Ep. 427: Click Bait vs Clear Science


Did you hear that Dark Energy doesn’t exist any more? Neither does Dark Matter? It turns out that NASA recalculated the Zodiac and now you’re an Ophiuchan! Science is hard enough, but communicating that science out to the public when there are publications hungry for traffic is even harder! Here’s how to parse the click-bait science titles.

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Fraser Cain: Astronomy Cast, Episode 427, Click-bait vs. Clear Science. Welcome to Astronomy Cast, our weekly facts-based journey through the cosmos. We help you understand not only what we know, but how we know what we know. My name is Fraser Cain. I’m the publisher of Universe Today, and with me is Dr. Pamela Gay, the Director of CosmoQuest. Hi, Pamela. How are you doing?

Dr. Pamela Gay: I’m doing well. How are you doing, Fraser?

Fraser: I’m doing fantastic. Are there anymore updates from the Eclipse, or should we stop talking about it now because everything is sold out?

Pamela: We have, I think, three spaces left of the 100 we made available. So, all of you guys are awesome for signing up early, and making sure that this is going to be an Eclipse Trip to remember.

Fraser: Yeah. So, if you haven’t already, hurry. But, we do have a Facebook group where you can kind of watch, and people will be able to find slots if someone has to cancel. But, yeah, go to astronomycast.com. There’s a link to our events, and check it out.

Alright, so did you hear that Dark Energy doesn’t exist anymore, and neither does Dark Matter? It turns out NASA recalculated the Zodiac, and I’m now an Ophiuchan –  Science is hard enough, but communicating that science out to the public when there are publications hungry for traffic is even harder. Here’s how to parse the click-bait science titles.

So, I think I might work with one of these astronomy publications. In fact, I might be the publisher, and so be wholly responsible for the titles that run through our publication. But, you’re not talking about me, right?

Pamela: No. You never tried to disprove Dark Energy.

Fraser: No, we didn’t. We didn’t pull the trigger on that one. So, we’re fine then.

Pamela: You’re fine.

Fraser: But, you were saying that you were reading your Facebook page, and there were some bad titles?

Pamela: Yeah. It’s one of these things where everything from, “You can stop menopause with coffee,” because apparently when you hit a certain age, these are the things that Facebook tells you, to “Dark Energy doesn’t exist,” to “Super Nova don’t work the way we thought they worked.” They just sort of crop up from well-meaning people who see interesting titles, and who doesn’t want to have their entire understanding of the Universe changed instantaneously? Yeah.

Fraser: I think the best examples that were recent were that NASA is claiming that there is going to be 15 days of darkness in November – which I don’t know if you heard about this one.

Pamela: No.

Fraser: Yeah. Which is that literally this came up a year ago. Someone just made this up that there was going to be 15 days of darkness, and it’s not real. And, yet people have been debunking it, and now it’s come back around again a second time. And, the other one is that NASA has recalculated the Zodiac, which I think is hilarious.

Pamela: And, it’s not that they recalculated the Zodiac; it’s people finally noticed that the Zodiac astrologers are using doesn’t match the one astronomers have been using for a long time.

Fraser: And, NASA had this educational page on their website, and they’ve had it there for years, and someone just noticed that on one page NASA mentioned that the actual dimensions of the Zodiac don’t match the twelfths of the year, which is so funny.

Pamela: Yeah, and then there’s the undead, “Mars will appear bigger than the full moon!”

Fraser: Right, of course. The one that will never stop. But, I think the one that – I mean, those are just ridiculous. You can just ignore them outright. Go ahead. But, I think the ones that are tricky are the ones – the one that came up in the last couple of weeks was the one that was published via Oxford that Dark Energy doesn’t exist. Which is a very inflammatory title, and when you actually dig into it, that’s not what it said.

