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What does the Titanic's sinking tell us about modern science?

No, we didn't get that the wrong way round

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Analysis Tons more mouldering bilge scooped from the wreck of RMS Titanic has hit the science news this week: it tells us nothing of note about the liner's sinking, but it does tell us quite a lot about the state of scientific publishing.

Just to catch up, we learn that no, the great liner was seemingly not sunk - as one might have thought - by bad navigation, casual lookouts, social injustice nor the nowadays more popularly accepted rare astronomical conjunction (no, really). Nor has the laughably simplistic notion of crashing into an iceberg any relevance here. No, bad riveting was to blame (well, allright, bad riveting assisted by the impact of many thousands of tonnes of ice).

We learn this courtesy of Physics World and metallurgists Tim Foecke and Jennifer Hooper McCarty, who trawled through some old shipyard records ahead of the centennial of the Titanic's sinking to produce an article which you must pay to read - and a press release which is free. This has naturally been picked up and reprocessed elsewhere by other publications all across the science beat.

There are certain things regarding the Titanic that we can pick up here (though nothing to do with why she sank, not really). In general, we can say that for science editors to be doing this sort of thing a hundred years after an event, various things are likely to be true.

Firstly, the event should have been actual big headline news at the time, which usually means a mass human tragedy of some kind. But that in itself would never get you a top-ten-list gumble piece in a science section a hundred years later.

What you need for that is something like a within-living-memory blockbuster movie, ideally one associated with celebrities who are still in the public eye. The Titanic qualifies for this in spades, with auteur James Cameron's 1997 liner-sinking offering still probably the second biggest earning movie of all time. Greasily attractive (we're told) male lead Leonardo di Caprio is still big stuff, as is Cameron himself - indeed on the science beat he's probably bigger than di Caprio due to his "scientific" antics in submarines (to the point where National Geographic will dub him an "explorer in residence" and help sponsor his plunges.)

Even so, though, you might be saying to yourself: this is thin stuff. These are not proper reasons for people to be going on about the Titanic under the headings of "news" and "science". These "scientific discoveries" about rivets and conjunctions etc are plainly being fabricated in advance and put out on a pre-determined timetable.

But that doesn't happen with proper science news, of course - oh, wait. Actually it does, certainly the predetermined-schedule bit. Science news deemed to be of any significance is almost always released to the mass media under scheduled embargo agreements dictated by the major specialist publishers. Quite why they get to be in charge (even to the point of bossing around agencies such as NASA) is something of a mystery as they don't pay for the science to get done, nor for it to be peer-reviewed, though they are at least notionally in charge of supervising the peer reviewing. The publishers do get to charge hefty sums for access to the papers that they often hype so aggressively, however, a fact which handicaps scientists in doing their work and costs taxpayers even more (it's the taxpayers who pay for the research and editing, and then again for scientists to read the papers thereafter).

All this means that science "news" for laypersons is one of the most debased forms of reporting there is, with spoon-fed hacks mostly processing what they're given by a mixture of university, funding-agency and and publishing PRs with very little question - and we here on the Reg boffinry desk should know. Normally we play the game much like the rest: partly because it's an easy one to look good in - plenty of people unashamedly republish the press releases, so even a little effort (and even a little scepticism, which is rarer than writing ability here) pays dividends. Also, the fact is that despite the terrible way it gets reported, proper science news is genuinely interesting. Over the long term, perhaps, the proper science news is the only real news there is - the only real change in the human condition, or most of the change anyway.

But the academic publishing system - right from the boffin under pressure to pump out papers which will justify his meagre funding, all the way to the science hack taking her press releases off the embargoed feed - is surely pretty terrible. So terrible that this system as a whole corporately feels no shame in not only scheduling the "discoveries" far in advance but sometimes actually going out and making them happen to fit with a predetermined plan - as we see quite beyond doubt right now with all this spurious Titanic stuff.

And, who knows? Perhaps with other things on occasion.

So the Titanic can teach us something worth learning after all. It can teach us that "science news" is seldom really news, and sometimes isn't even science: not even in learned peer-reviewed journals, and definitely not in science channels directed at the lay audience. Obviously that includes us too. ®

Bootnote

Though at least we generally admit it, as our standard science-quality warning indicates.

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