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Will science reporters ever get it?

January 28, 2008

I saw a link to this LiveScience report over at Southern Exposure just now.

Now, I’m not going to argue that human civilization hasn’t significantly changed the planet. We have. And I’m not going to argue that we shouldn’t call the current time something new to reflect that. We probably should.

What miffs me is the language. Check out the title of the article:

Humans Force Earth into New Geologic Epoch

WTF? It’s as if the new epoch was coming sometime in the future, but we made it come quicker. WE MAKE UP THE TIME PERIODS PEOPLE!!! We decide when the boundaries are. They don’t frickin’ exist without us!

Let’s look at the first statement in the article:

Humans have altered Earth so much that scientists say a new epoch in the planet’s geologic history has begun.

Maybe one can say I’m being nit-picky about semantics, but don’t you see what’s wrong with this? “…scientists say a new epoch…has begun”. Wrong. Scientists are saying we ought to CALL it a new one to reflect these changes. It’s as if the time periods exist somehow and we discovered them, their boundaries, and all their Anglo-Saxon (with some Russian, French, and others) names.

I blogged about this some months ago. All too often, I hear something like “When the Cretaceous period came to a close, the dinosaurs died out”. Wrong. The Cretaceous ends there BECAUSE the dinosaurs died out. We made up these time periods based on that. Argh.

Science reporters, students, general public … it’s time to stop the madness. Call me a jerk, but it’s time to get your heads out of your a@#es and understand this. It’s everybody’s fault.

Whew…I feel better.


16 Comments leave one →
  1. January 28, 2008 1:38 pm

    Ooh yes, my blood pressure is rising too! Science journalists (and all too often scientists while trying to explain a complicated concept) have a tendency to whack everything into a narrative style, and when they do this they almost always get the causal relationship (if there is one) the wrong way round.

    I’m reminded of my officemate at Wash U (who is now, I am sorry to say, an assistant professor), who thought it was really cool that the UK had all the major geological periods…

  2. January 28, 2008 2:15 pm

    I’m writing an article on the “Anthropocene” right now. I think I’ll sure up the actual concept of a geological time period in there, just so there’s a better chance someone will stumble onto an article with a proper discussion in the text (yours and if I finish writing it, mine).

    On another note of scientific journalism being terrible, I read an article on Mantle plumes over at Ole’s blog (, which linked to a Spiegel Online article (, where this paragraph appeared:

    “Today, every child learns in school that the continents are enormous plates that drift on the Earth’s red-hot mantle like icebergs on the ocean. Yet this hypothesis still lacks a logical and convincing foundation. Nobody has been able to explain the actual mechanics behind the motor that drives the drifting and breaking-up of the continental plates.”

    Problem 1: they obviously didn’t read this month’s AW. Problem 2: Plate tectonics is not a hypothesis, it’s a scientific theory. Problem 3: Was this article written in the 50s!?

    The article is basically a one-sided hat-tip to Maruyama Shigenori’s mantle plume hypothesis and is thin on details, or links to any journal articles of note or seminal papers. Which is another annoying thing I find with scientific journalism, they’ll say (most of the time) “Scientists have discovered this” and never give reference to any papers or journal articles you can look up for more information if, you know, you’re an actual scientist.

    Urgh. It makes the blood boil.

  3. January 29, 2008 7:34 pm

    I read a lot of the typical news websites. I think that it is quite rare to find an article about an earth science topic that is written by someone with a reasonable background in science. Without that it is very easy for the writer to say things the wrong way, or the right way and be slightly off the mark. Scientists are often no better and none of us are perfect.

    Beyond lack of background they face at least three other challenges: 1) they always must report on deadline (which requires draw-and-shoot writing); 2) they are often retelling a story that they did not witness directly; and, 3) they are given guidelines for reporting that don’t allow extensive citations linking out to all of the journals and reference sites.

    The fact of it is…. these are the people who report our news, and until USGS or NSF or state geological surveys put a graduate geologist in every news office across the country, we can only thank them for doing their best.

  4. January 30, 2008 8:46 am


    Good point. Unfortunately, science reporters are in the situation where when they do a good job, they don’t hear about it from most scientists…but when they do something wrong or misleading we get all worked up. This is our world…we are constantly critiquing every last little detail of each other’s work…we extend that to popular media as well.

    Secondly, I don’t know how some of these magazines work…I wonder if the magazine editors make suggestions/edits that alter the wording and tone to sound more “exciting”. This makes a lot of scientists crabby because we already think it’s exciting :)

    I read science reports and popular science articles/books all the time…only once in a while do I think negatively enough of a particular piece to blog about it. Most of the time I enjoy this stuff.

  5. January 30, 2008 9:52 am

    As one of those reporters who wrote about this (over at Wired Science — link below) I’m not sure I understand your dismay. Yes, a geological time period is an arbitrary construct — but it’s still based on objective physical phenomena that exist independently of our perception of them. If there were no words for different ages, the “ages” would not exist, but the reality of the fossil and sedimentary records would be there, and people with the right tools would note differences even if they had no names for them.

    Re: science journalists overhyping discoveries and not providing context — you’re right, and we need to avoid that. I try to, but don’t always succeed. And unfortunately, the nature of the business is stacked against that sort of coverage — unless a journalist is lucky enough to be writing long-form pieces for a large magazine, they’re probably stuck trying to write a smart, accessible article about a complicated finding in the space of a few hours. And not just a few hours of writing, but a few hours to look at a study, do research, talk to scientists and *then* write.