Pamela: Right. So, you often end up – and, this can be in any science whatsoever – with a perfectly legit scientist doing perfectly legitimate scientific work that shows this thing we’ve already been studying looks like it might have a twist. It might have an exception. It might have times when it behaves differently from what we understood. Or, maybe the data we have just isn’t quite as clear as we thought, and so they’ll publish a paper about, “Heads up guys. We need to check this thing out.” And, then some journalist who’s like, “Oh, well, the whole Universe changed,” writes this amazing story making out the things where the scientist was like, “We should look at this,” saying, “This thing we should look at is totally different.” And, no, that’s not what the scientists –

Fraser: Yeah. And, this comes up all of the time. And, of course, we as journalists, now we’re talking about the things that I know how to do, and we as journalists go through these phases. I think in the beginning you haven’t seen enough of the steps going on around, and around, and around that you’re not sort of – you get trapped. You get caught. You get tricked by not only what is your instinct is what this story is telling you, but also sort of the echo chamber of all of these other websites that maybe don’t have as much experience in space, and astronomy, and science. So, they essentially just take it at face value, and then you echo what they’re saying, and you all just make mistakes.

Then, helpful commentators pop out of the woodwork and guide you back to a place where you have a little more balanced, nuanced view of how to report this stuff. I’d like to think that even now where we are, the maturity of Universe Today, most of our writing team is pretty good at this, and has enough of the knowledge, and have been through this enough times that we cannot fall into these mistakes every time. But, we do – I would say – sometimes go after click-bait titles. We’re looking to attract people without lying. And, that’s the balance that we have to set because if no one wants to read our stories, then we don’t exist.

Pamela: And, what I wish I saw more of was someone taking the click-bait story of, “Dark Energy is Dead,” and just noping it. Just put the word NOPE in all caps at the end of the click-bait title so that people just know, “Nope. Not true.” But, the problem is when you do that, not as many people click on it, and this is kind of how you make your living.

Fraser: Yes, exactly. That is exactly how I make my living. And, we do sometimes – You know, there’s real value to taking – if you know that there is a very click-bait thing going on, then you can say, “No, the Large Hadron Collider did not just discover the multiverse,” right? And, then you can explain in the article. So, people are seeing the click-baity version, and then you’re providing the backlash to the click-bait, and that can be valuable, as well. So, I think there is a key to it. It’s funny. We put a ton of effort into our titles, like all publications.

I’m going to sort of reveal a little bit of our secret. We test titles on Twitter before we write stories. So, we’re trying to figure out what kinds of stories people are interested in. What are the stories that people are excited about? And, we’ll test that out if we can get a sense of what is really intriguing the readers and a lot of that is about the title. Once we know the title, then we know the story and even the direction that the story should take. So, a lot of that is happening behind the scenes.

Pamela: Now, where it gets messy is we have real stories like Michael Brown and company uncovering the gravitational yank of a ninth planet, and we have fake stories of, “Nibiru is coming to crash into the Earth.” And, they both involve an additional planet. And, how hard does it get to be for your average Joe and Jill to sort through all of the stuff flying past them, and know Nibiru bad, planet nine by Michael Brown, good.

Fraser: Yeah. So, if you are a lay person who is interested in science, interested in space, but doesn’t necessarily have the astrophysics degree, what is a way that you can look at this kind of stuff, and have some judgment about it?

Pamela: Well, the first thing is you want to do a Google news search on who all is covering this. And, if it crops up in the Washington Post, The New York Times, Space.com, universetoday.com, if you see that whole suite of sites, you can trust it. If it doesn’t crop up in a whole bunch of different sites, then the next thing you want to do is look at the article carefully, and see if it has the magical sentence Published in… and then look to see what journal it was. And, if the journal is a mainstream journal – so, monthly notice of the Royal Astronomical Society, Astrophysics, Astronomy.

So, it’s the Astrophysical Journal, the Astronomy Journal publications, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. If it’s mainline journal, and it’s a scientist from a mainstream university, there’s a pretty good chance that it’s probably at least seeded with truth, but you don’t know yet if the author is taking it in a weird direction.

Fraser: Yeah.

Pamela: And, this is where it comes down to. You need to find the story, either the original press release, which often comes out from the American Astronomical Society, or it needs to come from multiple sites.

Fraser: But, at this point you have already clicked the link.

Pamela: Yeah.

Fraser: So, I don’t know. Hopefully, this is going to stop you from breathlessly sharing it into your feed to continue the virus. And, that’s very similar – I mean, that is the way that we go about it when we’re actually doing our work, as well because when we write a story, we need to make sure that it is legitimate science, that it is not pseudoscience by some crackpot. And, it’s that exact same thing. So, whenever I look at a story I ask myself, “What’s the source? Where is this coming from? What is the originating location that this comes from?” And, then we have to verify and track back everything to its source.

