There is a good summary of how the gossip spread from lab to blog to mainstream media on Dorigo’s blog. Dorigo adds some useful insights regarding the relationship between science and the press: “Will journalists manage to build the story around nothing this time?” he asked. “I think so, because the topic is red-hot. LHC vs. Tevatron; Europe vs. the US; a multi-billion-dollar investment at risk of being left without anything else to discover.”
Dorigo also raises this valuable meta-question: “There remains to discuss whether all these rumors are good, bad, or irrelevant for the progress of science and the well-being of high-energy physics.” To put it more bluntly, does science journalists’ fascination with rumors of competition and intrigue help or hinder the process of scientific discovery? Indeed, whether the topic is physics, biology, climatology, or any such discipline, this is one of the most important debates in science journalism. Dorigo’s opinion? “Getting media attention is good for science.”
That’s probably true, up to a point. Hype, to a certain extent, is as good for science as it is for business. Although the major organizations that fund science can spot the difference between rumor and accomplishment, the competitive tension created by gossip draws public attention to scientists’ work and makes their experiments appear more relevant. But journalists who cover this stuff need to be careful.
The rumors and gossip that have surrounded CERN and Fermilab are an integral part of the scientific process-the incomplete and false leads that give rise to the rumors are a crucial part of experimentation, and they count as progress in their own way. When they reach a fever pitch, as they have in the past several months, they can make for great, “real world” stories about the lives of scientists. But reporters need to take care to present rumors as rumors, rather than evidence of concrete “discoveries,” and explain their role in scientific process. This keeps scientists honest and gives readers distinctly human stories about science, what engenders hype, and how it affects the pursuit of the next big breakthrough.