Bad Science Journalism and the Myth of the Oppressed Underdog

From Michael White, of Adaptive Complexity:

There is a particular narrative about science that science
journalists love to write about, and Americans love to hear. I call it
the ‘oppressed underdog’ narrative, and it would be great except for
the fact that it’s usually wrong.

The narrative goes like this:

1. The famous, brilliant scientist So-and-so hypothesized that X was true.

2. X, forever after, became dogma among scientists, simply by virtue of the brilliance and fame of Dr. So-and-so.

3. This dogmatic assent continues unchallenged until an intrepid,
underdog scientist comes forward with a dramatic new theory, completely
overturning X, in spite of sustained, hostile opposition by the dogmatic scientific establishment.

We love stories like this; in our culture we love the underdog, who
sticks to his or her guns, in spite of heavy opposition. In this
narrative, we have heroes, villains, and a famous, brilliant scientist
proven wrong.

I’m sure you could pick out instances in science history where this story is true, but more often it is not.

The general public prefers to get its science, or indeed information on any advanced subject, in the form of narrative, while scientists themselves (who already know how to interpret scientific data) often find the narrative a distraction. Everyone can identify with people, so the thinking goes, so it makes sense to emphasize the narrative so that non-specialist audiences will keep reading for long enough to absorb a few facts.  The nitpicky details that are exciting to specialists are too abstract for the casual reader, just as the narrative that appeals to the intelligent general reader (a rare breed in today’s culture, to be sure) bores specialists to tears.  White hits the nail on the head when he explains why our culture perpetuates these myths.

I don’t mean to suggest that oversimplification is the only way to report on science, but scientists themselves can help the process along by recognizing that journalists thrive on conflict, character, and emotion. There are of course straight news stories that might present the scientific background to an timely issue, but unless there’s a direct economic or political impact, or a tie-in with a movie or some other event from popular culture, chance are that a writer will have to pitch a story about a scientist as a feature or profile — hence the focus on personality over science.