*Correction Note: Earlier headline id'd Science Magazine as the platform for the article under discussion. It was its sister AAAS pubication, Science Careers. Copy amended immediately below)
The AAAS's learned journal Science has its own platoon of science journalists who occasionally liven up the news with narrative that is about more than data, hypothesis, error bars and conclusions. One wonders what its members think of their editors (Correction - make that the editor at Science Careers) who published this week a column on the art and craft of science reporting. The column argues that it not only can be dumb, but that it is just awful - the beat most prone to error and on the whole a dreadful irresponsible mess:
- Adam Ruben: The Unwritten Rules of Journalism;
One can see immediately he might not cut it as a science journalist or any other kind of journalist unless hired entirely to write bilious parody. He starts off with a lie about himself. Then he follows up with a string of falsehoods about the nature of typical science journalism. He, after a final salvo of insult, closes by telling any science writers who read it: "And don't invite me to dinner!" I can't tell if that has an embedded lie, too. Perhaps he'd like nothing better than to look down his nose at a lot of science writers laid to waste and self-loathing by his scathingly incisive witticisms. And I'll bet he gets a few invitations to dinner anyway.
The lie he starts with is that he grew up "with the fantasy that anything in print must be true." Well, that itself cannot be true, for he also remembers a childhood in which he already knew aliens haven't abducted Elvis no matter what the Weekly World News said.
So there, gotcha, ha ha ha. Really, this column makes me seriously depressed. That's not so much by the maiming Dr. Ruben seeks to inflict on the corpus of science journalism but by the judgment at Science that led to this composition's being published as anything remotely useful. Now, it is a fact that we journalists tend to be thin-skinned. We are quite aware that we are prone to occasional exaggeration, just plain error, and inability to keep science in perfect perspective. We know our world is flawed so we may lash out in hurt and fury when somebody is so churlish as to point it out and especially so if its done with a sneer. But even allowing for such neuroses on this side of the fence the column is so heavy handed, apparently genuinely hostile, and false in its depiction of what is typical that.... acckkkkkkk!!!
(Late addition: For rebuttal, one offers at more or less random the recent NYTimes Magazine article by Wil S. Hylton on Craig Venter and designer microbes. If one removed from it all elements that entail writer's tactics that at all reflect what Ruben ridicules, one would be left with a stale, flat story of little impact or enduring impression. That is, dreck.)
OK, I get it. The Ruben piece is deliberate provocation and I fell for it. The gotcha is on me. He's just doing to us, via distortion and selection, what he says we do to scientists. Good one! And one more thing. We science journalists are typically all too happy to hear opening remarks by scientists - at events (such as journalism prize ceremonies) rich with those in our trade - on how very very important we are to the spread of scientific information through the general public and what enormous talent many of us have. That's the spirit! We bask in our own importance. But if your head gets so swollen with such encomiums that it's hard to walk straight, read this.
(Thx to Seth Borenstein for making sure we saw this - as you'll see in next post down, Deb Blum got riled too).
Grist for the Mill: Adam Ruben's website. (Where we learn he is sarcastic in every direction, an equal-opportunity ego-puncturer)
- Charlie Petit