Meme Me Up, Scotty

Even before I started writing about science instead of struggling to pass it, I knew who some of the traditional big names were among its primary print media outlets: Science magazine, Nature, Scientific American, Popular Science and Discover, to name but a few.

Maybe I’m showing my age, but one of those biggies, Nature, just went down a peg in my prestige book, undone by what I consider to be a dying art: the ability to write a good headline. You know, one that’s above all else correct and then — and only then, if possible — catchy and creative without sacrificing and/or detracting from the content. Here’s a link to the story, in case it didn’t flood your news feed, along with its offending ‘I can haz genomes’: cats claw their way into genetics headline.

Forget the dog-versus-cat debate, I’ve got a bone to pick with (I can only assume) the copy editor here. To each his own as to what defines humor, but it’s a fine line in any setting, particularly that of science journalism. Regardless where you choose to draw it, there’s a time and place even for the craftiest turn of phrase. In my opinion, this story was neither.

Nature_CatGenomes

At the risk of being perceived as catty, this one missed the mark for me. But I acknowledge potentially being in the minority there. For instance, one Twitter commenter credited them for “trying to thread the needle between catchy and accurate.” Um, #fail.

Reducing such a long-awaited milestone for human health, if not victory for cat enthusiasts, to a cheesy (or should I say cheezburger) Internet meme runs the risk of turning people off to the story (which involves a Texas A&M University geneticist — read an overview complete with a solid headline here) before they’ve even read word one of the lead. Good luck convincing them the research is solid or serious from there.

Lolcats, indeed.

Interestingly enough, another Texas A&M professor, Mays Business School’s Caleb Warren, is one of the many researchers working to define the science of humor. Toward that end, he and his University of Colorado at Boulder collaborator Peter McGraw have developed something they call the benign violation theory, the foundation of McGraw’s Humor Research Lab at UC Boulder and a widely published subject in a variety of sources, from a book to mainstream psychology journals. According to a broader Bloomberg article, they postulate that humor emerges “when: a) a situation violates some kind of norm; b) the violation is benign; and c) these two things occur to the observer simultaneously.”

It's a Venn diagram, so that's a plus. (Credit: Peter McGraw, Humor Research Lab, University of Colorado at Boulder)

It’s a Venn diagram, so that’s a plus. (Credit: Peter McGraw, Humor Research Lab, University of Colorado at Boulder)

So, yeah, I guess it’s possible that I just didn’t get the joke. I am blonde.

OK, off my soap, er litter box.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

I’m pleased to report the week wasn’t a total loss for science journalism. Props to Science staff writer Jennifer Couzin-Frankel for circling back on a story that made international headlines earlier this month (in some cases for all the wrong reasons) and for leaving no step un-retraced in her subsequent effort not only to set the record as straight as possible from here but also to understand where and why things went wrong. Further proof that this work is serious business — and intensely personal in addition to professional, at that — for parties well beyond the scientists involved.

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