Dear media: Hello. It's me, Science.

By Phil Plait | February 2, 2010 4:30 pm

These. Are. Brilliant.

Dear Media, Dear Homeopathy, and Dear Astrology are three polite letters written by, um, Science. Well, really, "the personification of the abstract concept of Science, just to clarify," as he says in his own letters.

These are funny, dead on, satirical, clever, and dagnabbit I’m ticked I didn’t think of this first. Oh well. To be honest, I’m just glad someone did. Oh– they are ever-so-mildly not safe for work, but just for language, not content.

These won’t convince any believers, of course. But they do make excellent points, and they’ll help rally the troops, I think. That’s pretty important too! I hope he writes more.

Comments (39)

  1. Blacksails

    Here is a video you might like: Its mostly making fun of the media, but gets into alt med at around 2:30
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sGArqoF0TpQ

  2. I like his call for humanizing science, for making it more than a generic, monolithic entity that functions like a wizard behind a curtain. That’s what Dennis Overbye did so well with Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos – he examined the personalities and passions that stirred astronomy for decades.

    We need more writing like that, science stories that share more than results. Let’s include the human drama that underlies research at the edge without sensationalizing the conflicts or hyping the results.

  3. Brian

    I definitely prefer the first three you’ve linked above to the other three he’s written. Maybe that’s just my bias, though.

  4. Oh, this is going on facebook! Just too good not to share!

  5. These letters are great – I just hope they don’t get too diluted with sequels – the homeopathic result would be way too powerful!

  6. James B

    Great find! They made hugely enjoyable reading. I especially liked the author’s response to the homeopath apologist response in the comments.

    Unfortunately, the are blocked here, so I had to access through a proxy, which therefore left me unable to reply (wasn’t supported by the proxy), so I couldn’t comment with support.

    I also wanted to ask why he signs the letters (BA Hons)? Surely (BSc Hons) would be more appropriate? Or am I just being slow :D

  7. Daniel J. Andrews

    PhD comics have a Dear News Media comic that is relevant to this topic.
    http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=1271

  8. AJ

    hope “he” writes more? oh so now science is a male?

  9. Catbunny

    There’s a column that seems kinda similar to me in The Stranger.
    “Dear Science”
    A random example:
    http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/dear-science/Content?oid=3150582

  10. eddie

    As a longtime journalist and editor, I understand where this comes from, but I’m not really happy to be grouped in with astrology and homeopathy. I can’t argue with the assertions about the mainstream media, but I know for a fact there are many people in my profession who are honorable, if not overly knowledgeable about science. Yes, it’s up to us to educate ourselves, but journalism today leaves little time for keeping up with the latest in the world of science. That’s not a cop-out, it’s a fact.

    Again, point well taken; just don’t lump us in with the loonies. There are vultures and self-serving a**holes in every profession.

  11. Flavio

    In Latin languages ‘science’ is actually a feminine noun :)

  12. Hi all. Cheers for the shout-out from Dr Plait and everyone else, quite a bewildering level of enthusiasm to what started as a half-assed attempt to stave off boredom.

    Will hopefully keep them coming as long as they remain interesting and/or readable

    Am just about to do a new post dealing with all the feedback thus far. If you’re really serious about further updates, I’m on twitter (@garwboy) and facebook
    (http://www.facebook.com/Deanjohnburnett)

    Thanks again

  13. Daniel J. Andrews

    but journalism today leaves little time for keeping up with the latest in the world of science.

    Very understandable. Unless you are working in that particular field you will probably not be keeping up with the latest. However, the problem is not that too many journalists aren’t up to date in a particularly area of science, but that they believe they have a right to promote their opinions and contradict the experts. It is possible to be not up to date yet still write an informative piece (unlike, say, the Washington Post where Mike Musgrove writes about ‘green’ cars without the benefit of 30 seconds of googling to show the car in question is a hybrid, not straight electric).

    The media has degenerated so much in the past few years that every time I see the words “journalistic integrity”, I almost consider them oxymoronic. Journalists, more than any other profession it seems, suffer badly from the Dunning-Kruger syndrome.

  14. Katharine

    Sometimes, I think if it gets bad enough all of us in the scientific, medical (well, some from the medical), and engineering communities should go on strike for a while just to make it clear how much society depends on us.

  15. Lonley flower

    I think media sometimes may be the worst among those three.
    I remember, I have read in some newspaper some time ago that astrnomer” X” predicts something bad is going to happen to president Obama as he predicted before for Micheal Jackson.

    Oh God, they don’t know the difference between an “astrnomer” and an astrologer”.

  16. Gary

    C’mon Phil, really. Those letters read like media, not science. Science would collect data on media’s activities, analyze it, develop an hypothesis about what the data say, test it and draw some conclusions. Instead we get cutesy anecdotes, name-calling, and speculation. Your biases must have frozen your brain on this one. You’ve got to be more rigorous about your own blindness to some things.

    And before any other commenters respond to this, think about it a little bit.

  17. Quantos

    I would like to point out the obvious fact that apparently not one of these wonderfully “Scientific” minds has happened upon. (I’m going to write it in CAPS so people know I’m serious.)

