Monday, December 28, 2015 ... Deutsch/Español/Related posts from blogosphere

There is a big demand for "not just superficial" science journalism

It's totally OK when most readers only understand a small part of the articles is Czechia's most influential center-right news server and is its science-technology section. Matouš Lázňovský is its main editor for science. He writes about many issues – how to make a romantic photograph of the sky, where did East German comrades make a mistake (a text about their lousy cars, a quote from a classic Czech movie), how November was the warmest one in some ways but not others, how the ice behaves differently at the two poles (all these articles sound perfectly sensible and balanced to me), what diseases threaten bananas, and so on, and so on.

I believe that he doesn't have any official training in theoretical or particle physics but he has covered the discipline repeatedly (much like he has covered cosmology, astronomy, and space programs). A week ago, he wrote a text about the \(750\GeV\) diphoton bump at the LHC,

Is the LHC collider moving towards a physical stunner?
which seems like a significantly more demanding text than virtually all the reports about the anomaly in the English-speaking media that I have seen. Well, yes, I did provide him with enough material and feedback to be offered a co-authorship but I think it's appropriate for him to be the only author because it's him who finally wrote it and packaged it.

But yes, I think it would be helpful for many paid physicists or other scientists to exert a similar pressure on the science journalists in order to increase the depth of the articles that are being published in the mass media about scientific advances. Most professional scientists are lazy for such things or lacking the breadth, however.

The article recalls the Higgs boson discovery and says how it completed the Standard Model. When it comes to the rumors and the new diphoton excess, it discusses the timing of the rumors, some sociology, but also things like the detailed geometry of the diphoton events – with an extra "boxed" introduction to \({\rm GeV}\) and \({\rm TeV}\) as well as the rest mass vs energy; and a semitechnical introduction to the "signal and noise" and "confidence level" issues that are needed to understand why physicists may be intrigued and why a chance for new physics seems to be here even though they can't be certain.

At the end, the text also covers numerous potential explanations of the excess if it turns out to be more than a fluke – with some stuff going beyond "just one word" about supersymmetry and the MSSM, sgoldstinos, gravitino dark matter, pseudo-Nambu-Goldstone bosons, and other things.

I don't want to discuss these issues at the technical level here; many previous (and future) TRF blog posts were (or will be) dedicated to these themes. Instead, I want to say that this is clearly a typical article that may be criticized for its being inaccessible to most readers. And make no mistake about it, most readers don't understand most of the text. Well, I would say that most people who read other parts of misunderstand an overwhelming majority of the text about the bump; and an overwhelming majority of the readers still misunderstand sufficiently many parts of the text.

That couldn't prevent the article from producing enthusiastic reactions and a comment thread with 320 comments, the highest number at least among dozens of recent entries at

What I want to point out in this text is that a big part of the deteriorating quality of science journalism may be blamed on the egalitarianism – on the assumption that "most people must understand what is written in the article". Most people don't have the necessary background to understand undergraduate (and maybe high school) physics, let alone Beyond the Standard Model physics, so the requirement that "these people should understand the whole article" basically means that "no real science may be contained in the articles".

The publication of superficial articles that often focus on the sociology and conspiracy theories – the kind of stuff that average people may understand – makes the low-quality texts look increasingly "acceptable" which is why the quality keeps on decreasing. Because the low-quality products acquire the acceptability status, low-quality writers who can't produce anything beyond low-quality products are getting acceptable as well and the potential of the science journalists as a guild to produce good stuff goes down, too.

Is this trend an unavoidable consequence of the free market that pushes the newspapers to make their products accessible to the most inclusive masses?

I don't think so at all. At the end, I think that this would-be argument is not being spread by those who have carefully analyzed the profitability of different kinds of journals and newspapers. I think it is a superstition primarily promoted by the low-quality writers themselves and those who are just not interested in science at all. They are promoting this superstition for themselves to look more adequate.

The real mechanisms that decide about the success of a newspapers or a journal are very different, I think.

It's my belief that a certain kind of news and reports about stories has become so omnipresent and available for free that the market value of it is basically zero in the age of the Internet (and radio and TV). This is also why the old-fashioned newspapers may feel existentially threatened by the Internet. When people buy newspapers or journals in the paper form; and when they deliberately choose one server over another one, it's because they see some detectable advantage of their newspaper or journal or server of choice. When they are reading an outlet in order to learn something, they must be getting certain information or views or entertainment or interpretations or connections or reliability (or many of these things or, like in the case of TRF, all these things) that they don't get elsewhere.

Mr Lázňovský, the Czech journalist who wrote the detailed article about the bump, may be among the top 1%-5% of the Czech population when it comes to his understanding of particle physics. It may even be 0.5% if not 0.1%. I don't know the exact number, of course, and I don't even know how I would measure it. But the information of this kind still seems important for similar considerations. Is it a problem when the journalist differs from the "average man" in this way? Does the circulation decrease by the factor of 20-100 because of this journalist's increased expertise?

I don't think so. Readers of the newspapers or journals or servers may still simply ignore the articles they don't understand. Even more importantly, when a text in similar "mass media" is optimized for the top 1%-5% of the population, it's actually a reasonable targeting policy because most of the "totally average" people don't read any media dedicated to science at all!

Look at the average circulation of U.S. dailies. The Wall Street Journal sits at 2.4 million followed by the New York Times at 1.9 million and USA Today at 1.7 million. LA Times follows after a huge gap at 0.7 million only. Now, WSJ's 2.4 million is just 0.7% of the U.S. population; NYT is read by 0.6% of the population (well, I am incorrectly assuming that each copy is only read by one person, but all these things are meant to be just order-of-magnitude estimates).

