Do you ever get the feeling that…

…when you look at science today that things seem blown way out of proportion?

I get the feeling that many press releases make a big deal out of experiments/theoretical work that are not groundbreaking, are not going to cause an upheaval in anyone’s way of thinking and frankly, are humdrum science (not to diminish the importance of humdrum science!).

In all honesty, really great scientific works are rare and sometimes it takes a long time to recognize the importance of a great leap in understanding. There are many examples of this, but here’s one: Gregor Mendel, who I would refer to as the discoverer of the gene, died before his work was recognized as truly path-breaking, which took about 50 years.

A lot of good science happens all the time, but let’s not kid ourselves — the science is not as revolutionary as a lot of press releases make it seem. Of course, most professional scientists are aware of this, but to the young graduate student and to the public at large, press releases can easily be mistaken for groundbreaking science and often are. How many times have you come across someone from outside of science excited about an article they read online that you know is either extremely speculative or actually pretty mundane? It is hard to respond to reactions like this because you don’t want to dampen someone’s excitement about a subject you care about!

I don’t know what is driving all of this — the media, funding agencies, university rankings or some other metric, but to be perfectly honest, I find much of the coverage on sites like Phys.Org ugly, cynical and detrimental.

While it can be argued that this media coverage does serve some important purpose, it seems to me that this drive to “sell one’s work” may have the adverse effect of exacerbating impostor syndrome (especially among younger colleagues), which is already rampant in physics departments as well as in other academic fields (i.e. you feel like because you need to “sell your work”, and because it gets blown way out of proportion, that you have manipulated people into thinking your work is more important than you really know it to be).

If you just went about your business, trying to do science you think is worthy (without the citation-counting and the excessive media coverage), my guess is science (and more importantly scientists!) would probably be healthier.

I know this viewpoint is pretty one-dimensional and lacks some nuance, so I would like to encourage comments and especially opposing opinions.

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11 responses to “Do you ever get the feeling that…

  1. Arnab Barman Ray

    I think that a lot more research is published everyday that is mundane and at the same time not popularized or exaggerated by media outlets like phys.org.
    Media attention and public fame does not always mean respect from competent scientific colleagues who actually understand the importance of your work and upon whose opinion your career actually rides on. In that case one need not worry about selling their work, especially in today’s age of the interweb when unlike in the 19th century your research is accessible to virtually anyone for assessment. I don’t quite see the correlation with impostor syndrome.What do you think?

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  2. Hype has been a problem for a while, and it’s only gotten worse in the click-bait/24 hour news culture. You’re absolutely right that genuine breakthroughs and “transformative” discoveries are very rare.

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  3. This is exactly why I enjoy (writing and reading) PRBs more than anything – generally they are not hyped, they are properly detailed, and focus on what matters instead of what sells well.
    In this respect I also would encourage the old habit of writing a larger PRB after a PRL – although the ubiquitous Supplementary Information interferes a bit with that.

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  4. ThatOldTortoise

    Hype exists because “knowledge for knowledge’s sake” doesn’t cut it with the media or the average reader anymore. Quite frankly, trying to get your work heard underneath the piles of other papers can be hard at times. Hence why it’s great to see the work that those involved in projects such as the ‘condensed matter journal club’ does, just unfortunately the scale is quite small. I think most serious scientist turn to blogs such as these to see pseudo-critiques.

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  5. One aspect which has been downgraded in many universities for tenure is
    teaching. Some decades back teaching was done as a research perspective. There is an article by Roald Hoffmann , Nobel Prize winner in chemistry in American Scientist ” Research Strategy – Teach and in the first para he writes what has happened in Universities today. These are the lines ” A damaging misconception about modern universities is that research dominates and diminishes teaching and the tension of balancing ( unsymmetrically) the twain is unhealthy. I am contrary , I say not only are the two unseparable, but teaching makes for better reasearch ” Jan-Feb 1996 Page 20-22. American Scientist.

    Teaching not being considered for tenure and with manure for tenure coming from only from funding , how can one have a strategy mentioned by Prof RH. Has technology disrupted the way we teach in the classroom or self learning become easier? . The passion for classroom teaching to undergrads even with modern gadgets is on the decline.

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  6. I personally find mundane science and speculation exciting. In my opinion, the deeper problem is that people don’t appreciate the importance of being wrong.

    Can you give an example of how science journalism is cynical? I don’t get that claim. And what would you expect the science media to talk about if not the mundane and speculative?

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    • Thanks for your comment, Jim. I find it cynical in the sense that, as Doug pointed out in a previous comment, a lot of it serves as no more than click-bait. I would encourage articles that are mundane — but without the speculation and hyperbole that often comes with them. If it was “plain-vanilla”, that would be great.

      Take a look at this article for instance:
      https://phys.org/news/2017-03-particles-quantum-theory.html

      I’m not sure who this article is written for — I would love a more in-depth view of the scientific content of the paper it is trying to cover. It seems to me a bit lazy to gloss over the scientific content and talk about the future applications of “quantum entanglement” to quantum computation. After reading it, I still have no idea how important the paper is, why it is important, nor what the experiment was actually about. Nonetheless, the article has been shared over 3.6K times.

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      • That example is just poor writing. I can’t entirely fault the writer because this is a hard subject. In cases like this one needs to go to the journal to understand it for themselves, and when you do that, you see that this is not click-bait at all but an important result meeting the strictest criteria below.

        “It is community driven and has not-for-profit status, and thus aims to provide high-profile publication of important results in all areas of physics. To maintain this mission, a few years ago PRL reinvigorated its standards for publication. A Letter should do at least one of the following:
        (i) substantially advance a particular field; (ii) open a significant new area of research; (iii) solve a critical outstanding problem, or make a significant step toward solving such a problem; or (iv) be of great general interest, based, for example, on scientific aesthetics.”
        http://journals.aps.org/edannounce/PhysRevLett.111.100002

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    • I feel the primary job of a (scientific) journalist is to let you know about something you might otherwise miss – not to teach you the subject matter.

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      • Anshul Kogar

        Thanks again for your response. I think that, as with regular journalism, scientific journalism can serve several purposes. If the intention of the article is to let scientists know about new results, then it is unnecessary to include speculations which most professionals will know to be baseless. If the intention is to provide a bit of context for the general public, then a little more background is required.

        Nonetheless, the main point of my post was to suggest that scientific journalism (and a lot of time, scientific articles themselves) should be toned down. Good papers come out all the time, but really great papers, which do deserve journalistic praise, are rare and are the ones that should be celebrated, but often get lost amidst the journalistic noise. Science journalism is difficult, as the example of the Mendel paper shows, but the current state of affairs can undoubtedly be improved.

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  7. Good papers come out all the time, but really great papers, which do deserve journalistic praise, are rare and are the ones that should be celebrated,

    This sentence of yours reminds me of Sydney Brenner , a Nobelist quote
    ” Rutherford said there are two types of science -physics and stamp collecting. But what he forgot is that there are some stamps worth collecting”

    Yes you have celebrate great papers in any area of research. These papers are worth collecting Rosalinf Franklin Holes in coal. These papers paved the way for molecular sieve properties of carbon. Even after 6 decades , carbon chemists who have prospered in funding due to Rosalind’s fundamental work, keep publishing. One feels she should have got a Nobel for this. She was alive then.

    https://profiles.nlm.nih.gov/ps/retrieve/Narrative/KR/p-nid/186/p-docs/true

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