05 October 2006

"Scientists Make World Breakthrough" shock horror

This is Nobel Prize week, and it is a fair bet that the none of the scientists who collected the gongs described their results as a "breakthrough". Even PR people rarely do so. But, believe it or not, "Scientists Make World Breakthrough" really is the headline on a press release that has just gone out on Newswise.

This headline breaks two of the cardinal rules of science journalism. The first of these, which is actually true for just about every press release, is that it tells you nothing about the content. So a busy journalist will laugh and move on.

Breakthrough on what? Cosmology? Cloning? Pencil sharpening? It is actually supposed to be a breakthrough "in understanding how bacterial toxins cause severe gastrointestinal diseases".

The second crime against humanity is to even use the B word. Not just because you never know at the time of a new discovery if it is a breakthrough or not. (That's why the Nobel committees take so long to reward a particular bit of science.) But because the scientists who made the discovery almost certainly don't see it in those terms.

You do see "breakthrough" in too many newspaper headlines. But that it down to the subeditors and even there there's a fair chance that the person who wrote the piece cringed when they saw that headline.

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