The science of biscuits, ducks, politics, trains and glitter. If not for these then it’s likely you’ll have seen at least one article in the media that claims to explain the science of something. But what does that mean? Does it mean the articles contain a list of facts? Sometimes, although you’d have thought not because science is a methodology rather than a list of facts; and articles with the title “The Facts about…” are often confined to pieces about supermarkets, dieting and celebrity gossip. “The Facts about Ryan Gosling, the secret food behind his rock-hard toe muscles and how he used them to woo an eagle.” Like that.
However, neither should “The Science of…” articles be the direct reporting of a piece of research. That’s what we have scientific journals and 0.5% of science press releases for. It might be fairly safe to argue (he said on the internet) that a “The Science of…” article should contain some facts that were obtained using the scientific method, some description and criticism of that method and how it explains the phenomenon in question. Is this what “The Science of…” articles are doing? “Is this what people think “The Science of…” articles should be doing? Is the device of asking yourself a question overused in writing? Yes.
The aim of this post is therefore to aim some science(ish) at “The Science of…” articles to investigate what they should contain and if they contain them. The hypothesis is that “The Science of…” articles exist and contain some stuff. The null hypothesis is that “The Science of… articles don’t exist and don’t contain stuff. The square of the hypotenuse is the sum of the squares of the other two sides. Hippopotamuses are large mammals.
First I conducted a carefully thought out pre-study survey (I asked on Twitter what they thought should be in a good, “Science of…” article and had a cup of tea and a biscuit). I received 23 responses. This places the power of this experiment closer to the kitten pulling a super-tanker using string woven from Climate Change Denier accuracy end of the spectrum than to the Superman with He-man’s sword, SuperTed’s secret magic word and The Black Widow’s everything end. I then took all of the responses and used them to make a word cloud because of infographics. When this accomplished nothing more than my delight at seeing it create the phrase “inductive gorilla” I decided some more analysis was needed.
Using the word cloud and the most obvious themes from the responses I made a list of what a good, “The Science of…” article should contain or be. This was as follows:
- Big words
- Inductive reasoning
- Links to more in-depth stuff
This list isn’t necessarily what I think a good “The Science of…” article should contain. It may not even be what the majority of people think a good “The Science of…” article should contain. I can only speak for the people who responded to my question and sadly can’t take the opinions of the people who didn’t respond (the grey Twitterature) into account. I also asked what improvement could be made to produce a better class of “The Science of…” article, but I’ll save talking about that until the discussion.
I then used an internet search engine which might have been Bing (it wasn’t Bing) and typed in “The Science of” and took the first 10 articles that were the “The Science of… “ articles.
Figure 1. The search engine suggestions for The Science of a.k.a. a fairly depressing poem.
I read the 10 articles and after multiple moments of increasingly less quiet despair, I determined if they satisfied the criteria identified by my survey. I then turned the results into graphs because of graphs and had a look to see what I thought/wanted them to show. By this of course I mean, the results were analysed and any trends in the data were identified.
The table below displays the first 10 articles produced by my internet search that were “The Science of…” articles and what I initially thought before reading them. This doesn’t even slightly matter, but I was told once that people relate to science articles more if they contain a personal element. The story of how I was told this is of course heart-warming.
Table 1. The articles found and my initial reaction to them
Figure 2 shows the source of the articles found. Obviously as I used an internet search engine, the articles were all technically on websites, but some of those articles (40%) were associated with specific newspapers and magazines. Magazines and newspapers put articles online! You can practically hear the ground breaking.
Figure 2. Sources of the “Science of…” articles.
Figure 3 shows the proportion of articles that contained the desirable qualities identified by the survey. This was decided by me after reading them. You might come to a different conclusion and you’re welcome to read them and see what you think. I wouldn’t recommend it though. Unless you hate your spare time.
Figure 4 is an Action Man with eagle-eye action.
Figure 4. You know.
