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we’ve explained existence! or, why i hate science reporting

May 17, 2010

Big news breaking today from Fermilab: they’ve observed, for the first time, a system of colliding particles that produces more matter than antimatter in a significant (1% ish) kind of way.  Well, actually, it was observed a while back, but they’ve sifted through some data and written up a paper now, which, while it hasn’t been accepted into a journal yet, has been deemed good enough to release with their name on it into the mediasphere, from which it was subsequently picked up by outlets such as the NY Times.

The story about this was linked from the Times’ home page under the heading, “Physicists Find Clue to Explain Existence.”  Huh?

Okay, okay, to give everyone some credit here, this is really big news for particle physicists, and there is a logical link between the results and the headline  — they’ve observed a definite bias towards matter over antimatter, and that bias is something that’s obvious if you look around you (you aren’t made of antimatter, and nobody’s observed any anti-galaxies out there), but that has never been explained.  Therefore, in a sense, our existence does call for an explanation, and you could say that this is a very, very, very tiny clue.  It’s inarguable as well that “Physicists find clue to explain existence” makes a way better headline than “Evidence for an anomalous like-sign dimuon charge asymmetry” (this is what the paper, which has been posted on the web prior to its official publication, is titled).  I mean, I wouldn’t read that, and I’m a physicist.  Not a particle physicist, but the point stands.

Still, it’s important to remember that this is one result, in one type of particle collision, observed at one particle accelerator, and while it’s been signed off on by presumably everyone listed as an author on the paper (which is about a two-page list), and the Fermilab press folks, it’s not even officially published in a peer-reviewed journal yet, which is what earns you the Legit Science ™ stamp.  Well, okay, this is changing, too, but that’s another blogpost for another day.

My point here is that science reporting tends to be very sensationalized, and oversimplified to a detrimental point, where the science that was actually achieved is totally steamrolled by the need to write an engaging story.  Headlines are the worst offenders.  Science writing is challenging, but it frustrates me to no end to see story after story that completely missed the point, or hid it behind the tag line that gets sold to funding agencies.    There are so many smart people on the science side, and so many smart people on the reporting side, that I feel like we have to do better.

To close on a fun note, here’s a webcomic’s insight into the science reporting process.  It needs to be posted everywhere science reporting might happen.  Thanks, SMBC!

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