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Tuesday, 21 April 2009


What you've been missing if you haven't signed up for the list...

The coming of April means April Fools Day and the annual round of stranger than fiction (or is it?) science stories at times. This year it was as hard as ever distinguish the porkies, with New Scientist for one carrying stories on naval fluff, medical implants that feed on human blood and a masturbation treatment for hayfever (a selection of this year's efforts on the ABSW blog). On ABSW-L, members were busy sharing good April Fools past and present, particularly those that had got out of hand. Ted Nield told of a piece he wrote about the Geological Society honouring the then England cricket Captain Nasser Hussein, who studied geology at Durham. All good fun until weeks later a sports reporter rang for a comment from "Dr Avril Foley" of the "University of Limerick".

Not an April Fool was the announcement of two 'robot scientists' capable of conducting experiments, analysing results and drawing conclusions. The announcement had the scientific community buzzing, and ABSW members analysing the coverage . Mike Kenward pointed out that the BBC, and many other news outlets, focused on just one of the two papers featured in Science, that on the UK robot Adam. Was this just UK bias? A pertinent question, given Ben Goldacre's recent tirade against the British press. Ed Yong said he found the Adam story much more interesting "on the grounds that the physics robot only worked out physical laws that we *already knew*, while Adam actually discovered new knowledge". Katrina Pavelin, who wrote the original press release, agreed: "Although we have had what might be called robot scientists before, to our knowledge this is the first to make its own new scientific discoveries". Mike Kenward wondered if this was a positive example to throw at people when they say that science writers just follow the press release. "Had the hacks acted in line with some stereotypes, both projects would have had equal coverage. Instead, the writers looked deeper and found the one that really was worth reporting."

Yet while science journalists improve their efforts, the economic downturn -- and the resulting layoffs -- caused much doom and gloom in the field. Yet in the midst of all this, City University decided to launch a new course in the subject. This led ABSW members to again question the virtues of specialist courses like this. Are journalism skills not universal? Daniel Nelson said specialists have their place: "There's not a single sort of "journalist", any more than there's such a thing as "the media". Bob Ward wrote that the scientific community has its own quirks that require a certain manner, and that such a course makes it easier for scientists to transition to journalism. And Peter Aldhous pointed out that, given Ben Goldacre's criticism (see above), it is worth raising again the idea that science and medical journalism can involve particular challenges with understanding statistics.

On a final, sad, note, tributes poured in for John Maddox, the former editor of Nature who passed away on 12 April 2009, aged 83. Many remarked how much John did to nurture British science journalism. Mike Kenward wrote how one of his "many moves in dragging Nature into the 20th Century was to begin to go directly to the media". "When it comes to science writing, John's biggest impact has been in the people who went through the 'training school' at Nature. It and New Scientist were responsible for a large number of science writers who went on to do great things." Peter Aldhous was amongst those to whom he gave a first job ("I'd like to think that it may have been because I disagreed with him in the interview. I think he liked people who were a bit argumentative"). "If he asked you to draft an editorial... he had a habit of twisting the punchline through 180 degrees," recalled David Dickson, who also highlighted his "absolute faith in scientific rationalism that led him into contested terrains... John embodied an approach to science journalism that many of us who worked with him still aspire to". Henry Gee has assembled a collection of obituaries on his Nature Network page.

Mun-Keat Looi
News Editor, The Science Reporter