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Saturday, December 22, 2007

Breakthrough of the Year in Science

For the longest time science journalists have been misusing the word "breakthrough." What they usually mean is any scientific discovery that merits a press release by a university or a scientific journal. Both of these sources are biased and it's the role of competent science writers to recognize that bias and report the real significance of a scientific publication.

Science usually advances incrementally, building slowly but surely on the work of others. Real "breakthroughs" are extremely rare.

All scientists know this so it comes as a major disappointment to see the publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) promoting a "Breakthrough" of the Year [Breakthrough of the Year: Human Genetic Variation]. Why couldn't this be a scientific achievement of the year or a scientific advance of the year? Either of those words gives a better impression than"breakthrough" and allows us to nominate real advances in science that aren't necessarily breakthroughs.

1 comment :

TheBrummell said...

I agree. I think the word "breakthrough" should be reserved for truly momentous discoveries or developments, not simply the largest 5% of the daily flow of incremental advances.

"Advance of the year" sounds good to me.