly in commercial publications. Finally maybe we should just allow things to evolve naturally as there does not appear to exist a better feasible and realistic alternative.

    • M. Asghar

      Good comment. However, it is in the nature of things that science and scientific acitivity will always move forwards even though the all pervasive media may end up as the main and unhealthy source of stress (for survival) for the reseachers.

  4. C Fred Crawmer

    Way too much fluff/yellow sheet journalism in the media today. Any positive, additional exposure be it speculation or hard data in Science, Math & Technology will get more folks thinking & discussing those topics. Enough dumbing down of America I say.

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