    But at least we’re not (the best of us, anyways) just rehashing press releases. And just look at how many press releases go straight to the top of Digg — compared to that, crappy daily science journalism is Pulitzer-worthy.

  6. January 30, 2008 10:07 am

    Brandon…thanks for coming by and adding your two cents.

    You’re absolutely right…the physical phenomena of Earth history certainly exist without us and our constructs to understand them. My main beef is perhaps a rather subtle tone.

    The phrase I talked about above from the article:

    “Humans have altered Earth so much that scientists say a new epoch in the planet’s geologic history has begun”

    By saying a new epoch has begun rather than we (humans) are recognizing that we need to create a new epoch is misleading to me. The tone (at least to me) sounds like we’ve “discovered” a new temporal boundary. I think it is important to report the process of reclassification and recategorization in science. It’s not discovered or happened upon…it’s made to happen that way actively and with a lot of work and discussion.

    Does anyone see the difference? Or, am I just way too nit-picky?

    And Brandon, like I said, I don’t want to come off as against all science reporting…the vast majority of reporting I think is good. This is how I get most of my info for science outside of my little specialty.

  7. February 1, 2008 11:44 am

    I think that outside of the sphere of hard core geology writing some words acquire squishy definitions – even among geoscience professionals. When I first read the post, these came to mind.

  8. February 5, 2008 1:24 am

    Language is imprecise, and it is more imprecise (arguably) in media targeted to an audience that would understand “scientists say” to imply that “a handful of scientists suggest we ought to call…” I’d draw your attention to the linguistic category of “performative speech acts,” an idea that resides deeply in the realm of semantics. When “scientists say” a new epoch has begun (or whatever), the act of their saying it creates a new “epoch” (even if the Stratigraphic Committee hasn’t ratified it). That doesn’t mean their utterance redirects Earth processes. It means “saying” that a new category exists to describe the planet’s history makes it true that a new category exists to describe the planet’s history, regardless of events on the ground.

    If science writers (Disclaimer: I’m a science writer) are dangerously imprecise, where does that put blogging scientists? Look at this sentence from your response above: “By saying a new epoch has begun rather than we (humans) are recognizing that we need to create a new epoch is misleading to me.” “We (humans)” seems maddeningly imprecise. To apply the level of rigor to blog language that you are applying to mainstream science writing, this appears to either make you a spokesperson for humans, or suggest that “humans are recognizing…”, something patently not true, since all but several thousand humans have no idea what an epoch is. I would also question the precision of the word “frickin’,” and efficiency of the phrase “By saying a new epoch has begun rather than we (humans) are recognizing that we need to create a new epoch” as the subject of a sentence. Form is content. Besides, everybody knows that you can’t “create” a new epoch because of the Law of Conservation of Epochs (kidding).

    My overall point is that science writers and scientists are not enemies. In fact, developments like the NC Science Blogging convention, Science Blogs, and the World Science Festival show that scientists and science writers are starting an “epoch” (wink) of better mutual understanding and collaboration, in an effort to raise the general level of scientific literacy among those who think conversations like this are internecine squabbling. Another argument is that I should take something for sleeplessness.

  9. February 5, 2008 7:33 am

    Eric…I never meant to imply science writers and scientists are opposed in some way.

    As for the imprecision and/or error in my own writing for this post … well, come on … I’m not claiming to be science writer. I have a little blog with no ads, I’m not trying to sell a book, I don’t link to other posts I’ve written somewhere else. This isn’t my job.

    I guess you’re saying I can’t critique writing unless mine is perfect? I disagree with that philosophy.

    I will continue to critique science writing…but that doesn’t mean I think they are the “enemy”. As I said at the end of the post…it’s everybody’s fault in misunderstanding. Including mine as a scientist.

  10. February 5, 2008 10:56 am

    Okay, sorry, I misread the tone. Science writing isn’t my job either (a hobby — very challenging to support oneself writing these days (or any previous days).

    I don’t think there’s a philosophical difference. I was just trying to draw a distinction between different kinds of writing and their respective audiences. Criticizing a piece of writing without taking its audience into consideration is like shooting fish in a barrel. As a writer, I’m extremely conscious about whether I’m writing at a high enough level of precision. I’m simultaneously constantly trying to decide what I have to sacrifice in precision to write in something lay readers want. It’s like that snail crawling along the edge of a knife. From the time stamp on my post you could tell, in fact, this stuff keeps me up at night. I should have made that more specific.

    Essentially, my point was that scientists must write peer-reviewed journal articles with a certain level of precision or they will have no readers. Similarly, science media must present information with a certain narrative tone, and by doing this they sacrifice some precision. Finally, bloggers–a category so vast it is almost meaningless, a description of medium, not content–each find their own balance between precision and tone, for the audience they are trying to seek or build.

    Anyway, I’m a fan of the site.

  11. February 5, 2008 11:44 am

    Eric…thanks for your comments…I do appreciate and enjoy the interaction. Hopefully I’m not coming across as combative…tone is such a difficult thing to master in this kind of communication :)

    Fundamentally, I agree with you. Yes indeed, knowing the audience is critical. And I also agree with you regarding defining blogs. The consequence of such an open style is a mixture of semi-serious (and hopefully well-written) posts with rants and other “stuff”.


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