This is a recurring issue in science coverage. The dominant way people try to push a scientific story into the media is to sell it like this:
Science as summer blockbuster movie. This is the model that sells every story in science as a breakthrough, and that those are the only things worth our attention.
But the reality is that much of science is not about breakthroughs. It’s about slow progress.
For instance, at the recent NESCent conference (Storify here), the ENCODE project was criticized for trying to present itself an important breakthrough finding about junk DNA. The ENCODE team tried to position itself as a summer blockbuster when it wasn’t. There are lots of other examples. Another case in point: that irresponsible Time magazine cover this week, saying it was “now possible” to “cure cancer.” Wrong.
Claims of imminent breakthrough after breakthrough are going to bite us. .
There is a mode for storytelling that is more like most science.
Anyone who has every watched a soap opera or a telenovela knows that on any given day, not a lot happens. Plots advance not in single episodes, but drawn out over weeks, if not longer. The running joke is that someone stops watching a soap, comes back after months or years, and says, “I can’t believe that Robert still hasn’t confessed his love for Alice and broken it off with Britney!” There is a often a huge cast of characters, sometimes with only mildly interacting stories.
Why do people come back to soap operas, and other sorts of long form storytelling, where arcs are drawn out over months or years? The characters.
This is one reason why I think blogging and social media for scientists is so important.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but things like the old Science Blogs site (before the Pepsi implosion), and other independent science bloggers I started following around that time, became my scientific soap opera. There was a cast of interesting characters, each with their own quirks and obsessions. And you could see their progress over time. It’s been great to watch people graduate from their degrees and make it into post-docs, and move from post-docs to tenure-track positions. Some people come, some go, and others make dramatic returns to the blogosphere (though no cases of amnesia yet).
If scientists are willing to present themselves as real people, with their own interests and problems and good times and bad, we don’t need to try to convince everyone that the only reason to pay attention to us is because we’re going to save the world from an alien invasion.
No, Charles Darwin was not a robot
Not every radical idea is right
The genius myth
Tales to astonish
Original and transformative
What the Coburn report has in common with arsenic life
Something other than adaptation could be driving evolution
Oh geez, not another exoplanet story
Can science become too big to fail?
How pigeons cured my case of YAGS
Worst magazine cover of the year?