Best damn Guardian piece ever: This is a news website article about a scientific paper

In the standfirst I will make a fairly obvious pun about the subject matter before posing an inane question I have no intention of really answering: is this an important scientific finding?

In this paragraph I will state the main claim that the research makes, making appropriate use of “scare quotes” to ensure that it’s clear that I have no opinion about this research whatsoever.

In this paragraph I will briefly (because no paragraph should be more than one line) state which existing scientific ideas this new research “challenges”.

Oh, this Guardian piece is just too damn good not to reprint in its entirety.  If the Brits had The Onion, Martin Robbins of The Lay Scientist would be their science reporter.  His generic science story continues:

If the research is about a potential cure, or a solution to a problem, this paragraph will describe how it will raise hopes for a group of sufferers or victims.  This paragraph elaborates on the claim, adding weasel-words like “the scientists say” to shift responsibility for establishing the likely truth or accuracy of the research findings on to absolutely anybody else but me, the journalist.

In this paragraph I will state in which journal the research will be published. I won’t provide a link because either a) the concept of adding links to web pages is alien to the editors, b) I can’t be bothered, or c) the journal inexplicably set the embargo on the press release to expire before the paper was actually published.

“Basically, this is a brief soundbite,” the scientist will say, from a department and university that I will give brief credit to. “The existing science is a bit dodgy, whereas my conclusion seems bang on” she or he will continue.

I will then briefly state how many years the scientist spent leading the study, to reinforce the fact that this is a serious study and worthy of being published by the BBC the website.

This is a sub-heading that gives the impression I am about to add useful context.

Here I will state that whatever was being researched was first discovered in some year, presenting a vague timeline in a token gesture toward establishing context for the reader.

To pad out this section I will include a variety of inane facts about the subject of the research that I gathered by Googling the topic and reading the Wikipedia article that appeared as the first link.

I will preface them with “it is believed” or “scientists think” to avoid giving the impression of passing any sort of personal judgement on even the most inane facts.

This fragment will be put on its own line for no obvious reason.

In this paragraph I will reference or quote some minor celebrity, historical figure, eccentric, or a group of sufferers; because my editors are ideologically committed to the idea that all news stories need a “human interest”, and I’m not convinced that the scientists are interesting enough.

At this point I will include a picture, because our search engine optimisation experts have determined that humans are incapable of reading more than 400 words without one.

This is a picture
This picture has been optimised by SEO experts to appeal to our key target demographics

This subheading hints at controversy with a curt phrase and a question mark?

This paragraph will explain that while some scientists believe one thing to be true, other people believe another, different thing to be true.

In this paragraph I will provide balance with a quote from another scientist in the field. Since I picked their name at random from a Google search, and since the research probably hasn’t even been published yet for them to see it, their response to my e-mail will be bland and non-committal.

“The research is useful”, they will say, “and gives us new information. However, we need more research before we can say if the conclusions are correct, so I would advise caution for now.”

If the subject is politically sensitive this paragraph will contain quotes from some fringe special interest group of people who, though having no apparent understanding of the subject, help to give the impression that genuine public “controversy” exists.

This paragraph will provide more comments from the author restating their beliefs about the research by basically repeating the same stuff they said in the earlier quotes but with slightly different words. They won’t address any of the criticisms above because I only had time to send out one round of e-mails.

This paragraph contained useful information or context, but was removed by the sub-editor to keep the article within an arbitrary word limit in case the internet runs out of space.

The final paragraph will state that some part of the result is still ambiguous, and that research will continue.

Related Links:

The Journal (not the actual paper, we don’t link to papers)

The University Home Page (finding the researcher’s page would be too much effort).

Unrelated story from 2007 matched by keyword analysis.

Special interest group linked to for balance


How I wish I had written that.

As an aside, it is amazing to me how many newspapers still refuse to provide links in their articles to anything useful.

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32 Responses to Best damn Guardian piece ever: This is a news website article about a scientific paper

  1. Ominous Clouds Overhead says:

    This is a comment where I state that I personally know people who have been impacted by all this and how we need more research because the science quoted above is not definitive enough. I will then go on to waffle about how I think maybe science is not a cure all for anything, without actually saying it. I will then quote a link to my blog about inner city angst.

  2. dorveK says:

    Web-journalism really is “hard science”, as we can see: QED!!!

  3. David B. Benson says:

    British onion soup.

  4. richard pauli says:

    Another comment will praise the blog site for presenting the truth. And gnash, wail and whine that this is not more widely known and universally believed. Curses to those who disbelieve.

    The commenter will have at least one serious link that may or may not relate to the subject of the post.

    Most other comments will include links that are strongly supportive. And a few will be contrary

  5. John Hollenberg says:

    Clearly the author of the article is advocating for a centrally-controlled world government and is definitely a socialist or a communist. He is trying to take our freedom away, and spending the public’s money at the scientific feeding trough. He will get my gun from my cold dead hands. We need to cut taxes to stop this sort of abuse.

  6. Prokaryotes says:

    SEO = Search Engine Optimization

  7. Artful Dodger says:

    hahaha… one of those links is a rick roll.

