OK, here’s a random article in a random magazine, journal, newspaper, blog, what have you. What do you read first? The title. The title helps you decide whether to look at the abstract or the leading paragraph, then perhaps glance at the conclusion, then perhaps skim the article, then maybe to blog about it or refer to it, and finally maybe even in some rare eventuality actually read it carefully and attentively.
So the title is the most important thing. In science, and in blogging, we control the title of our work. In writing for conventional press, we don’t. Irene and I didn’t even choose the title for our first book, whose title is in fact misleading! (It’s flawed for a number of reasons but not without value, and is now available in a Kindle edition! Recommended for academics, especially tenure track.) (Maybe I shouldn’t flog the Kindle edition; I probably get not a red cent from it. Buy the paperback new!)
But most editors cannot realistically read every article they edit carefully and attentively. So they title them wrong. This is a common problem:
- “No Rise of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Fraction, New Research Finds“
- “Climategate U-turn as scientist at centre of row admits: There has been no global warming since 1995“
- India Withdraws from IPCC
- Climate scientists who play fast and loose with the facts are imperiling not just their profession but the planet.
- Climate-Change Debate Is Heating Up in Deep Freeze.
- Earth’s climate future may be etched in Greenland bedrock
So now Steve Easterbrook has run into this buzz-saw, with a not-too-bad article on the Guardian accompanied by a totally off-base headline: “Climate scientists should not write their own software, says researcher“. Steve naturally is inclined to criticize the author, Danny Bradbury.
Different institutions have different madnesses. It is almost impossible for an academic to even suspect, never mind believe, that the title of an article is written by somebody who not only didn’t write the article but in practice hasn’t really read it. That’s normal!
We needn’t attribute sinister motivations. Headlines reveal the mindset of the editor, but are not intended to mislead. They are revealing the extent to which the editor is already informed or confused. That is, they reveal the extent to which the publication is competent on the issue at hand, or the extent to which the obfuscators have already succeeded in their obfuscations there. The intent, though, is to rush product out the door with limited resources, not deliberately to confuse.
We needn’t cure all the ills that ail journalism to fix this. The cure is mind-bogglingly straightforward.
Let the person who wrote the piece write the headline!
Update: Anna in comments provides this amazing link on headline writing.