The Royal Society has a beauty pageant moment

Scientists are good at science. That does not qualify them as advisors on world affairs.

“So, Miss Royal Society, if there were three things you could change about the world, what would they be?”
 
OK, so there isn’t a Miss Royal Society (it’s proving hard enough to get the Society to elect female fellows in respectable numbers). But a report issued by the Society today reads like the answers often heard from toothsome beauties in swimsuits.
 
The report is on issues relating to global population and consumption. The Society’s first request is that “the international community must bring the 1.3 billion people living on less than $1.25 per day out of absolute poverty, and reduce the inequality that persists in the world today.” The Royal Society doesn’t want any children to go to bed hungry, you see.
 
Second, they’d like people to stop being so greedy: “The most developed and the emerging economies must stabilise and then reduce material consumption levels.”
 
Third, they want people in developing countries to stop having so many babies.
 
If it really were a beauty pageant, we’d all gape in awe at the gaffe, then share the video with our friends. We could share the 5.7MB PDF of the report, but really, that’s a lot to read when the top three recommendations are, respectively, banal, naive and reminiscent of an edict issued on behalf of the British Empire in the latter part of the 18th century.
 
The case study given for the family planning problem is Niger, where the report tells us “over a quarter of women older than 40 have given birth to 10 or more children.”  The report explains that Niger’s high fertility is not, for the most part, due to poverty, education or access to family planning. The biggest problem, the report says, is the double-barrelled shotgun of Niger’s polygamous culture, and – wait for it – its “large desired family size”.
 
Yes, they actually want all these children! In fact, the report goes on to admit that married women in Niger want an average of 8.8 children. So let’s put that first statistic another way: the majority of women in Niger have, or will have, roughly the number of children they’d like to have. That’s not a problem, surely?
 
Well, apparently it is. The Royal Society’s issue is that, from a global perspective, these women really aren’t team players: they are producing more than their fair share of humans.
 
In science circles, there’s an old joke about theoretical physicists helping out a troubled dairy farmer. It’s not actually that funny, so I’ll cut straight to the punchline where the physicists say, “first let’s assume the cow is a sphere.”  The point is that science is often ill-equipped for realities outside the lab. The Royal Society’s report is well-intentioned, and Sir John Sulston, the chair of the panel that produced it, is both an excellent scientist and by all accounts a deeply impressive human being. The problem is, scientists are good at science, and beauty pageant contestants are generally beautiful. From the evidence presented so far, these are not qualities that seem to qualify either group as advisors on world affairs.
 

A boy stands by his hut in a village near Maradi, a southern city in Niger. The country was a case study in the Royal Academy's report. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

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Clickbaiting terror: what it’s like to write viral news after a tragedy

Does the viral news cycle callously capitalise on terrorism, or is it allowing a different audience to access important news and facts?

On a normal day, Alex* will write anywhere between five to ten articles. As a content creator for a large viral news site, they [Alex is speaking under the condition of strict anonymity, meaning their gender will remain unidentified] will churn out multiple 500-word stories on adorable animals, optical illusions, and sex. “People always want to read about sexuality, numbers of sexual partners, porn habits and orgasms,” says Alex. “What is important is making the content easily-digestible and engaging.”

Alex is so proficient at knowing which articles will perform well that they frequently “seek stories that fit a certain template”. Though the word “clickbait” conjures up images of cute cat capers, Alex says political stories that “pander to prejudices” generate a large number of page views for the site. Many viral writers know how to tap into such stories so their takes are shared widely – which explains the remarkably similar headlines atop many internet articles. “This will restore your faith in humanity,” could be one; “This one weird trick will change your life…” another. The most cliché example of this is now so widely mocked that it has fallen out of favour:

You’ll never believe what happened next.

When the world stops because of a tragedy, viral newsrooms don’t. After a terrorist attack such as this week’s Manchester Arena bombing, internet media sites do away with their usual stories. One day, their homepages will be filled with traditional clickbait (“Mum Sickened After Discovery Inside Her Daughter’s Easter Egg”, “This Man’s Blackhead Removal Technique Is A Complete And Utter Gamechanger”) and the next, their clickbait has taken a remarkably more tragic tone (“New Footage Shows Moment Explosion Took Place Inside Manchester Arena”, “Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Bruno Mars and More React to the Manchester Bombing”).

“When a terrorist event occurs, there’s an initial vacuum for viral news,” explains Alex. Instead of getting reporters on the scene or ringing press officers like a traditional newsroom, Alex says viral news is “conversation-driven” – meaning much of it regurgitates what is said on social media. This can lead to false stories spreading. On Tuesday, multiple viral outlets reported – based on Facebook posts and tweets – that over 50 accompanied children had been led to a nearby Holiday Inn. When BuzzFeed attempted to verify this, a spokesperson for the hotel chain denied the claim.

Yet BuzzFeed is the perfect proof that viral news and serious news can coexist under the same roof. Originally famed for its clickable content, the website is now home to a serious and prominent team of investigative journalists. Yet the site has different journalists on different beats, so that someone writes about politics and someone else about lifestyle or food.

Other organisations have a different approach. Sam* works at another large viral site (not Buzzfeed) where they are responsible for writing across topics; they explains how this works:  

“One minute you're doing something about a tweet a footballer did, the next it's the trailer for a new movie, and then bam, there's a general election being called and you have to jump on it,” they say.

Yet Sam is confident that they cover tragedy correctly. Though they feel viral news previously used to disingenuously “profiteer” off terrorism with loosely related image posts, they say their current outlet works hard to cover tragic news. “It’s not a race to generate traffic,” they say, “We won't post content that we think would generate traffic while people are grieving and in a state of shock, and we're not going to clickbait the headlines to try and manipulate it into that for obvious reasons.”

Sam goes as far as to say that their viral site in fact has higher editorial standards than “some of the big papers”. Those who might find themselves disturbed to see today’s explosions alongside yesterday’s cats will do well to remember that “traditional” journalists do not always have a great reputation for covering tragedy.

At 12pm on Tuesday, Daniel Hett tweeted that over 50 journalists had contacted him since he had posted on the site that his brother, Martyn, was missing after the Manchester attack. Hett claimed two journalists had found his personal mobile phone number, and he uploaded an image of a note a Telegraph reporter had posted through his letterbox. “This cunt found my house. I still don't know if my brother is alive,” read the accompanying caption. Tragically it turned out that Martyn was among the bomber's victims.

Long-established newspapers and magazines can clearly behave just as poorly as any newly formed media company. But although they might not always follow the rules, traditional newspapers do have them. Many writers for viral news sites have no formal ethical or journalistic training, with little guidance provided by their companies, which can cause problems when tragic news breaks.

It remains to be seen whether self-policing will be enough. Though false news has been spread, many of this week’s terror-focused viral news stories do shed light on missing people or raise awareness of how people can donate blood. Many viral news sites also have gigantic Facebook followings that far outstrip those of daily newspapers – meaning they can reach more people. In this way, Sam feels their work is important. Alex, however, is less optimistic.

“My personal view is that viral news does very little to inform people at times like this and that trending reporters probably end up feeling very small about their jobs,” says Alex. “You feel limited by the scope of your flippant style and by what the public is interested in.

“You can end up feeding the most divisive impulses of an angry public if you aren’t careful about what conversations you’re prompting. People switch onto the news around events like this and traffic rises, but ironically it’s probably when trending reporters go most into their shells and into well-worn story formats. It’s not really our time or place, and to try and make it so feels childish.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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