Thursday, March 16, 2017

Headlines and texts

Prehistoric pregnancy (Science News)
On several occasions I have criticized the distortion of scientific news by the media, especially the headlines, by saying things contradicted by the text, which apparently are more appealing. It seems that many journalists (at least those in charge of headlines) follow the old journalistic dictum, usually quoted in several forms, more or less equivalent, which, as is often the case with these lapidary phrases, has been attributed (probably apocryphally) to diverse personalities, such as William Randolph Hearst:
Do not let reality spoil a good headline (or a good report).
What I think regrettable is the fact that a magazine dedicated to scientific popularization, such as Science News, also falls in this trap of offering appealing headlines, which after reading the text can be seen not to correspond to the content. Let’s look at a few examples, offered during the week of February 19, 2017:

Text: A prehistoric marine reptile may have given birth to its young alive. The use of the word may means that this is a suggestion, not a proof, as the headline implies.

Text: Dwarf planet Ceres contains the necessary ingredients for life, new data suggest. A suggestion, not a proof, as the headline implies.

Sub-headline: Challenges adjusting from volatile to stable social rewards can lead to misbehavior. The use of the word can in the sub-headline makes it less drastic than the headline.

Text: Meadows of underwater seagrass plants might lower levels of harmful bacteria in nearby ocean waters. The use of the word might means that this is a suggestion, not a proof, as the headline implies.

Out of ten news selected by the editorial staff of Science News as news of the week, no less than four have misleading headlines.
Cows aligned with the magnetic field
(Science News)
Some readers of Science News complained about other types of headlines. A few years ago, the editors of the magazine were prone to use joking headlines or resort to puns, even if that meant distorting a little the meaning. This is more understandable, although it can also lead to misleading headlines. When this criterion changed, some of these headlines have been modified in the digital version of the magazine, but of course they remain in my paper copy. Here are a few examples:

  • Original headline: Mooo-ving to magnetic field lines. The article referred to the alleged discovery, using Google Earth images, that grazing cows tend to line up from north to south, which would suggest that they may be able to detect the direction of the Earth's magnetic field.
  • Original headline: Loosing zzz’s may lead to disease. It deals with the influence of little sleep on the propensity to suffer inflammations.
  • Headline: Embracing the Dark Side. This article was published in celebration of the tenth anniversary of the discovery of the accelerated expansion of the universe that led to the standard cosmological model and the dark energy hypothesis. Of course, this headline is a joking reference to the Star Wars series.
  • Headline: Biological moon shot. It describes the project that intends to create a web page for each species of living beings. Moon shot, in addition to meaning a space launch towards the moon, is also a baseball term that applies to throwing a very high ball. The implied meaning is that this is an ambitious project in Biology.

I think a serious journal like Science News should be especially scrupulous with the headlines it chooses, so as not to cause confusion among its readers, who are not experts in every possible topic, but are interested in keeping abreast of the advances of science.

Manuel Alfonseca


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