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We've all been treated to countless stories about how much Americans do not know about science, so the Associated Press decided not to trample over that ground yet again. Instead, it conducted a poll in which it asked respondents how confident they were about the science that they do ...

We've all been treated to countless stories about how much Americans do not know about science, so the Associated Press decided not to trample over that ground yet again. Instead, it conducted a poll in which it asked respondents how confident they were about the science that they do know.

The results are interesting--and confusing.

"Few Americans question that smoking causes cancer. But they express bigger doubts as concepts that scientists consider to be truths get further from our own experiences and the present time," is how the AP story--by science writer Seth Borenstein and pollster Jennifer Agiesta--began. 

As they dug into the results in the next graf, we saw a glass half empty. "Americans have more skepticism than confidence in global warming, the...

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:

...

  A long trapping expedition through our galactic neighborhood just snared one of its prime quarry: a planet about the size of the Earth in a stable and regular orbit at a distance from its star that makes liquid water plausible on its surface. That means just right, and thus smack in the Goldilocks zone....

  A long trapping expedition through our galactic neighborhood just snared one of its prime quarry: a planet about the size of the Earth in a stable and regular orbit at a distance from its star that makes liquid water plausible on its surface. That means just right, and thus smack in the Goldilocks zone. World press is perking up at the news from NASA and its scientific cadre, published in Science magazine.  Thus we meet Kepler-186f. That f means fantastic and more exactly that it is the fifth planet out from a star named Kepler-186. Star names gain a b to designate their first known planets, c for a second, and so on. At least half a dozen press releases and a streamed press teleconference helped spur reporters along (see Grist below).

   It is notable that Science, a journal usually faithful to reporting data and compelling conclusions, chose as cover art a made-up artist's impression of imaginary surface detail.  Highlands incised with...

NASA Graphic Explains Lunar Eclipse
Faye Flam
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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...

El Niño is a universal solvent in popular discussion of weather. Before global warming came along, and if an El Niño was on the prowl, the latter was always blamed by weathercasters and the great unwashed (eg reporters) for almost any meteorological oddity that came along. In 1997 I wrote a half-...

El Niño is a universal solvent in popular discussion of weather. Before global warming came along, and if an El Niño was on the prowl, the latter was always blamed by weathercasters and the great unwashed (eg reporters) for almost any meteorological oddity that came along. In 1997 I wrote a half-satirical newspaper story on this telling readers "Shanked a golf shot? Blame El Niño." This year for awhile, looks like, we'll have two fall-guys to choose between and blame for all heat waves, floods, droughts, fish die-offs, strange marine animals in unexpected places, monsoons, atmospheric rivers, and cyclones across most of the world.

  This week at its official site the Nat'l Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Nat'l Weather Service and its Climate Prediction Center posted its latest diagnostic discussion on ENSO (El Niño-Southern Oscillation, a reference to the whole cycle). It says, some 17 years after the last...

The news website of MIT's School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences--known around the campus as SHASS--asked me to say something briefly about the Tracker and its mission. Here is how I answered SHASS's...

The news website of MIT's School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences--known around the campus as SHASS--asked me to say something briefly about the Tracker and its mission. Here is how I answered SHASS's "3 Questions" for the Tracker.

This also gave me an occasion to bring up--yet again!--the story of the "immortal" jellyfish.

Enjoy.

-Paul Raeburn

   In a brief letter to Nature this week six researchers say that the time lag between scientific discoveries - particularly in the basic physical sciences - and Nobel Prizes to salute them is getting longer and longer. If this keeps up, they drily note, nobod will live long enough to receive a Nobel....

   In a brief letter to Nature this week six researchers say that the time lag between scientific discoveries - particularly in the basic physical sciences - and Nobel Prizes to salute them is getting longer and longer. If this keeps up, they drily note, nobod will live long enough to receive a Nobel. Maybe the no-posthumous-award rule must be lifted. There are many plausible reasons for the trend. Maybe it is that there are so many more scientists these days, and discovery is such a group process, that singling out the best of the bunch - and narrowing credit to just three people - has gotten harder. But to argue that it is just the opposite, that the pace of discovery has gotten too slow, seems counterintuitive. One might think that it is easier to choose the best (or least bad) from a shorter list.

   No science journalist is happier with the result than a certain amiable and imaginative fellow at New Jersey's Stevens Institute of Technology. He...

Doctors should not accept money to promote drug companies that fund their research.

Hard to argue with.

There's a legitimate argument for paying researchers to speak, and it doesn't mean they become pharma salespeople.

Also hard to argue with.

The first of these statements comes...

Doctors should not accept money to promote drug companies that fund their research.

Hard to argue with.

There's a legitimate argument for paying researchers to speak, and it doesn't mean they become pharma salespeople.

