Larry Moran on science journalism (relevant to junk DNA hype)

Some highlights relevant to discussions about the putative death of junk DNA, and also abiogenesis, that often come up here:

I want to preface my comments by making a generalization about science writing and science communication. It is awful. In those fields where I have direct knowledge, the general quality of science writing is far below any standard that scientists would find acceptable. My colleagues in other fields echo these concerns. The worst examples are university press releases where it would be challenging to find one that would get a passing grade in an undergraduate science course.


What’s the proper audience in this case? I maintain that it’s the scientifically literate readers who know something about the topic. If they aren’t onside then the rest of the audience doesn’t matter. This is why I say that the top three criteria in science communication are accuracy, accuracy, and accuracy. I get the impression that for press officers the top three criteria are publicity, publicity, and publicity.

Well it’s not difficult to see how, even to some scientists (and not just the journalists and their editors), the intended audience is really just as many people as possible. This is largely about making money through ad-revenue by generating clicks with a catchy and sensationalistic title and story (or, to universities, inflating prestige to attract more students and private investor funding). It’s not just the fault of science journalists. Many of the scientists being interviewed seem to me all too willing participants and complicit in hyping and sensationalizing their research well beyond what their data actually shows.


That’s where Larry goes wrong.

The “proper audience” for a book is anybody who will pay money to buy it. A book that adorns a bookshelf, but is never actually read, still makes money for the publisher. That’s just the way the world works.

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Sometimes the scientists get together in large groups, with large budgets. The leadership of those groups then put out press releases, and in extreme cases actually commission science journalism or even production of videos making exaggerated and miseading claims about what the group’s science showed (can you say “ENCODE”?).

This approach is often seen in palaeoanthropology, where many finds are described as overturning our view of human evolution. You see, up till now we didn’t really understand human evolution, but the finding of this skull (or femur, or whatever) has finally clarified things and now we finally understand human evolution. So let’s go make a National Geographic special. And the next find we make, we will say the same things, including saying that up till now we have not really understood human evolution. Which contradicts the previous statements about finally understanding human evolution. And of course often the form is described as being a new species, which doesn’t help matters.


2nd post by Larry on the topic is now up:


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