How many times do we chance upon a headline that boldly states that scientists are baffled by a new discovery? Or forced to rethink all our theories? Or that the current paradigm is about to be overthrown? Or that what we once knew to be true is now false (and a year later will be true again)?
Sensational headlines are a poison to science communication. They give the impression that science is fickle and temporary - that we'll change our minds with every new experiment or observation. That we have no firm grasp on the understanding of the world around us.
Don't get me wrong: mysteries abound in the sciences. Scientists do change their minds when the evidence is overwhelming. Paradigms do get overthrown. But headlines make it seem like this happens every other week instead of every other decade. Science is slow, cautious, and meticulous.
It's easy to blame the journalists and editors for the shoddy headlines. But in this case, I'll forgive them: they're doing their jobs. Yes, they should know and do better, but their main goal is to drive clicks and eyeballs to their articles. We should simply accept as fact that some of them will twist and distort their message for maximum impact.
So where do sensational science headlines start? They start with the scientists themselves. If we know how journalists will tend to be, then it's up to us to put our work in the proper framing, refrain from giving quotes that can be easily taken out of context, and emphasize the slow-and-steady nature of scientific exploration.
I'm not saying that journalists are malicious or the enemy. But they are driven by goals that are different than our own, and we need to be aware of that.