Also hard to argue with.

The first of these statements comes from Charles Ornstein of ProPublica, one of the authors of "Double Dip: Doctors Paid to Advise, Promote Drug Companies That Fund Their Research," co-published by ProPublica and The Boston Globe. The story argues that Yoav Golan, an infectious-disease specialist at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, is wrong to accept "tens...

When we think about science and religion, we often see the two in conflict. Science says the world and its creatures arose over billions of years by way of natural processes; and some religions--not all--argue that the world was made in seven days by a being whom we should therefore revere.

You can see this...

When we think about science and religion, we often see the two in conflict. Science says the world and its creatures arose over billions of years by way of natural processes; and some religions--not all--argue that the world was made in seven days by a being whom we should therefore revere.

You can see this dichotomy in a piece by the social critic Barbara Ehrenreich in in the most recent Sunday Review in The New York Times. "My atheism is hard core...a stance I perpetuated by opting, initially, for a career in science," she begins. Science is not an expression of atheism, just as it is not an expression of religion. Even smart people like Ehrenreich can become confused about that.

One person who didn't become confused about science and spirituality--and who showed there is a place for them to coexist--was...

Philip J. Hilts, the director of the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT and a former science reporter for The New York Times and The Washington Post, has announced that...

Philip J. Hilts, the director of the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT and a former science reporter for The New York Times and The Washington Post, has announced that he will retire at the end of June.

Hilts, who took over the program in 2008, expanded its international reach and added training in video and audio storytelling. And under his leadership, the number of applicants for the year-long Knight Science Journalism fellowships  for science reporters grew from about 80 per year to about 150 per year.

"The Knight Program has been a tremendous asset to MIT, and a powerful resource for our understanding of the relationship between science and technology and the public," said Deborah Fitzgerald, the Kenan Sahin Dean at the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. "I am...

Tabitha M. Powledge at On Science Blogs reviews the week's climate coverage (including some of our remarks here).

And she also notes an event that...

Tabitha M. Powledge at On Science Blogs reviews the week's climate coverage (including some of our remarks here).

And she also notes an event that I somehow missed: Jane Goodall's 80th birthday. I met Goodall once, at a dinner in New York, and she is not only smart, charming, and engaging, but she has some kind of aura about her. I know, I know: talk of "auras" makes me sound like some kind of new-age...well, makes me sound new-age. Instead of "aura," let's say charisma. Whatever it is, it makes you want to speak softly when you're around her, and listen carefully to everything she says.

She was probably 70 when I met her. I thought she was cool.

Powledge also collects comments on the discovery of the bones of Richard III, which gives me a rare opportunity to quote some...

Just a quickie here. One finds sheer genius in this seasonal story. Don't know which is keenest, the AF modes hidden beneath the B modes in the microwave sky where inflation's blown-up gravity waves are splayed wide, or the deflaton (DEF-luh-ton). It had me going for several graphs. Then Blutarsky showed up...

Just a quickie here. One finds sheer genius in this seasonal story. Don't know which is keenest, the AF modes hidden beneath the B modes in the microwave sky where inflation's blown-up gravity waves are splayed wide, or the deflaton (DEF-luh-ton). It had me going for several graphs. Then Blutarsky showed up.

  Science's reporters have several of this sort up but this one seemed particularly well-concocted.

*UPDATE: OK, one more for now. Anybody see another outstanding member of this yearly science journalism outbreak let us know (...

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...

Until today, the powerful language in the latest climate-change report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change generated scant coverage, and little or no demand from reporters for government reactions.

Coverage of any kind was meager yesterday, as I pointed out in...

Until today, the powerful language in the latest climate-change report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change generated scant coverage, and little or no demand from reporters for government reactions.

Coverage of any kind was meager yesterday, as I pointed out in my previous post. Today, some others caught up, running stories from The Associated Press or writing off of the IPCC report and press release. But aside from the handful of reporters who went to Yokohama for the release of the report, nobody was doing much original reporting.

I found one example of the kind of story I was looking for when I opened The New York Times today. There Coral Davenport wrote a news analysis reporting that the new data puts...

[Update 4/2: A couple of justifiably aggrieved friends at The Washington Post said the paper did more than run the AP.  Staff reporter Steven Mufson...

[Update 4/2: A couple of justifiably aggrieved friends at The Washington Post said the paper did more than run the AP.  Staff reporter Steven Mufson wrote a piece off of the report and the press release, with reaction from several scientists.]

On March 25, the Tracker's Charlie Petit predicted that few members of the Western press would fly to Yokohama, Japan for the release of the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

He was right. The problem, he explained, was that we've heard it all before and we'll be hearing it again and again.

It's the paradox of climate-...