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Friday, October 22, 2021

Column: Take a chance on science

“Is your veggie burger killing you?” asked Slate.com.

I’ve been a vegetarian for eight years, so this headline freaked me out. Quickly, I clicked on the article to find out if I was dying. There must be some risk if they were asking the “Killing You” question, right?

Nope. A human would probably have to eat 1.4 million burgers a day to reach harmful levels of a chemical called hexane.

This experience was frustrating. The science behind the article was solid, but I felt manipulated by the scary headline connecting veggie burgers with danger, with death.

Science reporters cover important issues: disease epidemics, natural disasters. Readers trust us with their health and safety. Journalists should not spread unnecessary fear, but some headline writer at Slate.com was concerned only with attracting page hits.

So I tracked down Brian Palmer, author of the veggie burger article.

“Let me give an alternate headline,” Palmer proposed. “How about ‘Is the hexane in your soy burger putting you at risk for neurodegenerative diseases?'”

He had a point: the technical, science-y headline is more informative, but it doesn’t spark as much interest. While I would call the “killing you” headline “fear-mongering,” Palmer disagrees. He thinks the headline is less important than having no unnecessary scare in the story itself.

While writing this column all year, I’ve struggled with how to make stories exciting and educational. Every time I use a phrase like “levels of a chemical called hexane” I worry about readers getting bored. Pay attention! I want to shout. This is really freakin’ interesting! But solid science gets buried when journalists try too hard to make a story exciting.

“Sensationalism sells news, which is a shame,” said Dr. Sue Silver, editor-in-chief at a journal called Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

Silver used to run Lancet Oncology, a respected medical journal, and she says her staff would groan when popular newspapers ran headlines like “New cure for cancer developed.”

“We knew the experiment was really just cells in a Petri dish, and the ‘cure’ was at least 10 years away from being tested in humans,” she said.

It’s not that the science (cells jitterbugging in a Petri dish) was boring. The news writer was simply so desperate for an eye-catching headline that he exaggerated the facts. Hyperbole happens. It’s hard to find cool details when you’re writing about an unfamiliar field.

I wanted to do an article a couple months ago about concrete. I wrote the damn thing over and over – trying to make it thrilling, trying to make it humorous – and failing. Finally, I ran my writings past a materials science major who was clearly passionate about his field. He gave me enough information that I could rely on real science, not journalistic gimmicks, to give the story pizzazz.

I can certainly do more to spice up articles, but some of the blame for yawn-worthy science news falls on the scientists themselves. Sometimes it’s hard to get researchers to explain their work in interesting ways. Slate.com writer Palmer said he was writing an article once (about how sleep deprivation kills rats) and he ran into a scientist who refused to explain her research.

“She said, ‘This is an area of science that’s just too technical for a lay audience to understand’,” Palmer said.

This refusal hurts journalism and science. Researchers have to explain their projects in order to get funding. They should be able to tell others why their work is important. Tell us why we should care.

“Scientists who don’t make their science interesting or relevant either don’t know how to do it, or they’re just being lazy – in most cases the former,” Silver said. “They need to simplify the science.”

Give a few details – for example, famous buildings made possible because of concrete – and publicity will follow.

This does mean dumbing it down, but that’s not a mistake. Palmer explained that science writers have to develop a “shorthand” when explaining highly technical terms. Metaphors, analogies and sensory details add more than technical jargon.

“There’s an inherent loss of precision there,” he admitted.

Palmer says an overly complicated article is “useless,” and he’s willing to sacrifice a little precision in order to educate readers.

I agree. For example, I don’t know everything about carbon emissions, but I’ve read enough to know that carbon emissions are bad and climate change is a problem. That’s what’s important.

Scientists and writers face the same struggle. We ask the world a question and we don’t always like the answer. A scientist attempts an experiment, but results contradict the hypothesis. A writer wants a catchy, “Is it killing you?” headline, but the science doesn’t back it up. The solution here is more cooperation between hard-working journalists and passionate scientists.

We’re all driven by a maddening curiosity.

As a wannabe science writer, I have faith that the world has plenty of breath-taking discoveries for me to report. I just have to find them.

But as Silver said, “We can’t always know the right questions to ask.”

MADELINE McCURRY-SCHMIDT is looking for science writers! If you want to report on science and technology for The Aggie next year, e-mail Madeline at memschmidt@ucdavis.edu.

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