8 science journalism clichés

Science literacy is, it has to be said, very important. Honestly, it’s likely to grow and continue to be more important. Times are changing. Things which are considered to be common knowledge are changing. Unfortunately, science journalism isn’t keeping up. Oddly, both scientists and the general public often agree that science reporting is frequently dumbed down, skimming over the important and/or interesting details. Apparently, the only ones who see no problem are the journalists (and I’ve spoken to some of them who aren’t entirely happy either!).

But in my opinion, the most heinous crime of science journalists? The clichés. There are a set of phrases which we’ve all heard so many times that they’ve actually lost any and all meaning. If writers could stop using these phrases, it would really be wonderful. Because really – you’re writers. Your command of the English language is easily good enough to come up with something else. And scientists who use these phrases? Especially when writing press releases? Cut that out. Seriously.

I should add that, frankly, most of these are almost always horribly misused. Clichés are commonly used and can actually be useful aids to understanding. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t have become clichés. But used poorly, they can be misleading and actually even outright wrong. It would be nice if people could learn what a metaphor actually means before using it!

1. ❝ Holy Grail ❞

So we all know the story (possibly from Monty Python if nothing else). As a literary device, “holy grail” refers to something which is much sought after, and has been the subject of considerable effort on the part of those who are searching. Almost everything which is referred to by the press as a “holy grail”… isn’t. More often than not, it’s just something which some scientists are hoping to discover. And most of science is about things which some scientists are hoping to discover.

Perhaps one of the only legitimate uses for this term would be for the Higgs boson. With its potential importance and taking nearly 50 years and a lot of expensive machinery to discover, it would fit the definition. But then, with its problematic nickname of “god particle”, I think referring to it as a “holy grail” too would be opening one can of worms too many!

2. ❝ Silver Bullet ❞

How exactly anyone came up with this one is bewildering. In folklore, a silver bullet is the only thing which will kill a werewolf. As a metaphor, it’s used to refer to a simple solution with a big impact. In common usage, it seems to have mutated into a thing-which-fixes-a-problem. This apparently dates back to one Dr Paul Erlich who, in the early 20th century, developed a cure for syphillis. This was a medical breakthrough with a huge impact and so was referred to as a “magic bullet”.

Really though, silver bullets like this are rare. Let’s please stop talking about them until someone actually finds one. If and only if they do.

3. ❝ Scientists baffled ❞

Well, if the scientists don’t know what’s going on, then it must be serious. Either that or they don’t know what they’re talking about. Quick, someone come up with a crackpot theory. Maybe aliens did it!

Actually, this usually just means that something isn’t fully understood yet. Which is pretty normal, because understanding things is what research is all about. Anything which has recently been discovered is almost certain to not be fully understood yet. “Baffled” would seem to imply that someone doesn’t know what they’re looking at or what to do about it. I think it’s fair to say that most scientists would more likely be curious. Possibly fascinated. Sometimes frustrated. That’s usually when the interesting things happen.

4. ❝ Missing Link ❞

In palaeontology, a missing link is a transitional fossil. That is, a fossil specimen, yet to be found, which proves an evolutionary link between two known species in different time periods. The common usage of something-which-wasn’t-there-before really is an abhorrent misuse of the term.

Also, contrary to popular belief, palaeontologists are allowed to discover fossils which aren’t missing links. A new discovery should be exciting irrespective. It doesn’t always need to be of head exploding groundbreaking overwhelming significance.

5. ❝ Was [insert scientist here] wrong? ❞

Well here’s one I’m tired of seeing. A guaranteed way of getting people’s attention is to use a headline which picks on a famous scientist. The more famous, the better. The trouble is that, as well as focussing on the negative, this shows a huge misunderstanding of the way science works.

Science is incremental. As Isaac Newton explained, it’s about standing on the shoulders of giants. From up there you’re bound to get a better view and see further. In fact, Newton himself was proven to be not entirely correct – by Einstein. Newtonian mechanics (usually referred to as Classical mechanics) is still a perfectly good description of the world around us. Einstein simply showed that there are conditions under which it doesn’t provide a full description. And there’s no doubt that someone will someday genuinely find circumstances under which there is a better description of the Universe than Einstein’s relativity.

