Science Clichés: Steer Clear

Cheers to the Knight Science Journalism Tracker for picking up a snarky post at Wired titled, “5 Atrocious Science Clichés to Throw Down a Black Hole.”

Here’s what the author, Betsy Mason, says about using the term, “missing link”:

Don’t even tell me you aren’t sick of all the missing links constantly being discovered. It’s an epidemic. Googling along with science terms gets you 4.2 million missing links. I mean, what could possibly still be missing after all that? There must be an unbroken, fully linked chain running from kindergarten art projects through Lucy all the way to the Creationist Museum.

Mason is not the first person to caution against science clichés—media outlets from the BBC to Health News Review have all voiced their opinion on the use of words like “breakthrough” and “hope.” Hank Campbell, the creator of, posted his thoughts late last year on the most overused words in science journalism in 2008, expressing his hope that reporters would retire words like “baffled” and “stunned” in 2009. The Atlantic Journal Constitution apparently missed it—a recent headline, “H1N1 Stunned Emory Doctors,” would have made Campbell cringe.

If science journals are doing their part—apparently Nature has banned the term “holy grail” from its publication—then why can’t media outlets? Using terms like “breakthrough” leave readers with the impression that there’s nothing left for scientists to do now that they’ve found “the missing link” and “shed light on” every topic under the sun. Check out Poynter’s great list of links to help curtail clichés, and spend some time looking at the reader comments below Mason’s post. Our favorites are “tipping point” and, ironically, “wired.”

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Sanhita Reddy is a former Observatory intern currently living in Brazil on a Fulbright scholarship, studying the media sources people use to find health information.