Wednesday, November 7, 2007

In defense of Matt Kaplan

Recently I responded negatively to an article in the Economist about research in my former lab. My complaints were, 1. sensationalistic title, 2. oversimplification, 3. sexing up the subject matter, and 4. failure to credit first author. Several respondents convinced me I was being too harsh, so I've retracted the post and apologized to Matt. The problem is that the Economist's Editors, not authors, choose titles, and Editors also have a significant influence on the tone and content of the article. The issues are not really Matt's fault.

The issues I raise are actually part of a dilemma for many science writers: what is an acceptable level of detail in an article? Naturally not all readers can be expected to understand science writing at the level of Science and Nature, but does science writing in the Economist need to be dumbed-down? The editors apparently think so. The sad thing is that they are probably right. Many people have a difficult time understanding even rudimentary science. Take for example the recent experience of the British National Lottery. In their game, Cool Cash, players scratch away a window to reveal a temperature. If that temperature is lower than temperature on the card, the player wins. The problem is that many players could not determine which number was smaller: -7 or -8.

Matt wonders, "if sacrificing some detail [is] acceptable to reach a wider audience? Is it right that editors have total control of titles to popularise complex science? Do they really know better than the journalist?"

My opinion is that there is that, beyond a certain level, sacrificing detail is counter-productive because the science itself is mis-represented, giving the reader a false understanding of science and the state of scientific knowledge. Easy to say, of course, but what is that level. I don't think there are any easy answers. Publishers know that if their readers cannot understand the material, they probably won't buy the work. Ultimately the consumer is responsible for the content because they exercise choice in the marketplace.

I, and Matt, would be very interested in what others have to say.

Photo from the Onion.


  1. Actually it's not at all obvious which of those numbers is "smaller": do you go for the smaller magnitude, or the number that is lower on the scale? The wording of the news item indicates, however, that the lottery players were strugging over which of them was lower, the answer to which one hopes should be obvious. "Smaller" and "lower" are not quite the same question, or at least, will not be interpreted in the same way. Had they been asked which was "colder" and still failed, it would have been even worse: people are generally better at solving maths puzzles when put in real-world terms.

  2. Well, I think the implication was lower temperature i.e. colder. It would have fit with the winter scheme of the cash card.