headlines can be misleading

And this one’s no exception: "Darwin was wrong" on the cover of New Scientist, no less. (& in smaller type: cutting down the tree of life.)

This leads to a story about the significance of horizontal gene transfer to our understanding of evolutionary relationships. But why the headline (which will probably be grist to the anti-evolutionary mill…)? The idea of HGT is neither new, nor particularly controversial. Scientists have known for at least a decade that prokaryotes are quite promiscuous about passing around bits of DNA. And we know, too, that it can happen in eukaryotes: transfer of DNA between chloroplasts (& mitochondria) & their host cells’ nuclei has been well documented. (And this can sometimes make it difficult to work out prokaryote phylogenies.) So we can infer that HGT was just as rife among the prokaryote inhabitants of the early Earth – and hence, at that stage you couldn’t really describe what was going on as being represented by a ‘tree of life’.

We owe the metaphor of the ‘tree of life’ to Charles Darwin, who used it as a way of representing the concept of descent with modification. So, does the prevalence of HGT among prokaryotes, especially back on that early Earth, mean that Darwin was wrong?

Well – like all scientists – he was wrong about quite a lot. He was spectacularly wrong about how inheritance worked, for example. But Darwin developed the tree metaphor to represent the interrelatedness, & shared ancestry, of the organisms with which he was most familiar: animals & plants. It was a powerful metaphor then, & remains so today. And the recognition that, at the prokaryote level, a better metaphor might be of a web does nothing to topple the theory of evolution as the best explanation we have for how the wonderful diversity of life has developed.

Unfortunately, that’s how that cover headline could, & probably will, be interpreted. And both headline & article have been dissected already, here for example. But it does lead to the question: just what is the responsibility of the media to report accurately on what’s going on in science? Jason Rosenberg asked this question, over on Evolutionblog. Among others, it drew a response from the editor of New Scientist:. Making the point that there is an awful lot of competition for readership, he says:

To get noticed, you have to play the game to some extent. You have to find exciting new stories and sell them in exciting, sexy (and sometimes controversial) ways. That doesn’t go down well with the purists, but I’d always argue that it’s better to have a million people reading a "dumbed down science rag" than a few hundred people reading real science and everybody else doing something else.

But you can "dumb down" (a dreadful phrase!) without sacrificing accuracy – Carl ZImmer’s blogposts & books are an excellent example of how to communicate about science in a wonderfully engaging way that is also an accurate representation of the current state of play. So why is it so often deemed necessary to go for what could be described as a tabloid approach? As another commentator on Jason’s blog says:

Being a good writer and being exciting are components of science journalism.

But don’t forget that the top three criteria are:
1. scientific accuracy
2. scientific accuracy
3. scientific accuracy

Everything else is window dressing.

And in terms of conveying what science is about, that window dressing often does everyone a disservice.

4 thoughts on “headlines can be misleading”

  • I originally wrote this the bit below as a reply to Graham, the editor that wrote the piece you’re referring to, about some blog comments he posted, but I never got around to posting it. I’ve lightly edited it and stuck here, to save it from being a complete waste of time. Commentary about the article seems to have sprung up all over the “blogosphere”. People aren’t happy!
    Graham has several times tried to have those objecting in effect “refer to points raised” in the article. In my opinion, this misses the point. People aren’t questioning the individual points raised in the article itself, but the context they were presented in. For me at least, this includes the context of the points within the article itself, not just the headers, as you were saying. (Graham has also written to the effect that the subtitle “cutting down the tree of life” lets NS off the hook: I disagree!)
    The piece did not come across as “an article saying that many biologists now argue that one important aspect of the theory of evolution needs modifying in the light of new evidence” (as Graham has written) to me, but rather an article arguing that a “central” part of Darwin’s work needed replacing. This may have been what Graham intended, perhaps, but I can’t help noticing that he placed the material in the context of a “conflict”. As I noted elsewhere this is a journalistic device, one with a “winner” and a “loser”. I guess it makes for a “sexier” story, but my impression is it’s not seen that way by scientists involved (and certainly not by me). Graham also pushes his case too far at points, and provided no context to balance to the points raised. All-in-all I’m not keen on the article. Worthwhile points, but written in a completely different story.
    To me the flap is over people having expectations of publications. Readers of “pure” entertainment rags expect “teaser” or “hyped” headlines, like those in the (British) Sun tabloid. (Oh, sorry, they do carry “real” news…!) In my limited experience, their articles also seem to take care to “disclose” the tease.
    By contrast, I think it’d be fair to say that people expect a “science” publication, even in the “popular science” arena, to be about reality and with that be accurate. Puns and clever word games are accepted, but misleading headlines (or ones leaning towards misleading) tend to make readers of science grumpy. Likewise, readers of science aren’t so hot on articles that don’t fill in the balance or context of the issues being addressed, or are factually incorrect. But all this seems common-sense to me, something the editors should be well aware of, so in the end it feels to me like an ordinarily poor decision. (And that an ordinary “OK, that wasn’t so bright” might be in order!) My kindest reading of it is that NewScientist has, hopefully temporarily, “forgotten” what kind of publication it is. My impression is that they knew they were playing a game (Graham pretty much said so himself), it’s just it was the wrong game for a popular science publication to be playing.
    As you were saying, they should try entertain, by all means, but not at the expense of accuracy.

  • I currently subscribe to New Scientist and it was this cover (and the fact that one issue per week is too much to get through) that has made me not renew my subscription this year and, instead, switch to Scientific American. I’ve never read it before so here’s hoping this is not a case of out-of-the-frying-pan…

  • Alison Campbell says:

    I used to read New Scientist quite a bit, but it became a bit too ‘gee whiz’ for my taste – there were a few ‘once-over-lightly’ articles that rather put me off. Will you write to tell them why you’re not renewing your sub? (Though going by the editor’s comments only, they probably won’t listen…)

  • No, I probably won’t bother to write as it’s the New Zealand way to avoid confrontation.
    Actually, that article itself was really very good in that it put across perfectly that the tree analogy doesn’t do justice to the heritage of individual genes. But the headline should have been something as non-catchy as “Evolution’s species tree not sufficient” or some such. Especially given their awareness of the way that a headline like “Darwin was wrong!” could be taken out of context.
    My main reason for not renewing is that I just can’t keep up with an issue each week but I have been occasionally annoyed with their Woman’s Day-style headlines too.

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