This afternoon, I saw several things which inspired me to write this. The first was this helpful guide on how to write about poor people. Thanks, alybatt. The second is this news story from FOX (where else?), which explains how the volcanoes that killed the dinosaurs 250 million years ago erupted a layer of coal which is killing giving women in a particular Chinese county lung cancer. (Believe it or not, there is an actual true story behind all that, covered well here by Wired. You can read a deconstruction of the FOX one here.) Throw in a video of Jenny McCarthy claiming her personal beliefs are a better guide for public health than clinical studies…In the spirit of public service, I have thus put together some rules of thumb for journalists and writers covering the sciences. Ahem.
1) Begin your story “Scientists announced today.”
2) Use the newest, most preliminary research you can find. Don’t wait for further studies or the formation of scientific consensus. People need to know what causes and cures cancer now.
3) Report research with confindence. Scientists are afraid to make bold statements, and insist on undercutting themselves with things like “error bars” and “probability of Type I error.” Do them a favor and tell the public what their results really means.
4) At the same time, be very careful to maintain fairness and balance. Teach the controversy. If someone says acceleration due to gravity is 7.77 meters per second squared in the Bible, give scientists a chance to rebut it: “Some scientists, on the other hand, claim the correct value is 32.”
5) Don’t name any of the people involved in producing the research. Scientists do not deserve credit for their discoveries.
6) Don’t give a citation for the new journal article you’re writing about. Your summary of a press release is all the information anyone will ever want or need.
7) Scientists sometimes try to pull off vast conspiracies and hoxes on the public—like telling us that vaccines don’t cause autism or that increasing carbon dioxide concentrations warm the lower atmosphere. Ha! Make sure you find an uninformed lay person to keep them honest by questioning their so-called “expertise” and empirical “facts.” If the lay person—or Average Joe, if you will— has an ax to grind or a financial stake, so much the better.
8) Don’t use graphs or figures. They are nerdy and uninteresting. If you must, make them of cartoony things with few numbers on them. Bonus points for things nobody cares about.
9) Scientists are more like childish research-robots than people as you or I understand them. In your writing, their areas of interest should be gently condescended to.
10) Make your title as sensationalistic as possible to catch people’s attention. It does not need to reflect the results of the study. Try to sex things up a bit.
Above all, remember this: nobody actually cares about science, because it is so boring. Treating it as an important, real, and fascinating human endeavor in your writing is not only wrong—it’s futile.