    IT IS JUST AS WRONG TO REFER TO A MONOLITHIC “MEDIA” AS IT IS TO GENERIC “SCIENTISTS,” EVEN THOUGH IT’S BEING REFERRED TO THIS WAY HERE.

    Mr. Burnett says “Do you realise how vague a term ‘Scientists’ is? It’s like ‘cars’, there are hundreds of different types. It might be accurate, but it’s not specific.”

    Does anyone realize how myopic that statement really is? Mr. Burnett may be unaware, but there are easily THOUSANDS of different kinds of media as well. He lumps everything together including the New York Times in with Discover Magazine, Vogue, NPR, The Soap Opera Channel, Model Train Quarterly and The Daily Kos. How much more “Not specific” can you get?

    By rough count, there are over 10,000 magazines in publication, over 1,400 daily papers, 12,000 radio stations, dozens of TV stations and more books and websites than you can shake a stick at in the United States alone.

    Also, I’m going to throw out there: Most of the claims put forward by Mr. Burnett writing as “Science” don’t seem to be scientifically tested. He only cites anecdotal evidence, hardly rigorous if you ask me.

    Phil, really I expected better from you and your educated mind than to endorse drivel like this.

  18. Gary/Quantos

    Speaking of missing the point, I’d like to address several I think you may have overlooked.

    1. This is an attempt at humorous series of articles aimed at providing a brief bit of amusement for people who are sick of the hassle and mangling science gets from other facets of society (not just the media). It’s a bunch of jokes in other words, I thought that was fairly self-evident, but I guess not to everyone. It’s not a peer-reviewed journal, why the hell would I bother to meticulously researching everything? That would utterly defeat the purpose of this. In fact-

    2. The purpose is to see what it would be like if Science behaved to its detractors in the same way they do to it; childish name calling, pointless anecdotes and speculation and unwarranted attacks to further a personal agenda. Well researched data seems to always fall on deaf ears, so why not try using the tactics of the other side? Seems some people can’t take what they dish out, even from a pointless blog with no purpose other than to kill some time.

    3. If accuracy is so important, it’s Dr. Burnett if you don’t mind.

  19. amphiox

    Quantos,

    Joke. Parody. Chill.

    And besides your analogy is completely inaccurate per the literary structure of the satire.

    The writer is “Science”, anthropomorphic personification of ALL science, writing to “Media”, anthropomorphic personification of ALL media. The complaint is about generalization of the term “scientists” – ie individuals.

    Thus, in summary, “Science” = “Media” = Big General Category = Big generalizations valid (in fact big generalizations are the ONLY valid descriptors of big general categories)

    Conversely “scientists” = diverse individuals = NOT a big general category = generalizations NOT valid.

    “Reporters” or “journalists” would be the equivalent individuals from the media side of things, but they are not mentioned.

    And this is a letter of complaint. It is supposed to be partisan and biased. The joke doesn’t work any other way.

    A more effective way to frame your complaint, I think, is as follows:

    A reply.

    Dear Science,

    I read your letter with interest. Regarding the use of the word “scientist” by members of my team, to whom should I direct your complaint?

    Love and kisses,

    Media

  20. Quantos

    To Dr. Burnett: I did not miss your point, or misunderstand the purpose of your post. I fully understand your intent to write something satirical, but that does not put it above criticism.

    The beauty of satire is that not only is it humorous, but it carries with it a point you are trying to make. You admitted as much when you wrote in your response that the point “is to see what it would be like if Science behaved to its detractors.” The point you are so clearly making is that “the Media” is a detractor of science; it is not “the other side.” It is not a side; it’s a means of communication, not a political stance. Your point is wrong.

    Just because your article is humorous does not mean it does not contain a point to be made using this humor. Just because it has jokes does not mean it is above criticism and condemnation when the point you’re trying to make is wrong. (This refers only to your media post, not the other ones.)

    Obviously I don’t expect you to include scientific citations in your article, as it is only a blog post. Apparently you are the one who has trouble seeing the satire in my sixth paragraph.

    To amphiox, you raise a relevant point about terms within the context of the piece. However “Science’s” overall point is don’t be vague, which it is being just as much. I would argue that when it brings up criticisms about the use of the term “scientists” which make up “Science” the logical counter to that is that it is criticizing the “journalists” and “reporters” who make up “the Media.”

  21. Yes. Irony that is, I am a fan of the stuff. As for the statement that the ‘media’ is a means of communication without political agenda or motivation of its own, I can’t say that’s the same ‘media’ I’m familiar with.

  22. Quantos

    Dr. Burnett, please back that statement up. Really it just makes you sound like you are unfamiliar with the very “Media” that you pillory.

    It sounds as if you really believe that the entire “Media” is systemically opposed to science, an unscientific conclusion. Certain elements, like individual contributors or outlets, of “The Media” may have their own political biases. However to take individual anecdotal evidence, and claim that they apply universally, is exactly the kind of anti-scientific conclusion that I would think you would be opposed to.

