Sensationalistic Science

(Subtitle: Why I Get Annoyed With The Media.)

Today the BBC published this news story about “plastic light bulbs” – something which seem to me to be rather interesting. In short: a type of light-emitting device which has recently seen a step forward in technological capabilities.

I’ll get straight to what irks me; it’s presented as almost an entirely new, out-of-the-blue invention. The article talks at length about the fact that it is “new” and tries desperately to imply that this is an exciting smash through a barrier for a critically important field.

And I think it completely misses the point.

Firstly, it’s trying to present all scientific things in the same way. This is not, for instance, a ground-breaking result like the discovery of the Higgs Boson (which I blogged about alongside everyone else below the troposphere). This probably is not a revelation to the field or a sudden upheaval of an entire scientific landscape. On inspecting the abstract for the paper (credit where it’s due: points for citing the paper), it isn’t presented as a step-change in the field and it shouldn’t be presented so.

Admittedly, it’s a new and interesting thing – but crucially it’s building on previous work, like almost all science does. I think that the article is inherently misleading by presenting it as if it were a smashing and unexpected discovery – it certainly reads like that. The thing is, you can tell that the article is trying to mislead but at the same time be technically accurate – none of the statements are wrong, they are just misleading as a whole. New device; yes. Useful and important; yes. Compared to other technologies; yes. But that isn’t telling the whole story. The fact is that this is a cool development of a lot of work by lots of different people and groups over a long time – to me it’s more exciting because of that.

Sure, it’s exciting, but it’s exciting for different reasons than the article implies. That’s where I think the article is missing a trick. For instance; the article brushes over a bit about “a small volume of nanomaterials” like it’s a barely-relevant aspect, but truly it’s the reason why the device works as well as it does. That aspect is the whole reason and in fact the story.

Moreover, the “nanomaterials” are in fact carbon nanotubes, one of the most amazing and exciting things in science. They’ve long been known to have special properties, including being incredibly strong and extremely thin, as well as (comparatively) simple to make. Not only that, but they’re known to have quite astounding electrical properties, so much so that they’re the focus of whole research efforts just to get them ready for proper commercial uses. They also do some amazing things in their raw form LIKE EXPLODING.

What this is is a really awesome demonstration of the power of nanotubes and their applications. The BBC has actually implied several times that nanotubes aren’t all they’re cracked up to be since we don’t see a lot of real applications for them (yet) and here one is and they’re ignoring it.

What it seems to me is that this is a truly awesome demonstration of the application of science to making people’s lives better, and it used some awesome technology that’s been waiting for so long to have the applications to go with it’s potential. The article nails the first bit, but the fact that this is as much a victory for nanotubes as the environment makes it feel just a bit lacking.

So I’m disappointed. The BBC’s coverage of science is the best in it’s class by a long way, but I don’t think it’s really that good.  Perhaps we scientists need to improve at our communication some more, but the news needs to work at it too.

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About stoove

A physicist, researcher, and gamesman. Likes to think about the mathematics and mechanics behind all sorts of different things, and writing up the thoughts for you to read. A competent programmer, enjoys public speaking and mechanical keyboards. Has opinions which might even change from time to time.
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