Toby Murcott on scientific narrative

“When we read a published scientific paper, it often feels like the last word, even though there is often a gripping story behind and ahead of it.”

- Toby Murcott, writing in Nature

Today’s science writers can be like priests, receiving information from a deity-like source and simply transmitting it to the congregation. So says Murcott, a writer, broadcaster and former science correspondent for the BBC World Service. Writing in the most recent issue of Nature (which features additional pieces about the relationship between science and the media), he points out that science writers differ significantly from journalists who cover other spheres, for example politics, literature or art, where there is a culture of robust engagement and participation in the topic.

This problem is fuelled by an increasingly science-illiterate body of journalists, and the mounting time pressures that make in-depth analysis of very complex topics nearly impossible. Instead, many writers have to rely primarily on what the scientists tell them: either directly, or via press releases. But scientists, he thinks, are also to blame: researchers need to communicate better the stories behind the dry published facts. Readers need to know in particular that science is a dynamic process of criticism, discussion, controversy and revision, and that most new findings don’t really qualify as earth-shattering breakthroughs.

You can read the entire piece, and related content, in this week’s issue of Nature.