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This insect's sex organ sparked a science writing dispute
Faye Flam
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Not long ago I’d get hate mail for merely mentioning the word penis in print. Readers regarded the publication I wrote for as a “family” newspaper, and they seemed to feel that even a biology-based discussion of genitalia would be disruptive to families.

But now, thankfully, this...

Not long ago I’d get hate mail for merely mentioning the word penis in print. Readers regarded the publication I wrote for as a “family” newspaper, and they seemed to feel that even a biology-based discussion of genitalia would be disruptive to families.

But now, thankfully, this week’s genitally-oriented controversy surrounds the best use of language to clearly and accurately communicate science.

The story in question comes from a paper in Current Biology, in which researchers claim that in a cave-dwelling insect called neotrogla, the females have “penises” which they use to penetrate male “vaginas”. The researchers use those terms, though they clarify that the female penis–like thing is really a gynosome.

The news led to a number of headlines such as this one in the UK’s Mirror:

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Faye Flam
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Former BBC science editor Susan Watts made some thought-provoking points a Nature piece headlined, Society Needs More than Wonder to Respect Science.

The piece starts with an...

Former BBC science editor Susan Watts made some thought-provoking points a Nature piece headlined, Society Needs More than Wonder to Respect Science.

The piece starts with an observation that television stations, at least in Britain, are using scientists for “expert” commentary on science stories, whether or not the news in question has anything to do with these scientists’ fields. Such science communicators are great for generating excitement and wonder, she argues, but they aren’t journalists, and therefore don’t do much to expose what she calls “the murky underbelly of science.”

There is a fundamental difference between science communication and science journalism. At the science communication end of the spectrum sit the stories that show people how exciting science can be, the discovery...

Science books by scientists often win the Pulitzer for non-fiction, but this year’s winner, Tom’s River, is a work of science journalism, and showcases just how much a great journalist can accomplish. The book details a long, complicated investigation into what appeared to be an unusual “...

Science books by scientists often win the Pulitzer for non-fiction, but this year’s winner, Tom’s River, is a work of science journalism, and showcases just how much a great journalist can accomplish. The book details a long, complicated investigation into what appeared to be an unusual “cluster” of childhood cancer in a New Jersey shore town with a history of chemical pollution.

There’s a nice excerpt here in Salon, which gives a sense of how unwieldy the subject was and the impossibility of a neat, clear-cut conclusion. The author, Dan Fagin, confronts the complexity of the situation, making it comprehensible by digging deep into the history of the region as well as the history of epidemiology and statistics.

According to his bio, Dan Fagin spent 14 years as an environment reporter for Newsday. He is now the director of...

NASA Graphic Explains Lunar Eclipse
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Naked eye astronomical phenomena often make for great opportunities to write about science, and while lunar eclipses are rather common, the one coming tonight/early tomorrow morning is interesting because it’s the first of a “tetrad” of four total eclipses spaced six months apart.

Most news...

Naked eye astronomical phenomena often make for great opportunities to write about science, and while lunar eclipses are rather common, the one coming tonight/early tomorrow morning is interesting because it’s the first of a “tetrad” of four total eclipses spaced six months apart.

Most news stories noted that the moon will turn the color of blood, or sunsets, but some of us who have watched lunar eclipses have occasionally been disappointed that even total ones can look grey. Sky and Telescope can be counted on to explain this color variability. Here’s Alan McRobert:

Two factors affect an eclipse's color and brightness. The first is simply how deeply the Moon goes into the umbra — because the umbra's center is much darker than its outer edge. The second is the state of Earth's atmosphere all...

His biggest mistake is not what people think
Faye Flam
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An interesting story ran on NPR recently, describing a “lost” paper of Einstein’s, which was never published because Einstein recognized that he’d made a mistake and therefore never submitted it for publication. Apparently there was some excitement surrounding this abandoned work because...

An interesting story ran on NPR recently, describing a “lost” paper of Einstein’s, which was never published because Einstein recognized that he’d made a mistake and therefore never submitted it for publication. Apparently there was some excitement surrounding this abandoned work because physicists had assumed it was a draft of a different paper – one that was published in 1931.

According to the story, Einstein’s Lost Theory Discovered, and It’s Wrong, this erroneous and never-published paper examined a possible explanation for then-recent observations by Edwin Hubble (also Georges Lemaitre), that the universe was expanding.

Faced with evidence that the universe was growing, Einstein apparently wanted to figure out why it wasn't filling up with empty space. His proposed solution is in this newly discovered paper...