So, as you said, is it coming out of a university research department? Is it coming out of NASA? Is it something that’s coming out of an established journal? What are the people involved in it? Are they astrophysicists? Are they doing work in this field? How big is the study? How many people were involved in it? What kinds of controls have they put into it? The more you can look into how the research was done, the better chance you have of being able to know if it’s reasonable. But, that said, there could still be this whole level on top of it that takes what was a nugget of really good science, and tweaks it to make it almost mean the opposite sometimes.

Pamela: And, sometimes it’s actually originating from the scientists themselves. Back in – I believe it was 2005 – there was a scientist who did his work while at Harvard, and then published while he was at another university that claimed to have disproved the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, that light is either a particle or a wave when you observe it, and you can’t observe it behaving both ways at once. And, I happened to be in the room while he did a bunch of experiments because he borrowed one of my lab spaces to do it at Harvard.

And, yeah, his experiment allowed you to see in different parts of the light stream the particle behavior of the light, and the wave behavior of the light, but all of the headlines saying that he’d disproved the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics was taking a really awesome experiment, and giving it that title that if it was true would give the guy the Nobel Prize, which you know at the end of the day is pretty much every scientist’s greatest wish.

And, he was happy to say he had disproved the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, but pretty much all of the scientists who looked at his results said, “We don’t see what would disallow this. This is really cool. We’re glad you did this, but Quantum Mechanics is still behaving the same way, guys.” So, even going back to the scientists can lead you down strange paths sometimes.

Fraser: Yeah. Absolutely. So, I think this is where the Oxford announcement that came out a couple of weeks ago that Dark Energy wasn’t real – at least that’s not the way that the Oxford original release went, but sort of the way it was interpreted by the press arm – because that’s on the other piece of the puzzle, right? You have the scientists. They produce a paper, and then somebody, often a non-scientist who has to write a press release that tries to explain the science in the paper to a layman audience that can then get picked up by the newspaper. And, sometimes they can come to a conclusion that is not correct, and somehow it just gets – then that gets picked up and multiplied by the general public.

So, this is a great example. This one by Oxford… it passed – lots and lots of people published it because it sort of met all of that criteria, right? It was by researchers from Oxford. It was published in – it was very good research that they did. It was the largest survey that had been done of that scale. So, it met all of the requirements, and yet it went virally as over-turning Dark Energy, which is the wrong conclusion to reach.

Pamela: So, we have basically three different problems that we have to watch out for. One is perfectly good scientists doing perfectly reasonable work, who correctly state the level of their work, and then have some press person trying to get the university lots of media attention rewrite their things in ways that cause the journalists to go, “And, Dark Energy is overturned.” And then the poor scientists end up caught in the middle of all of this, going, “Okay. That’s not quite what we said, guys.” So, Problem 1 is good scientists, overstating press offices/journalists run wild.

Fraser: Yeah.

Pamela: Then we have Problem 2, which is perfectly good experimental results over-interpreted by the scientists to mean crazy things that journalists run wild with. So, this is where the overturning of the Copenhagen experiment comes in. There was another set of observations about the same time period, or maybe a little bit earlier, where they claimed to measure the speed of gravity by looking at the timing of looking at Jupiter and its moons relative to background quasars, and their results just didn’t quite say what they claimed that they said. That was probably, actually, back in 2003.

Fraser: I remember that. I think I reported on that.

Pamela: Yeah. A whole lot of us covered it, but I know my coverage of it was, “This is what they’re saying, but if you talk to these other scientists, this is their interpretation of the study.” This is something else that often the AAS – The American Astronomical Society – does to help journalists is during press conferences, they’ll bring in an outside researcher to do, “Okay. Calm down. This is another way of looking at it. No one run crazy with this right now.” So, you have the senior scientists trying to prevent click-bait from getting written, but they don’t always succeed.

