Scientific journalism fails

Science journalism has definitely taken a turn for the worse. With social media coming into the mainstream and clickbait a lucrative option for websites, the quality of media across the Internet has declined.

Vapid articles titled “15 crazy things that are crazy, number four blew my mind” are designed for nothing more than to get people to visit a web page. Nine times out of ten, the content is disappointing. It’s not hard to see why, of course. No money comes from writing a decent informative article, only website visits. Even if someone doesn’t read the article at all, that’s advertising revenue right there.

While crappy clickbait articles on meaningless aspects of life are bad enough, science writing has fallen victim to this laziness. The popular Facebook page “I F-ing Love Science” is the worst offender. Preying on lovers of science for clicks only leads to the dumbing down of the public on a whole.

Bordering on outright lies, IFLS articles give people a completely false concept of what science is, and what happens. The only parallel I can think of from the past are articles on quantum weirdness. The physicist and dabbler in quantum mechanics Richard Feynman once famously said “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.” Now, when a physicist says nobody understands quantum mechanics, that’s notable. Fast forward to the present, and everybody and their brother who has spent five minutes on the Internet thinks they know everything that quantum mechanics says about the world. It’s like a religion for wannabe science nerds.

The most recent instance of this silliness is the poetically-named star KIC 8462852. What’s so important about this? Interesting patterns of light have been seen coming from this star. Nearly 1,500 light years away, this star is getting dimmer and brighter in a fashion that generally is only seen in younger stars. The star is so far away, no telescopes can get an actual view of the star, just measure brightness.

So this star seems to be getting brighter and dimmer in an interesting fashion. Instead of taking the data with a grain of salt, popular science reporting across the Internet bring up the possibility of it being an “alien superstructure.”

I’m not kidding. People are taking brightness measurements of a star so far away the human mind can’t conceptualize just how mind-bogglingly far away it is, and deciding it must be because aliens. Now call me crazy, but where I come from, science is not claiming that a statistical aberration is due to aliens. The one thing harder to grasp than how far away the star is, is how idiotic people have to be to give any credence to this theory of aliens.

I’m reminded of the theory of canals on Mars. In the late 19th century, astronomers were looking at Mars and saw what appeared to be canals – long, straight lines on the planet’s surface. Many theories were proposed to explain the canals, but the most enduring theory? That the lines were irrigation canals, proof of an intelligent civilization on Mars. Of course, we now know that the observed lines were nothing more than streaks of windblown dust on mountains and craters.

The parallel is clear. Without enough technology to accurately measure what’s happening on the surface, all manner of ridiculous theories were presented. The only difference is that this is over 100 years later. By now, one would think that the scientific community has learned its lesson and would at the very least, not jump to ridiculous conclusions. Thanks to the amount of profit to be had in pushing completely bogus science, humanity has not progressed one iota.

As great as science is, the vast majority of it is undeniably boring. Trying to spice it up for popular culture hurts humanity and science equally. If children in this era are brought up reading IFLS articles and watching Ancient Aliens, what hope is there that they will grow up to be rational scientists?