The number of readers of every single U.S. newspaper is smaller than 1% of the U.S. population! This doesn't quite mean that the readers are the smartest 1%. But the readers of intelligent enough newspapers are somewhat more likely to be in the "smarter part of the population". There is a significant correlation here. I don't know the exact numbers but I believe that only 1/6 of the NYT readers read at least something in a given issue of the Science Times. This is already just 0.1% of the U.S. population.

Needless to say, the average intelligence and education of the average reader of the Science Times is higher than the average intelligence and education of the average reader of the New York Times. Quite a brutal selection is taking place here. When you're deciding about the "optimum level of difficulty" of articles written in the Science Times or other science journalist outlets in the mass media, it is totally wrong to think about the average Joe because he's nowhere close to the potential readers of the Science Times at all. By making the article more accessible or superficial, you won't double the readership of the Science Times because the citizens who need to oversimplify the text aren't interested in the science, anyway – after all, that's a reason why they still know next to nothing about it. So just don't place these average people at the center of the considerations about the scientific articles. They don't matter.

Instead, the potential readers of the science mass media are pretty much the top 1% or at most 10% of the population when it comes to their scientific background or intelligence or interest in science. So this is the kind of the people whom you should have in mind; imagine a bunch of people with an overrepresentation of managers, lawyers, high school teachers, physicians etc. who haven't abandoned their interest in science that they have displayed since their childhood. Some of them keep their brain muscles in good shape by following physics news just like they keep their biceps in good condition by visiting fitness clubs. And many of those people simply want vastly more "difficult" and "serious" articles about scientific topics than those that they are given. They not only want a higher quality; the higher quality may be needed for them to buy the newspapers or visit the server on a regular basis.

If the media offered something "special" about science etc. that "just" 1% of the U.S. population would find important enough to buy the newspapers, the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times could easily double their circulation. For a newspaper, 1% of the population is a huge potential readership and it's important to realize that if something special is offered by the media, the potential "buyers" may be counted in 1% of the whole population and not just 1% of the existing readership.

Although Mr Lázňovský is much more scientifically literate than the average Czech citizen, the actual intelligence, readiness, and scientific literacy of the readers of similar articles may be remotely comparable to his – or just "somewhat" lower. Just like I was (apparently successfully) trying to convey some points about the background and signal etc. in the LHC collisions to him, his articles may be trying to convey similar information to the readership. Some useful and important enough information is actually being transmitted. And whether you like it or not, when smarter people learn something profound (because they can), it's more important than when average people learn something less profound. The smarter people are also able to pay a higher amount of money for the special products they need or want.

And even if these much-smarter-than-average readers of the science media don't get something, or they misunderstand over 50% of an article such as this one, it simply isn't a catastrophe. Every intelligent enough person knows that there are lots of questions in science that he simply doesn't understand; and he can't even understand them when he spends a few hours by studying what is needed. The required background is often more extensive. Students often need to go through several one-semester courses to acquire the background that is needed to really understand something.

When I was reading scientific journals and popular books about physics as a kid, I didn't understand everything, either. (And similarly, I may still misunderstand – or be unable to "verify" – certain information about other fields, even in the popular media.) This process of reading wasn't a part of my systematic and perfectionist education. I read those things because they were fun and they were fun even if there were things that I didn't understand – or things I remained skeptical about (sometimes because of my ignorance, sometimes because there were real reasons to be skeptical). This is normal. People can fill the holes in the future and even if they won't, ignorance is a part of the human life – and especially a part of the scientist's life. After all, many mechanisms of the magic and the logic of events in the Harry Potter book seem incomprehensible as well but J.K. Rowling has managed to sell half a billion of copies of all this stuff, anyway. ;-) The incomprehensibility often makes the topics more intriguing, not less – this is surely true according to the curious scientists, too. And when a science journalist doesn't understand something to "reliably verify" some information, he may still "believe" that he's writing about science and not about fiction. Some (not uncritical) trust in the different scientists' words is enough for that.

So this is another huge problem with the real-world contemporary science journalism. It often tries to convince the reader that he already knows everything when he is capable of reading the superficial reports in the science media. But the ability to read such articles is virtually nothing. There is usually a big gap between the moment when you learn the English alphabet and the minute when you can follow papers on Beyond the Standard Model physics. People who think that they are learning science when they read rants saying that "string theory is not science" are very far from understanding science. They are scientifically illiterate, worthless animals, and the populist slogans (and the parroting of oversimplified clichés by a naive Mr Popper) have nothing whatever to do with the actual scientific knowledge and the scientific evaluation of the merit of various theories and claims – and a big problem of the science media is that it completely fails to communicate this important point (that the readers of Šmoitian conspiracy theories are worthless feces rather than thinkers who have the credentials to evaluate cutting-edge scientific theories) to the broader public. Needless to say, the media often flatter the average stupid people deliberately because (even totally unreasonable) compliments are easy products to be sold to the least demanding readers.

To summarize, populism and egalitarianism are two major causes of the deteriorating quality of the science journalism and the financial arguments concluding that this trend is economically justified and unavoidable are simply flawed. Whether some popular science outlets are being actively searched or paid for by the readers is decided by much smarter and more demanding readers or viewers than what is admitted in most cases. And they are able to make a much bigger difference and pay much more money than what some people imagine or claim.

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