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Yet another scandal has broken over bad science, this time in the field of neuroscience. In a new paper published in Nature Neuroscience, researchers from the Netherlands claim that of 314 studies in the field, more than half relied...

Yet another scandal has broken over bad science, this time in the field of neuroscience. In a new paper published in Nature Neuroscience, researchers from the Netherlands claim that of 314 studies in the field, more than half relied on an erroneous assumption about the independence of the data and were  therefore likely to be giving false positive results. This bombshell wasn’t widely covered, but luckily it was explained clearly by Gary Stix at Scientific American. His story, Statistical Flaw Punctuates Brain Research in Elite Journals, is posted on his blog, Talking Back.

The post suggests that the stastistical flaw dosen't just punctuate brain researrch, it puctures much of it.

According to this new...

After three weeks of mystery regarding the missing Malaysian Airlines flight, representatives of a British satellite company called Inmarsat have claimed that with a complex mathematical analysis, they’ve narrowed down the fight path and made a solid case that the plane went down in the Southern Ocean.

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After three weeks of mystery regarding the missing Malaysian Airlines flight, representatives of a British satellite company called Inmarsat have claimed that with a complex mathematical analysis, they’ve narrowed down the fight path and made a solid case that the plane went down in the Southern Ocean.

This news raises just the kinds of questions that cry out for good science reporting. Is the satellite company’s claim to be believed? How did they do it? Some stories explained in very simple terms that they applied the Doppler effect to “pings” transmitted between the plane and a geostationary satellite.

The New York Times and Wall Street...

New Baby Pictures of the Universe from BICEP2
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Dozens of stories ran yesterday capturing the excitement behind a discovery that promises to advance our understanding of the origin of the universe. Most stories communicated the buzz, but not all of them succeeded in explaining what the scientists found or why they were so excited by it. 

The news...

Dozens of stories ran yesterday capturing the excitement behind a discovery that promises to advance our understanding of the origin of the universe. Most stories communicated the buzz, but not all of them succeeded in explaining what the scientists found or why they were so excited by it. 

The news required readers to digest not one but several unfamiliar and difficult concepts. First was the observation – gravitational waves – which few readers will have heard of. Then there was the reason for the excitement – the fact that the gravitational waves are a prediction of a theory called inflation, which is, again, not part of the typical talk show fare.

Figuring out how to get the news across in a coherent, logical yet elegant way was like solving the Rubik’s cube. It can be done, but the answer is not obvious and may take some trial and error.  

In...

In what appears to be a pivotal step in the quest to understand the origin of the universe, scientists announced yesterday that they’d observed a signature of long-sought ripples in space known as gravitational waves, generated less than a trillionth of a second after the big bang. These primordial ripples...

In what appears to be a pivotal step in the quest to understand the origin of the universe, scientists announced yesterday that they’d observed a signature of long-sought ripples in space known as gravitational waves, generated less than a trillionth of a second after the big bang. These primordial ripples showed up indirectly as a pattern in a background of microwave radiation that pervades space. The observations come from a detector called BICEP2 located at the South Pole.

Though a press release distributed last Wednesday didn’t specify the nature of the discovery, it was intriguing enough that many reporters were able to get lots of reporting ready for stories that coincided with the official announcement Monday morning. The Guardian ran a story Friday, which seemed fair enough since the news wasn’t under embargo.

Most ledes focused on the way the observations confirmed a theory called inflation, which posits a period of hyper-expansion...

Last week, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics sent out a maddening press announcement, promising to reveal a  major cosmological discovery on March 17th and giving not a clue what it would be.

This morning, a new press release explains that scientists are announcing an important new insight...

Last week, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics sent out a maddening press announcement, promising to reveal a  major cosmological discovery on March 17th and giving not a clue what it would be.

This morning, a new press release explains that scientists are announcing an important new insight into the first moments of the universe’s expansion. With a detector at the South Pole, a group claims to have found  the signature of gravitational waves – a phenomenon that’s long been predicted and sought as evidence for the favored version of the big bang known as inflation.

The Guardian didn’t wait for this promised revelation, running a story last Friday: Gravitational Waves: have US Scientists Heard Echoes of the Big Bang?

The story, by Stuart Clark, captures the excitement in the cosmology community...

Illulstration for National Geographic's Black Hole Story
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Let it be known that last weekend, thanks to National Geographic, a conversation on the nature of black holes took place in the salon where I get my hair cut.