  23. Right, last comment now, as I swore I’d never get involved in these irrelevant comment debates.

    To reiterate, I referred to the ‘media’ as a whole as a response to the way that ‘science’ and ‘scientists’ are often generalised by said media. Of course it’s wrong to do so, that’s the point. And to assume all ‘media’ are united in their opposition of science is of course ludicrous. Once again, such conclusions are regularly made about scientists. Again, that’s the point.

    Agendas? I’m thinking of things like Fox news, and the majority of British papers such as the Daily mail, The Express and so on. Media outlets with very obvious agendas, that rubbish and belittle science (and anything else) if it doesn’t meet with their target audience or the views of their paymasters.

    As for my familiarity with the media, I find it telling that every single time I’ve been ended up interacting with the media in numerous forms (TV, Radio, Newspapers, Film studios, magazines, at local and international levels) I’ve had the information and science I’ve been trying to convey completely stripped out in editing/processing and my contribution has been completely twisted to fit whatever crowd-pleasing conclusion/story that had already been decided on.

    EVERY SINGLE TIME! And countless of my contemporaries and friends who have had similar dealings have experienced the same. So forgive me if this has given me a somewhat skewed view on the media, were I submitting my findings in an official journal I would of course analyse them carefully and determine the accuracy of the data. But I’m not, it’s just my irrelevant blog page, and I can say what I like on there. Feel free to declare that I’m wrong, you have that right too.

    If you would like the last word, please be my guest. I’m done. Any further issues/comments please feel free to contact me directly.

  24. Dammit! I tried to delete that last one and put in a far more succinct and amusing response instead. It would have been great, I promise. All pithy and that, but quite genial overall

    Provoking strong reactions proves that I’m doing something right, keep it up!

  25. Katharine

    I think Quantos is confusing media-the-process with media-the-industry.

    Media-the-process is necessary. Even good sometimes.

    Media-the-industry is total nonsense at the moment. It’s not that they’re necessarily opposed to science. It’s that they don’t understand it and don’t take the time to explain it correctly, often at the expense of the understanding of its readers. Discover Magazine and NPR and more reality-based publications are in a tiny minority.

  26. Katharine

    In fact, probably anyone who understands anything we in the scientific community do is in a minority.

  27. I don’t understand what you mean

    [Damn it! I swore I would leave this alone! Curse you all!]

  28. Quantos

    To Katharine, I am not actually confusing the process and the industry; I explicitly am talking about the industry by referring to how big it actually is.

    By excluding outlets like NPR and Discover Magazine from your definition, it sounds like your definition of “the Media” is really “outlets I don’t like.” That’s a big part of my point, that “the Media” is a great many things. If one have qualms with a specific part of it, take on that part of it, but don’t be overly generic and attempt to sully the name of people who are doing an honest and good job.

    As a member of the professional science journalism community, it’s something that hits close to home.

  29. Quantos

    To Dr. Burnett, I want to make it clear I am not trying to bait you or egg you on, but I find your attitude towards reaching conclusions about “the Media” distressing.

    In your post numbered 27, you fall prey to exactly the kinds of unscientific logical fallacies that the people you criticize. Take for example when you say “every single time I’ve been ended up interacting with the media…” thats pure anecdotal evidence. (Though out of curiosity with whom have you had these interactions, I am curious.)

    Once you have formed these conclusions, you fall prey to only seeing evidence that reinforces your own conclusions. When you write “countless of my contemporaries and friends who have had similar dealings have experienced the same,” that really sounds like bias towards recalling only what fits your conclusions.

    There are other issues, but I think I’ve made my point there.

    My overarching point is that you have reached a conclusion about the unscientific-ness of “the Media,” using methods that are themselves as unscientific as what you criticize. This is distressing because it is something that I have encountered not just with you, but many times, and this very popular scientific blog is a good place to bring these issues to the forefront.

  30. Keith Harwood

    Very good, but needs a visit from the apostrophe police.

    Regarding “The Media”: you have one anthropomorphic personification addressing another anthropomorphic personification. Seems perfectly reasonable to me.

    Regarding Astrology: when I joined a real astronomical observatory I suggested to the real astronomers that the astrologers had got it wrong; it wasn’t the motion of the planets that cause events to individuals on Earth, it was the events on Earth that caused the motions of the planets. They didn’t seem to find my theory much of an improvement.

    But they did have a cartoon showing a TV news service with the words, “The science of astrology gained credibilty today when, as predicted, everyone born under the sign of Sagittarius was run over by a bus”.

  31. Eric

    I think Media should help Science be more honest about its relationship with Politics.

  32. Dan

    “When a murder is reported, do you get statements from the people who thought that the victim had it coming?”

    Haha, that’s pretty good.

    Quantos, my unscientific opinion is that you are really taking this way too seriously!

  33. Lonley flower

    I agree with No. 35 Dan
    I think Quantos really took it seriously.

  34. Markle

    Quantos,

    Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to bring your criticism to Dr. Burnett’s blog? I believe you have the address.

  35. TMB

    Not bad… but this line had me LOL:

    “You know what ‘happens’ when Mars is in Sagittarius, or Venus is occupying Aries, but what about when PSR B1620-26 is passing Capricorn? Or SWEEPS J175853.92-291129.6 is waxing in Pisces?”

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