The third problem that you run into is just random shit that gets made up. And, this is where you have the pieces that are like, “Does Dark Matter have to exist?” And, they go out of their way to find whatever randomness they can find that leads to Dark Matter doesn’t have to exist. This is the pure, unadulterated, no scientist harmed in the forming of click-bait, but science was definitely harmed.

Fraser: Yes. But, I think that it is so tough for people because even if we as journalists, or you as a scientist is getting sometimes caught by this, as well, we rack it up as learning experience, but for a lot of people it’s really tough. They don’t know which way to go, and who to believe, and so on. So, it’s a really tough road to go.

Pamela: I’ve seen scientists who try to swat down the bad stories like you’re killing mosquitos on a summer night, and just like it’s impossible to kill all of the mosquitos, you’re never going to find and kill off all of the bad articles. And, at a certain point it becomes more worthwhile to spend time trying to educate those who will listen than to fight against bad journalism because bad journalism makes a ton of money.

Fraser: Mm-hmm.

Pamela: And, we can’t fight against the income-making power of bad journalism.

Fraser: Yeah, and that is absolutely a driving force. Once again, as a person who runs a site, and we’re funded by advertising, although less and less every day as the Patreon campaign gets bigger and better, and if you’re listening to this patreon.com/universetoday. Is this moving us toward being able to fund this without advertising, which would be lovely. I wish we could. When an article does go viral, and you really see it going all over the internet, it can be a dramatic juice in your revenue. So, much more pay to use.

There is – if you’re not trying to do the right thing – there is enormous incentive to do the wrong thing as often as you can. So, because I want to make a long-term career, and because saying things correctly is important to me even when it doesn’t necessarily bring me revenue, I work really hard at trying to get it right. And, if we get it wrong, then we fix it, or delete the story, or whatever. But, absolutely. I’ve seen lots and lots of websites surpass us because they do go the click-bait route. It’s massive. At this point now even Facebook has been trying to turn down the volume of the click-bait type stuff because they know it’s not really doing them any favors.

Pamela: Yeah. It’s an ugly world out there, and the truth is hard to find.

Fraser: So, if you’re giving advice to scientists – people in your field – what can they do to try to – once again, do you benefit from work that you’re doing going viral?

Pamela: Oh, yeah. It’s the kind of thing that your institution likes. Everyone likes it when your stuff goes viral. And, it benefits your career longterm to have your name associated with good science that goes viral. Now, at the same time, the poor woman whose research on extremophiles living in Mono Lake where she thought that they might not have DNA with the same chemical structure, I wouldn’t want to be her because she went out in a press conference and said, “We may have found this thing. We want other scientists to help us prove or disprove what we found. We don’t have the equipment we need, so we’re laying this out there, asking the scientific community to help us.” That led to a million headlines.

Fraser: “Arsenic-based life forms discovered.”

Pamela: Yeah. That.

Fraser: Let me just see what we put on Universe Today.

Pamela: I wouldn’t want to be her for a million years because she’s going to go through the rest of her career as the woman who didn’t find arsenic-based life forms, but had a press conference that everyone remembers as her announcing arsenic-based life forms, which is not what she announced. So, it’s a double-edged sword. You want publicity, but you don’t want misinformation.

Fraser: Okay. You’re going to love this. Here we go. We have, NASA-Funded Research Discovers Life Built with Toxic Chemical. Then we have, NASA Life Discovery: New Bacteria Makes DNA with Arsenic. So, totally fell for it. Then we have, Replication of Life Experiment Not Successful So Far. And, then we have, Backlash Feedback on NASA’s Arsenic Findings. So, that was four stories over a couple of years that we wrote.

Pamela: I have fantasies of having time again to get back to blogging so I can blog about all of these caveats that annoy me because science.

Fraser: So, right. You were talking about how you would hate to be that researcher. What could she have done to stop people from taking her research the wrong way?

Pamela: At the end of the day you have to have a true statement that is the most likely thing to be restated. And, for her, I’m not sure she could have come up with something more interesting, but that’s what was needed was the, “NASA funded scientist asks community for help replicating work.” That needed to be the call to action. Not the “NASA funded scientist finds life-based on arsenic.” So, somehow you have to get that underlying truth to be the memorable point, and part of it means you have to sound like a broken record with every third sentence is, “We don’t know if this is what we found. What we really want is for people to see if they can replicate what we did.”

