Prompted by dismay at the dearth of evidence-based policymaking, Martin Robbins, a researcher and science writer, created a community blog called The Lay Scientist. This fall The Guardian hired him to be one of its four science bloggers. It didn’t take long for a post he wrote—with the headline “This is a news website article about a scientific paper
”—to go viral.
In it, he satirized what he sees as the too-frequently formulaic approach to reporting on scientific discoveries in which journalists fail to provide informed guidance as part of their coverage. Robbins used the BBC as his example of science coverage being done with “robotic impartiality,” with headlines written in ways that are designed to “distance themselves [the journalists] from the words inside.”
Here is how Robbins began his post:
|In this paragraph I will state the main claim that the research makes, making appropriate use of “scare quotes” to ensure that it’s clear that I have no opinion about this research whatsoever.
His commentary-as-spoof struck a chord with other bloggers and became The Guardian’s most read story that week. But rather than stop at writing this cheeky send-up of science writing, Robbins returned the following week with constructive criticism. This one he headlined “Why I spoofed science journalism, and how to fix it
One of his chief complaints is the tendency for science reporters to ignore the many small, daily milestones of scientific research while they overemphasize—by the sheer weight and force of the onslaught of their reporting—the importance of particular findings. His example was the widespread coverage that followed the discovery announced earlier this year of “the most massive star ever found.”
Again, Robbins’s words:
|The result was a self-propelling explosion of journalistic effort that resulted in hundreds of virtually identical articles scattered across the face of the Internet like some sort of fast-growing weed. What did all this effort and expense achieve? Hundreds of interesting things happen in science every week, and yet journalists from all over the media seem driven by a herd mentality that ensures only a handful of stories are covered.
Is it any surprise that his critique, couched in satire, traveled far and wide via social media—garnering readers and stirring up comment on The Guardian’s website?