It’s a setting where astrology gets a lot more attention than astronomy, but one of the hair cutters had read the latest National Geo...

Let it be known that last weekend, thanks to National Geographic, a conversation on the nature of black holes took place in the salon where I get my hair cut.

It’s a setting where astrology gets a lot more attention than astronomy, but one of the hair cutters had read the latest National Geo cover story, Black Holes, and he'd been looking forward to my appointment so he could talk about it. He gave me a good summary of the story, demonstrating that he comprehended it. There was real science communication achieved.

The story, by Michael Finkel, was an overview in broad brushstrokes, with no hype, lots of history, lots of background and no quotes. It serves as a lesson to editors who think people don’t care about science unless there’s a breakthrough that happened five minutes ago, a “human interest” angle, or news you can use....

The CDC announced in late February that many Americans are still too fat. Not much eyeball-grabbing news there, but in a clever move by the CDC press office, someone turned the focus on one small blip in the data. In the 2 to 5 year old category, obesity rate appeared to fall from about 14% to about 8.5%, which...

The CDC announced in late February that many Americans are still too fat. Not much eyeball-grabbing news there, but in a clever move by the CDC press office, someone turned the focus on one small blip in the data. In the 2 to 5 year old category, obesity rate appeared to fall from about 14% to about 8.5%, which still doesn’t sound exciting until someone turned it into a relative drop and declared that obesity rates fell by 43%.

That gave CDC’s press office a tempting morsel of reporter bait to dangle.

Many news organizations bit on it, though most included the more modest absolute percentage change too. That was the case with the New York Times, story, Obesity Rate for Young Children Plummets 43% in a Decade, USA Today’s...

Maybe it’s just me, but if a source told me that NASA used whale oil to lubricate parts of the Hubble, or if I read such a statement in a book, I’d want some sort of documentation - some hard evidence.

Right off the bat, the claim raises some questions: Does NASA employ a secret whaling ship, or...

Maybe it’s just me, but if a source told me that NASA used whale oil to lubricate parts of the Hubble, or if I read such a statement in a book, I’d want some sort of documentation - some hard evidence.

Right off the bat, the claim raises some questions: Does NASA employ a secret whaling ship, or does the stuff stay fresh long enough that they can use a supply left over from the days of Moby Dick?  

I first heard about this incredible rumor in the most recent issue of the Chemical Heritage Foundation Magazine. In an enlightening piece called Whales in Space, an intern, Jacob Roberts, examines and debunks the rumor. According to Roberts, the whale story raised some eyebrows in 2010 when it was repeated on The History Channel. The show, America: The Story of Us included the claim that, “Even today, whale...

Looks good, but where are the data?
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If Poynter blogger Andrew Beaujon had been a science writer, he might have noticed something fishy about the graphs he posted in Why Journalists Drive Scientists Crazy, in Graphs. The...

If Poynter blogger Andrew Beaujon had been a science writer, he might have noticed something fishy about the graphs he posted in Why Journalists Drive Scientists Crazy, in Graphs. The graphs do not appear to be based on any data. There is not a data point to be found.

If data were involved in any way, there’s no mention of where this data came from or how it was obtained. A science writer would ask about the data, and the error bars, for that matter. Are these even really graphs, or just illustrations? Whatever they are, the purpose seems to be to express how one scientist, Sabine Hossenfelder, feels about science journalists. In a blog post, she expresses some frustration.  

And Beaujon seems to agree:

...
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Profiles of scientists and science policy makers are not easy – or at least it’s not easy to make them relevant, fair and yet engaging. But in a recent issue of Science, I found this opener hard to resist:

David Nutt is trying to develop a new recreational drug that he hopes...

Profiles of scientists and science policy makers are not easy – or at least it’s not easy to make them relevant, fair and yet engaging. But in a recent issue of Science, I found this opener hard to resist:

David Nutt is trying to develop a new recreational drug that he hopes will be taken up by millions of people around the world. No, the 62-year-old scientist isn’t “breaking bad.” In fact, he hopes to do good. His drug would be a substitute for alcohol, to create drinks that are just as intoxicating as beer or whiskey but less toxic. And it would come with an antidote to reverse its effects, allowing people to sober up instantly and drive home safely.

The story, headlined The Dangerous Professor, by Kai Kupferschmidt, stays fascinating to the end, detailing the quest of an Imperial College neuropsychopharmacologist to...

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