This week there has been a headline making the rounds: New Human Body Part Discovered (or something of a similar variation). Amazing isn’t it? Well, yes it is. Except for one teeny tiny thing. It is not new.
It was actually first described in 1879, and while it was recently independently verified, provided clear anatomical description, and named – the anterolateral ligament, unless we’ve all travelled back in time and finally – this year – females are going to be allowed to study for a degree at Oxford, this ligament most definitely isn’t new (not to the body, and not to science). So, yeeeah…
These ‘new body part’ headlines have very quickly made their way around the world thanks to the oh so mighty internet, and while a few people on the social media picked up on the fact that this darling little ligament is not exactly new (see @edyong’s great tweet (conversation) for one example), unfortunately for us, we appear to be in the minority. This is odd, because it is really obvious. It is right there in the summary of the research abstract (funnily enough), which is available freely (even if the whole article is not).
Yet, I did a quick search this evening (07/11/2013) and this is what I turned up:
Only ONE of the headlines in the top results doesn’t include the word ‘new’!
Now a few people have beat me to this blogpost (because I am super slow at formulating my thoughts into words) and I am not going to use my precious brain power unnecessarily to make the same point over and over again, because I am pro-efficiency (although from my writing you might not think it). Therefore, I highly recommend you read Paul Raeburn’s great round-up on the subject: New body part discovered? Yes, in 1879.
However, I do intend to write my own contribution to this ‘debate’ though, as I think I’m coming at it from a slightly different angle.
Why do these headlines bother me so much? Because they are wrong.
Here’s a test you can do when you come across a version of this news story: Does the headline say ‘new’? Yes? Is the ligament new? No. The headline is wrong!
Many of you will simply try to pass me (and everyone else who insists on making this point, repeatedly) off as a pedant. However, I see this as a perfect opportunity to explain why I think that correct use of language* when explaining a new concept is fundamental to ensuring unambiguous communication occurs – thereby making certain that you are correctly understood. Using a word in your headline (‘new’) to describe a situation that does not fall anywhere under its definition is just plain wrong.
- produced, introduced, or discovered recently or now for the first time; not existing before (click here for further definitions)
This incorrect use of a word makes it very easy to misunderstand what is being written about in the article (and by association, the research).
By using ‘new’ in their headlines, these media sources are claiming something for their research that the scientists have not (yes, I am aware that the press release says ‘new’ too – and I therefore include press staff from institutions and organisations in this ‘rant’ because they are often the point of origin for scientific news stories). However, a little careful reading on the part of anyone reporting a news story would not go amiss!
These headlines are PR-spinning for the purposes of click-baiting (please try to tell me they are not). If a media source feels the need to sensationalise scientific research then we are living in a very sad world indeed. This practice says to me that the science behind the news story is not exciting enough on its own. This is just fundamentally wrong. The foremost role of a science communicator (be they a professional science journalist or an independent blogger) is to help us understand how science works – not only to interpret the results being produced by science.
We need a shift in the belief that says discovering a new body part is more exciting than confirming a body part exists, which was previously described in 1879, but has remained unconfirmed for 134 years! Is that not in itself incredibly exciting? I would argue the latter is potentially more exciting, as it says a great deal more about how science actually works (sometimes very slowly… or not at all…).
You may have noticed that throughout this post I have kept writing ‘headline’ and this is on purpose, because many of the articles do actually get to the point of mentioning the ligament is not new in a later paragraph. But the headline is what people see first and it is what sets the frame of mind when reading an article. In addition a headline is often the only thing people take with them (especially as with the increased number of publications daily many people only skim-read articles, if they read them at all).
Headlines like this are lazy journalism (or perhaps lazy editorialism). It is lazy because it an individual or group of individuals deciding to go with what has now become the accepted standard of “ooh, read me, read me headlines”, even though it is incredibly easy to break away from it (with I would argue little detriment to your ratings – and a huge benefit to accurate reporting).
Scientists confirm existence of ligament first described in 1879.
Discovered 134 years ago, scientists finally confirm ligament’s existence.
Science discovery made over a century ago finally proven right.
Knee good. Scientists in 1879 were right about ligament.
Headlines like those that include the word ‘new’ are not only lazy, they are irresponsible journalism. It needs to stop. It needs to stop, not only because it is just plain wrong. It needs to stop because it leads to things like this:
While this “Evolution in action!?” tweet may not have been serious (I am pretty sure it wasn’t), there are others:
Our world needs more people to understand science, not more people who misunderstand it. We are all responsible for ensuring this happens – but those of you who write for the media are even more responsible because of the position you hold within society. Please remember that.
*I am not a language snob. I have no problem with new words, new definitions for words, slang, jargon, etc. This is not what I am on about, so please keep reading.