Saturday, April 25, 2009

Science in the Media:Put Up or Shut Up

Kathy Sykes is a professor of sciences and society at the University of Bristol (UK). She writes about science journalism in the latest issue of New Scientist [Science in the media: Put up or shut up].

Sykes doesn't like the fact that scientists are criticizing popular science journalism. Ryan Gregory has already posted an article about this and I urge you to go to Genomicron and leave a comment on his posting: Scientists about media: put up or shut up?.

I just want to make one point. Sykes writes ...
Similarly, New Scientist recently took flak over its cover that proclaimed "Darwin was wrong". The article inside described discoveries that are leading to modifications to the theory of evolution. A cheap trick to sell magazines while giving fodder to the enemies of evolution? Sales certainly went up that week, but if more people than usual bought the magazine and read the article, more people will have found that scientists agree that Darwin was fundamentally right.
The three most important criteria for good science journalism are: accuracy, accuracy, and accuracy. Everything else is secondary.

My objection to that article in New Scientist was that it had nothing to do with Darwin. It's not a question of whether Charles Darwin was right or wrong about horizontal gene transfer and the early evolution of prokaryotes. He had absolutely nothing to say about the matter. Dragging Darwin's name into modern molecular evolution was a cheap ploy to boost sales. People reading the article would have still got the wrong impression about Darwin's contributions, even if they had ignored the cover.

The article was scientifically inaccurate because it misrepresented the state of science in 2009 [Explaining the New Scientist Cover].


  1. I'm glad you raised this in your blog. I read the article and was very irritated by it. In her first sentence with her "ourselves" she identifies herself as a scientist, but is she? She has a PhD in physics, but what has she published (other than as a journalist)? She lists no research publications on her page at the University of Bristol site, and I haven't managed to find any at the Web of Science. (That doesn't mean there aren't any, of course: maybe she published under a different name; maybe I didn't search properly.) This is important, because if she has done any actual scientific research she should realize that correcting the errors and omissions of other scientists is how science advances. How on earth does she think discoveries are made if not by "criticising each other's efforts"?

  2. "Everything else is secondary." Huh? Do you know anything about communicating about science? Once again, your ignorance manifests.