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Dust to dust

What lessons can be learned from the presentation of the gravitational-waves story?

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More than six months after the initial announcement that scientists had found evidence of gravitational waves — echoes of the Big Bang itself — the claim is hanging by a thread. Subsequent analysis showed that much of the signal could have been contaminated by galactic dust. The predictions of Nobel prizes for the team have faded. The champagne has gone flat.

Extraordinary claims, as the saying almost goes, demand more scrutiny than usual to make sure they stand up. That is how science works. Claim and counter-claim: intellectual thrust and experimental parry.

The tale of the gravitational waves has some way to rumble on yet. Next week, a meeting in Columbus, Ohio, organized by the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, a panel of scientists and journalists, will search for “lessons learned by scientists and science writers involved with the BICEP2” story. What will these be?

The first thing to highlight is that such a thing as the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing even exists. Too many scientists dismiss the media and journalists as sloppy and unwilling to engage in both detail and ambiguity. In fact, there can be no branch of journalism as self-scrutinizing and anxious about its performance as that which covers science. It is hard to imagine political and sports reporters taking the time to discuss so thoroughly what (if anything) they did wrong after one of their stories went belly-up.

The (welcome) rise of the science blogger has fuelled this navel-gazing. Some bloggers seem to spend most of their time criticizing other science writers, or at least debunking examples of what they regard as inferior science writing. But they do lots of good stuff too. Although traditionalists lament the decline of science coverage in the mainstream press, a terrific amount of analysis and comment, much of it very technical, is happening online under their noses.

“As BICEP2 clearly demonstrates, most science is a work in progress.”

Nature has a stake in discussions of the gravitational-waves story. Our news team was among those tipped off about the claim in advance. We were proud of our (extensive) coverage, both in print and online, at the time. We remain so now. Like most other news organizations, we reported the claims from the provisional paper accurately and, like almost all the coverage, were sure to include the caveat that the findings would need to be confirmed. That is not to claim that the press can be given a free pass on this. Its job is to ask questions after all. But it is not always possible for journalists — even the best science writers — to provide the answers.

What about the promised lessons for scientists? As we have pointed out before, researchers must not be afraid to be wrong. With hindsight they may feel they rushed to publish their claim too quickly, but professional science is a competitive and fast-moving field. The academic paper was cautious and the team’s reaction to subsequent criticism seems constructive. Some may question the timing of the announcement, made when the paper was released on the Internet, not accepted or published by a journal, but at least the evidence was there to examine. If the scientists and the media both largely acted properly, then what should be discussed at next week’s meeting? It could do worse than start by screening the celebratory online video produced by California’s Stanford University and released to accompany the announcement. Scientists and journalists can include as many academic caveats as they like, but the sounds and images of champagne corks popping tend to render such statements of caution just that — academic.

There is a deeper issue here: science not by press conference but presented as an event. What in reality is a long, messy and convoluted process of three steps forward and two steps back is too easily presented as giant leaps between states of confusion and blinding revelation. At the heart of this theatre is the artificial landmark of a peer-reviewed paper. Fixed print schedules and releases to journalists under embargo (with or without champagne videos) help to lend the impression that the publication of a paper is the final word on a question — the end-of-term report on a scientific project that details all that was achieved.

As BICEP2 clearly demonstrates, most science is a work in progress. Which is surely good news for scientists, who remain useful, and for science writers, who will always have something to cover.

Journal name:
Nature
Volume:
514,
Pages:
273–274
Date published:
()
DOI:
doi:10.1038/514273b

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