Against simplistic stories

Erika Check Hayden reflects usefully on an overhyped science story last week: “What the limits of DNA story reveals about the challenges of science journalism in the big data age”.

She gives a list of reality checks for science writers.

5. Beware the deceptively simple storyline. When were competing for readers against the Whitney Houston autopsy and the Presidential campaign, it sometimes seems that the only way to sell science is to claim that its either saving or destroying the world. Everyone leaped on the DNA is worthless message of this study, but the truth is more complex. Yes, the predictive power of the genome is limited, for most of us, right now. But were still at the very early days of seeing what genomics will do in the clinic, and genomics has actually saved some patients lives.

Most science research papers have an interesting story in them somewhere, but a one-sentence punchline almost never gets the story correct. If we could do science in one-sentence punchlines, talented people wouldn’t find science very interesting, anyway.