As scientists, how we love to rail against the incompetence of the media.  As self-proclaimed keepers of the truth, we decry – usually rather vocally – the misinterpretation and misuse of our precious studies.  And as we commiserate together on the injustices of the world, we inevitably get to thinking that if only journalists could see the world as we do and get that down in writing (or on tape), things would be so much better.

Except, it isn’t always the journalists who are to blame for how science is portrayed in the media!

Take this case that landed in my metaphorical in-tray this morning for instance:

Yesterday, Texas A&M University put out a news item with the title “Technology may cool the laptop.” The piece starts:

Does your laptop sometimes get so hot that it can almost be used to fry eggs? New technology may help cool it and give information technology a unique twist, says Jairo Sinova, a Texas A&M University physics professor.

Aided by a short video, Professor Sinova, a co-author on the research being referred to, notes that

Laptops are getting increasingly powerful, but as their sizes are getting smaller they are heating up, so how to deal with excessive heat becomes a headache… “Theoretically, excessive heat may melt the laptop,” he adds. “This also wastes a considerable amount of energy.”

This is an important issue, although I suspect that the vision of melting laptops goes a little far.  But it gets you wondering what this amazing new breakthrough is that is going to prevent those embarrassing laptop melt-downs and inadvertent griddle emulations.  The answer? The Spin Injection Hall Effect, or SIHE – a relatively recently discovered phenomenon that results in electrons with different “spin” in a semiconductor leading to a measurable magnetic field.

The paper that the Texas A&M University news item refers to is “Spin-injection Hall effect in a planar photovoltaic cell” in the journal Nature Physics.  It appears in the September edition of the journal.  It’s an interesting and scientifically sound paper.  It describes work where an experimental semiconductor device is used to show that the Spin Injection Hall Effect can in principle be used to encode information in the spin state of electrons, then “read” that information back.

It is research that could be useful to new ways of transmitting and storing information in the future.

But keeping laptops cool?  Hardly!  And certainly not imminently.

So what’s going on here?  How do we get from some pretty esoteric research on electron spin to preventing “laptop-burn?”

The most generous explanation is that, in one possible future, this science could underpin technologies that lead to lower energy microprocessors, and that this is what the researchers latched on to in an attempt to make their work relevant to a broad audience. But this is an incredibly huge leap.  It’s the scientific equivalent of playing the lottery – speculation in the extreme.  There’s a small chance that the science might lead, through a long chain of events, to microprocessors 12 – 50 years down the line that are faster and more efficient.  But making your MacBook Pro run cooler?  Give me a break!

Another explanation is that Texas A&M wanted to sex the research up – raising their profile at the expense of informed science reporting.

Or maybe someone just got hold of the wrong end of the stick – or the wrong stick entirely.

I’m not sure which of these is closer to the truth.  But what is clear is that this type of misrepresentation of the science at source is not uncommon, and it is highly damaging to understanding of and engagement in science within society.

In this case, the assumptions and speculations behind the laptop claims weren’t clarified, and little attempt was made to distinguish between the science and the fantasies it inspired.  As a result, media outlets that picked up on the story simply propagated the misinformation – including Science Daily.  And as many readers would not have access to the original paper, they would not have the means to test the claims being made.

If research institutions misrepresent the science they are involved in, what hope is there for informed science coverage in the media?  And more importantly, how on earth are people to get an informed sense of emerging science and technology, and engage in a meaningful dialogue on its development and implementation?

I’m all for imagining where different avenues of research might lead.  But fantasizing about future applications as if they are just around the corner is naive at best, and just plain cynical at worst.  And the sad thing is, it ends up further disengaging people from the process of science and technology innovation – robbing them of the ability to participate effectively in a science and technology-driven society.

Effective science coverage in the media is under threat, and there many factors at play here.  But surely this makes it even more important that scientists and research institutions don’t simply add to the problem.  I’m probably being a little unfair picking on Texas A&M here – they aren’t the only ones feeding the media with questionable material.  But it seems that if the science community is serious about good science reporting, it needs to get its own house in order before pointing too many fingers at others.

After all, journalists and others reporting on science and technology are only as good as their sources.  Garbage in, garbage out, no matter how hot or cold the laptop is running!

Andrew Maynard