Evolution hits the headlines

Guardian journalist Oliver Burkeman has come in for some heavy criticism over an article he wrote the headline of which claimed that:

Why everything you ever learned about evolution is wrong.

Unfortunately, such an inflammatory headline was inevitably going to raise hackles among rational people, whether scientist, atheist or other. It also unfortunately is the kind of headline that provides unwarranted fodder for the irrational evolutionary denialists, intelligent design advocates, and creationists.

Among the many discussions across the blogosphere, one stood out as critical of the headline itself but not so critical of the article. I pointed out in the blog’s comments that:

One aspect of these science vs. media debates that is often overlooked is that journalists don’t tend to write their own headlines. That’s usually a sub-editor’s job. 99.9% of the time a good subbie will try to grab the reader’s attention by being deliberately provocative, grasping the essence of the story and distilling it down to a concentrated form that may be a lot more astringent than the text itself.

The blog’s author Hannah suggested that this probably was the case in this instance given the evidence and asked, in response to my comment, whether things might change.

Personally, I think it’s unlikely to change so long as we are still reading conventional papers (on- and off-line), it’s just the way papers are structured. Headlines are meant to attract readers and sell papers (and, in turn, advertising space). It’s not necessarily a bid thing that it won’t change, headlines can be fun!

Even citizen journalists and bloggers, who are almost certainly writing all their own headlines, of course, know this fact, and in trade discussions talk of how to come up with catchy post titles and linkbait, after all.

Ultimately, however, it’s down to a paper’s Editor as to whether a given provocative headline should be published or not. Provocative headlines often inflame readers. However, the author of the article will always have the words below the headline to support their argument and if the article is a more measured discussion than the headline would suggest then they’re on firmer ground in any debate and hopefully won’t simply be feeding irrational fodder to the irrationalists.