And, she tried, but sometimes the siren song of click-bait, and the revenue it brings is too great to walk away from.

Fraser: We had that a couple of years ago with the messages moving faster than the speed of light, and it came down to a bad cable connection.

Pamela: Yes.

Fraser: So, again, the same situation. And, I think they were pretty upfront about it, too. They were like, “We’re pretty sure this is a bad cable, but this is the result that we have gotten. Can you help us figure this out?” But, you have that original researcher, and then you have the agency that they work for – the university, the space agency, whatever, the laboratory – and, they want public relations. They want press mentions. So, they’re job is to juice it up to make it look better than it is. So, even if she was at the press conference saying, “We need peoples’ help,” and, she probably did, there’s a ton of people trying to then boost it up higher. We’re not saying it’s aliens, but it’s aliens.

Pamela: And, this is where unfortunately scientists have to learn how to become more tech-savvy, and more media-savvy. One of the things that I’ve done my entire career is press releases usually don’t go out until I’ve put them through three or four different drafts. It’s so exhausting at a certain point to find yourself as a PhD researcher, realizing, “Well, if I want my science to get communicated correctly, I need to have a social media presence. If I want the mainstream journalists to do a good job, it is on me to learn what makes a good press release.”

Fraser: Yes.

Pamela: Because that means that now I have to do the job that someone is getting paid full-time to do as a press officer. I have to do the job of someone who is getting paid full-time to be the social media person. And, it’s annoying, and exhausting, but at the same time, if I don’t make that effort to make sure that the messaging is correct, and this something you see Alan Stern doing; you see Caroline Porco doing; you see these big names – Mike Brown, again. He does amazing work with his Twitter feed, and his blog.

Fraser: Yes.

Pamela: And, these tops scientists have become top communicators to control the messaging.

Fraser: Yeah. I think that’s a really good point. Caroline Porco is a great example, but you mentioned three names who I am in regular contact with, right? Caroline Porco, literally back in 2001-2002-2003, when I was first starting what I was doing, I was writing articles, and when I was crediting NASA, I was saying NASA JPL, and Caroline – you know, Dr. Porco would email me and say, “Also, when you give credit, you should include our agency the Space Science Institution. You should include us as part of the credit.” I’m like, “Okay. No problem.” I went back and I fixed it.

I’ve talked to Alan Stern many times. I’ve talked to Mike Brown. They’re open. They are watching to see how their science is being received by the public, and they engage with the public, and they engage with the journalists. They’re not – they just release this stuff, and then they hold their hands up and say, “We have no way to control what happens next.” They know that all you have to do is email one of us, and say, “You’re messing this up. That’s incorrect. What you were saying on that title is wrong. I recommend that you fix it, please.”

That we as journalists want to do the right thing. We want the traffic, but we also want to make sure that we’re getting the science right, and if we’re getting the science wrong, you would hope that they would take that advice. So, I think that’s great, and I think that being more active, and involved, and engaged as a person who is making the news is of enormous value, and I think if more people can follow in their footsteps, and learn from what they do correctly, the better they’re going to do.

Pamela: It’s a long, hard road, and at the end of the day a PhD in Astronomy doesn’t prepare you to be a science communicator, but it turns out that being a science communicator is what gets your science listened to.

Fraser: Fantastic. Alright. Well, thank you so much, Pamela.

Pamela: My pleasure.

Male Speaker: Thank you for listening to Astronomy Cast, a non-profit resource provided by Astrosphere New Media Association, Fraser Cain, and Dr. Pamela Gay. You can find show notes and transcripts for every episode at astronomycast.com. You can email us at info@astronomycast.com, tweet us at @astronomycast, like us on Facebook, or circle us on Google Plus. We record the show live on Youtube every Friday at 1:30 p.m. Pacific, 4:30 p.m. Eastern, or 2030 GMT. If you missed the live event, you can always catch up over at cosmoquest.org, or our Youtube page.

To subscribe to the show, point your podcatching software at astronomycast.com/podcast.xml, or subscribe directly from iTunes. Our music is provided by Travis Earl, and the show was edited by Chad Weber.

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Duration: 31 minutes

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