  8. Colorado Bob says:

    LA makes a new all time high –

    Downtown hit 113 degrees for a few minutes at about 12:15 p.m., breaking the old all-time record of 112 degrees set on June 26, 1990, said Stuart Seto, a weather specialist at the National Weather Service office in Oxnard. Temperature records for downtown date to 1877.

  9. Ominous Clouds Overhead says:

    I’m going to submit paper to his first link. I bet it gets through, I mean in. LOL

  10. Ominous Clouds Overhead says:

    A record high in W. Colorado, also. And where I’m at, it’s 20 degrees hotter than the norm, at 92.

  11. Wit'sEnd says:

    I do not think he should disparage blog science.

    What of these venerable sites, sources of trenchant analysis? Surely he is not suggesting there is any obfuscation going on in reporting?



  12. Colorado Bob says:

    From Thailand to Texas, corals are reacting to the heat stress by bleaching, or shedding their color and going into survival mode. Many have already died, and more are expected to do so in coming months. Computer forecasts of water temperature suggest that corals in the Caribbean may undergo drastic bleaching in the next few weeks.

  13. OregonStream says:

    OCO, in the upper 80’s here today (12 degrees above average), and we’re supposed to be starting to get some la niña influence.

  14. Wit'sEnd says:

    meh. I never thought I would find a walrus cute, let alone, tragic. New greenman, crock of the week:

  15. DRT says:

    Slightly off topic: Joe, Have you ever considered getting this content out to a wider audience via a radio show or shows? I’m thinking something along the lines of the various Marketplace shows from American Public Media might be a good model.

    [JR: I have arrangements whereby lots of folks reprint this content, probably more than tripling CP’s readership.]

  16. john kearns says:

    I haven’t been living in a cave but I’ve never encountered “standfirst” before. Is this a standard, perhaps restricted, expression, or the author’s own neologism?

    An all-time high temp in L.A.? In late September? At mid-day? Well, doggies! Thanks, Colorado Bob!

  17. Colorado Bob says:

    The rain event in North Carolina today –



  18. John Mason says:

    That’s the first Guardian piece in months that has not attracted an anti-science firestorm. Kudos to Martin Robbins!

    Cheers – John

  19. Brooks Bridges says:

    john kearns @16

    For a definition and an interesting site check out:

  20. Robert Nagle says:

    As clever as this piece is, real credit for the idea should go to two sources: Charlie’s Brooker’s Newswipe and the Onion’s Some BS Happening somewhere (Profanity warning).

  21. anonymous says:

    This is the pseudo-scientific comment discrediting reported actual science from a competing research group made via hard-to-verify account from a public computer.

  22. Al says:

    …but the Brits have NewsBiscuit, which at least equals The Onion for surreality.
    (New generation of missionaries sets sail for Third World to unspread word of Christianity,
    France demands Al Qaeda repeat its terror threat – in French,
    Chinese hack into Stephen Hawking, etc.)

  23. jyyh says:

    This is the comment from the left-out wanna-be research group member, in which he tells all the office gossip about the scientists in question.

  24. _Flin_ says:

    This is a comment where I emphasize the interconnectnedness of all things, while providing a link to something not connected to the above article in any way, in the hopes that the CP team will read it and post something about it.

  25. Esop says:

    Awesome article.

    Check out the UAH temps this month. The channel 5 measurements for September should completely destroy the previous record, but I got a feeling that the official numbers will be a convenient slightly below the record.

  26. Whatshisname says:

    In headlines from the Yep News Network……. reports that a “clandestine weather modification group” is using an electronic network of undersea cables along the Atlantic Continental Shelf to steer hurricanes away from the BP oil spill. Witnesses report hearing a hum.

    This is Yep News, Fair and Cloudy.

  27. ChrisD says:

    @Tobert Nagle 20:

    Thanks for the Onion link. That bit is really priceless.

    I was particularly struck by the reporter’s explanation that (paraphrasing) “One expert says this was caused by some #*$#(! reason, but another says it’s caused by a different )#*#&#! reason.” It occurred to me that if the piece were about something climate-related, he would have to add a third option, “and some guy said on a blog that it didn’t happen at all.”

  28. Turboblocke says:

    As well as Newsbiscuit, we have the Daily Mash.

    For one of their alltime classics Google this “People who know how to park on brink of extinction.” Does contain the “f” word.

  29. Mark says:

    Good article by Monbiot today on the futility of further destructive hunts for fossil fuels

  30. GFW says:

    Great links, Robert. I came here to post the Charlie Booker link after my sister sent it to me. But you beat me to it.

  31. Chris Winter says:

    This post reads like it came from Metacommunity on Orkut. I wouldn’t be surprised if Mr. Martin Robbins is a veteran of that community. ;-)

  32. dorlomin says:

    John Mason says:
    September 27, 2010 at 10:29 pm

    That’s the first Guardian piece in months that has not attracted an anti-science firestorm. Kudos to Martin Robbins!
    Anti science posts, on the Guardian comments? I havent seen any……