So instead of just doing yet another list of 'top' science stories, all of which would have to magically be from this very site, like every other science publication does when they rehash their old stories one more time at the end of the year, I am going to discuss the phrases that got overused in science journalism during 2008.
Science journalism is no different than any other kind - sometimes words and phrases catch on. If you've ever watched a football game, for example, you didn't just get a football game, you got a lesson in clichés. Teams should 'just go out and execute' and play 'smash mouth football' lest they 'go to the well too often.' Heck, if you watch a lot of football you can practically identify the year of the game by the clichés they used. If you hear that 'smashmouth football' thing, it must be 1993. Disclaimer: some things never get old, like this Keith Jacksonian bit of wizardry; "It's time to line up the big uglys and swap some paint." I don't even know what that means but I always am looking for an excuse to say it.
So here are my list of science journalism terms that should be retired in 2009. Feel free to add some of your own or even add some new ones that can take their place.
No term got used in 2008 like 'baffled.' Who knew 2008 would be the year when scientists could freely express their ignorance about unexpected developments to science journalists without feeling any shame? Well, they did and often. Every major media outlet caught some scientist or another being baffled about something that occurred. You'd think scientists would know better by now, being in the business of discussing new stuff, but no, a lot of you were baffled.
Here is a small, and I mean very small, sample of how scientists were baffled this year:
CNN - Scientists baffled by mysterious acorn shortage
TG Daily - MIT scientists baffled by global warming theory
Seattle Times - What's killing seabirds? Scientists baffled
Irish Examiner - Medics baffled as 'dead' man found breathing
Fox News - Scientists Baffled by Phoenix Mars Lander Problems
USA Today - Scientists baffled by swarm of quakes in Ore.
I could go on. A lot, actually, but none of you are paying attention after five of those anyway. We're not immune, we have had baffled people here too, but it was in 2007 - Astronomers Baffled By Basalt In The Outer Asteroid Belt - and that was only because 'baffled' so obviously plays nicely with 'basalt' and 'belt.'
While not quite as popular as baffled, there were still a lot of stunned scientists in 2008.
Stuff - Scientists stunned by ‘jewellery box’ find in Fiji
Digital Journal - Scientists Stunned By Coral Growth At Bikini Atoll
All Headline News - Scientists Stunned As Shark Gives Virgin Birth
Reuters - Scientists Stunned by Gender-Bender Chromosome
We didn't have any 'stunned' scientists in our titles that I can find, probably because it connotes twitching on the floor, which we don't do very often. There was some stunning in our text though, if you are curious.
However, Scienceblogs.com (no relation to us) had one stunned scientist last year but, because it's Scienceblogs, they were being sarcastic - Computer Science Community Stunned By Discovery Of A Competent Woman
I am surprised there wasn't more alarm on the list. It brings up flashing red lights and irrepressible scamps involved in school day hijinks. We know all scientists were irrepressible scamps pulling fire alarms rather than thinking about wake properties and why they call it Avogadro's Number when it isn't actually mathematically derived.
How many of you were alarmed is evident below:
Guardian - Scientists alarmed by speed of plant mutation near Chernobyl
San Francisco Chronicle - Scientists alarmed by ocean dead-zone growth
Leader-Post Canada - Scientists alarmed over disappearing ice
LA Times - Scientists Alarmed by Continued Warming Trend
As you can see, journalism had its seventh consecutive year of global warming alarm. You'd think at some point headlines would instead be "The environment is screwed and we are not surprised" but, no, we were all still alarmed that more pollution and more people and more food causes problems. Recently, though, headlines have become alarmed about all the friggin' snow global warming hath brought.
And now, my pick for science journalism's under-used word of 2008. Let's hope that in 2009 it gets a little more respect. It is:
'Shocked' was clearly the wallflower of science journalism in 2008 so I predict a big comeback in 2009. Only one article, in the New Zealand Herald, gave scientists credit for being shocked - Scientists shocked at extent of stem cell research scam.
I'd rather light a candle than curse your darkness so instead of just complaining about shocked being under-utilized, I will instead start things off by saying I will be totally shocked if this article doesn't make the front page of Digg.