Pulling back the curtain of science

“I wish I’d read that book by that wheelchair guy!” —Homer Simpson

Homer Simpson steps into the three-dimensional world, where he falls into a wormhole.

One of my major goals in writing is revealing the often-messy process by which science works. It’s a metaphorical mountain path, with a sheer wall of complexity on one side and a steep drop-off into chaos on the other. Science is often complicated, which is why it has explanatory power, and also why it frequently requires years of specialized training. However, it’s not magical, reserved only for an elite: scientists are ordinary people, even when they work in areas far removed from most of our daily realms of knowledge.

I was spurred to think and write about the situation yet again when Nature News’ Zeeya Merali covered a paper by the famous gravitational physicist Stephen Hawking. (My story was published by Slate.com this morning.) The claim was provocative: Hawking stated that he could resolve a major problem in black hole physics by changing the character of the event horizon, which is the boundary marking the point beyond which nothing can return to the outside Universe. Since in a real sense the event horizon is what defines a black hole, this proposal would basically mean that black holes as we know them don’t exist.

A little more investigation showed that the situation is more complicated than that. Hawking’s paper is a summary of a talk on the ArXiv public research paper repository, not a journal article. It contains no equations and few of the necessary details others would need to reconstruct his thinking. In other words, this is less a theory than a thumbnail sketch of ideas. Presumably the calculations exist, but we can’t see them until Hawking provides them. I’m not criticizing Hawking for posting his talk: the ArXiv is designed to host papers of this sort, as well as those destined for publication in journals. In fact, I think posting papers on the ArXiv is a very good thing: at best, it fosters open discussion. It shows steps toward how theories are forged, and experiments are done.

But at the same time, we have to admit that nobody—not Nature News, not Slate.com—would have covered a paper this preliminary had Hawking’s name not been attached. Other people are working on the same problem (and drawing different conclusions!), but they can’t command space on major science news sites. So, by covering Hawking’s talk, we are back on that treacherous path: we’re showing how science works in a way, but we risk saying that a finding is important because somebody famous is behind it.

By nature, theories are provisional, always subject to refinement or rejection in the face of new evidence. Even more, most theories and experiments aren’t groundbreaking: they are incremental steps, expanding knowledge piecemeal rather than opening whole new regions. However, reporting on the way science really works requires nuance, and so much of what we say (and I include myself in this!) can seem like hype. We cover an experiment, and we have to make it sound exciting to justify our coverage.

I don’t claim to have good answers, or even that I know what all the correct questions are. My ideal world, though, is one in which we write about science in its full messy glory. Sometimes we have to write stories we’ll contradict later, but guess what? That happens in science. We always have to refine our knowledge, change our thinking, adjust our expectations, rebuild our experiments when they fail. I wish for our reporting to reflect that, though it may be very hard to do.

This is the big theme of my session at the upcoming ScienceOnline 2014 conference: “Reporting Incremental Science in a World that wants Big Results“. Although I have IDEAS about this, I want (for selfish reasons!) to learn what other people think: scientists, writers, podcasters, comics artists, and of course the people for whom I write. So, between now and the conference, I’d like to hear from you on the session forum.  (You’ll have to register.)

In the film version of The Wizard of Oz, the main characters are ushered into the presence of a huge and frightening apparition (created using state of the art special effects for 1939). However, Toto the dog pulls back a curtain to reveal that an ordinary man is creating the illusion of a monstrous being, using lights and levers and a microphone. Sometimes it can feel like science writers are Toto, but it was only after the Wizard was revealed as an ordinary man that he actually provided useful help to the heroes of the story.

One response to “Pulling back the curtain of science”

  1. Checked out your slate article. Thanks for your thoughts on this. Posted a response to the black hole boundary paradox on my Web site using a fun technique—by comparing the current debate about the black hole to the very same issues that exist around its numeric equivalent—the number zero. Check it out here http://pixidis.com/?p=5603.

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