The whole point of this post was to use scientific(ish) methods to question what makes a good “The Science of…” article and see if “The Science of…” articles are doing those things. That depends. In science, it always depends. Note to self: make an “In science, it always depends” t-shirt. As you can see from figure 3, in terms of using big words and pictures, “The Science of…” articles are doing quite well. Ninety percent of articles had a picture and 60% used big words! Make them waterproof and you’ve got the ingredients for an educational children’s book! Over 50% of the articles contained evidence, inductive reasoning and theory. This seems good, but isn’t. In fact it doesn’t even seem good. A science article without evidence?! Fine. I’ll get back to you with what I think about that when I’ve finished watching this football game that doesn’t have a leather orb or any teams of entitled orb-kickers. The rest of the results are similarly dismal, with only 40% of articles being judged as comprehensive and about 25% of the articles linking to more in-depth material. I’ll let them off in terms of diagrams and formal references on account of them being articles about science rather than actual research papers. Something I think scientists would do well to keep in mind when reading and criticising science articles.
Can “The Science of…” articles be improved? Well, you’ll recall I asked about this. The suggestions for improvement are shown in the table below.
Table 2. Suggestions for improving “The Science of…” articles.
So there you go science writers. Your problems solved. If your problems were a lack of pedantic titles and sparse nudity.
Ultimately what I read seems to indicate that “The Science of…” in an articles title is generally shorthand for “This article offers to explain something. It might mention science. Go on. Read it. SCIENCE!” If it actually contains some well-written information about the scientific method, what it found and how it might (and might not) explain the subject at hand, then that’s a bonus. Although it should be a given.
I should probably point out the flaws in this research, which for the most part are obvious as well as numerous. I only look at 10 articles, they were the first 10 articles I found, it was only me that looked at them and the criteria I used to judge them while, not arbitrary, were certainly not extensive. This clearly isn’t a high standard or even legitimate piece of scientific research. Unless Nature wants to publish it in which case that stuff just then was a hilarious joke. Most of the criteria could probably be applied to this post with it doing quite well as a “The Science of…” article and that perhaps would be a travesty (adj. music like that of Travis). However, maybe you’ll have a think about what “The Science of…” articles should be like and expect a decent standard from any such articles you read in the future. The Guardian has a series of articles/posts about science writing and how to do it if you’re interested in that sort of thing. You must be a little bit. You just read this for a start. If nothing else you’ll have seen some of the sections that go into the write-up of scientific research (introduction, method and so on). Also the inductive gorilla.
The Guardian. Secrets of Good Science Writing. Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/science/series/secrets-science-writing
Google. Google. [Online][Accessed loads] Available from: Google it.
BBC. The Science of Love. Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/hottopics/love/
BBC. The Science Behind Why We Take Selfies. Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-magazine-monitor-25763704
Bartlett. T. The Science of Hatred. Available from: http://chronicle.com/article/The-Science-of-Hatred/143157
Fermilab. The Science of Matter, Space and Time. Available from: http://www.fnal.gov/pub/science/inquiring/matter/
Adams. S. The Science of Hangovers. Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/science/sifting-the-evidence/2013/dec/19/the-science-of-hangovers
Keim. B. The Science of Handwriting. Available from: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-science-of-handwriting/
Boggs. B. The Science of Citizenship. Available from: http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/7810
Woolaston. V. The Science of Santa: Mr Claus will eat 150 BILLION calories and visit 5,556 houses per SECOND this Christmas Eve. Available from: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2521973/The-science-Santa-Mr-Claus-eat-150-BILLION-calories-visit-5-556-houses-SECOND-Christmas-Eve.html
Chivers. T. The Science of Christmas: Santa Claus, his sleigh and presents. Available from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/topics/christmas/8188997/The-science-of-Christmas-Santa-Claus-his-sleigh-and-presents.html
Popper. B. The Science of ‘Her’: we’re going to start falling in love with our computers. Available from: http://www.theverge.com/2013/12/16/5216522/can-humans-love-computers-sex-robots-her-spike-jonze