Simply put, “wrong” is not right. Science isn’t set in stone. It cannot afford to be. If things are set in stone, they stagnate. For science to work, we must always be looking for a way to improve upon what we already know.

6. ❝ Rosetta Stone ❞

The actual Rosetta Stone was an amazing discovery indeed. A single stone inscribed with the same text in ancient Greek, Demotic, and Egyptian heiroglyphs, it enabled linguists to understand a lot more about the way these three languages work. Metaphorically then, a rosetta stone is a single key which will help decode or understand information previously impossible to fully appreciate. It may be an object, an observation, or anything else. The point is not the phenomenon itself, but the implications of its discovery.

Unfortunately, “Rosetta stone” is frequently used interchangeably with “holy grail”. Even where this isn’t the case, it’s almost never appropriate to call something a Rosetta stone. Literally any scientific discovery, no matter how humble, may be used to elucidate something. It may not be something which most people know about or even care about, but the fact remains. You can’t call something a Rosetta stone purely because it helps explain something.

Perhaps the only instance where this may be applicable would be when this one single discovery explains the connection between several different things and allows all of those things to be better explained as a result. Again, these are rare. It would be best not to talk about them until we actually find one!

7. ❝ Scientists say… ❞

“Some scientists said it, so it must be true. If it isn’t true, you can blame them and not us. Also, they’re scientists not z-list celebrities, so you don’t need to know their names.”

I can’t find words to explain in full detail how sick and tired I am of seeing this (or some variation thereupon) in news reports. Particularly when it’s in the headline.

8. ❝ Rewriting the textbooks ❞

Introductions in science journalism sometimes tout something which “may require the textbooks to be rewritten”. Honestly, for the reasons I outlined before under Was [insert scientist here] wrong?, this is not actually a big deal. It’s just progress. The trouble is that we all do like to believe that something which we were taught in school is now immutable and unchanging. In reality… It doesn’t work that way.

Actually, any good textbook will be rewritten regularly to account for new discoveries and to account for the current state of knowledge. That’s why textbooks usually have multiple editions (and believe me, it’s rare to even find early editions in libraries). Rewriting isn’t necessarily an event of exceptional significance. Usually, it just means that we understand the world a little better than we did before.

On a final note, always remember this when reading or writing news headlines – anywhere you see the word “may”, remember that “may not” will fit just as comfortably; and any headline which ends with a question mark can frequently be answered with the word no.

About Invader Xan

Molecular astrophysicist, usually found writing frenziedly, staring at the sky, or drinking mojitos.
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4 Responses to 8 science journalism clichés

  1. gabriellerab says:

    Thanks for creating this list! These cliches always make me cringe. I’m starting a column about sensationalist science reporting called Behind the Buzz over at The Incubator (a Rockefeller University blog) because I’m done cringing silently and I want to help people navigate the world of science news. I’ve cited your list as a great primer on over-hyped media buzz in my first blog post (found here: http://incubator.rockefeller.edu/?p=172). I hope you’ll comment and share it if you like what you read. :)

    • invaderxan says:

      You’re very welcome. I’m glad more people are making a point of the fact that science reporting is often terrible! I like your column, and I hope it’s a success. Excessive media hype is definitely something we should talk about more. I’ll be sure to pass on the link, don’t worry… :)

  2. Excellent article – agree with these overused cliches!
    I’d add a variation titled “The is abuzz after a recent paper/experiment/announcement” – it rarely is, and its usually an overinflated opinion of such. The neutrino experiment is one of the few recent occurances where a community really was “abuzz with gossip” about some result.

    • invaderxan says:

      Very true. The media are remarkably good at adding hype and blowing things out of proportion. It’s a rare day when anywhere is actually “abuzz”!

      It was a funny thing, that neutrino result. There was more gossip and speculation about that than even things like the Higgs boson…

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