Another week, another flurry of news coverage that involves the concept of sonification. “Listen to the terrifying rumble of Earth’s magnetic field being assaulted by a solar storm,” reads a headline at space.com, even though we’re not actually listening to what the headline says. What we’re listening to is data — data collected by the European Space Agency from the event subsequently transformed, back here on Earth, into human-listenable sound.
Engadget.com’s title on the same topic: “Listen to the eerie sounds of a solar storm hitting the Earth’s magnetic field” — though the article, at least, clarifies more explicitly that microphones weren’t harmed (let alone utilized) in the making of the recording:
“You can’t exactly point a microphone at the sky and hear the magnetic field (nor can we see it). Scientists from the Technical University of Denmark converted data collected by the ESA’s three Swarm satellites into sound, representing both the magnetic field and a solar storm.”
Even a member of the ESA project team, Klaus Nielsen, describes it, in a post at the agency’s website, as “a sonic representation of the core field.” Then again, that ESA post bears a title no less mistaken than are the others: “The scary sound of Earth’s magnetic field.”
Arguably, none of those titles — or myriad others like them that have proliferated in recent years — are, in fact, mistaken. What they are is misleading. These titles are clickbait: using fantastical statements to lure readers, and leaving for later the the dirty work of dialing back the overstatement at some point deeper into the actual article (if the reader even gets that far).
Now, it’s a common scenario in journalism, science or otherwise, that writers don’t write their own headlines. Articles might even have multiple headlines depending on the medium and other factors: one for the print edition, another for online, maybe an alternate for mobile. I cherish to this day several headlines written by editors for stories I’ve written, like a long-ago piece about Rudy Vanderlands and Zuzana Licko, the typographers at Emigre; the editor at the alt-weekly titled it “About Face.” And there’s an interview I did with science fiction author and, more pertinent to the title of the piece, climate-science ambassador Kim Stanley Robinson: “The Man Who Fell for Earth.”
Tellingly, both those headlines were for publications that prioritized print. They were intended to be playful and lend a sensibility to the broader coverage. The online headlines serve a very different purpose, a transactional one, which is to get people to click through. The problem is, editors don’t trust that the topics they have selected are interesting enough unto themselves, so headlines are produced that have the linguistic equivalent of artificial flavor added. And the problem doesn’t end there. Once certain types of stories prove clickable, they appear again and again.
The concept of “representation” that Nielsen raises in the ESA post was entirely lost on (or ignored by) the headline writers at both Science and Engadget, and they’re not alone. Back in May, Popular Science had an article titled “NASA recorded a black hole’s song, and you can listen to it” — and then, after the author claimed “we can finally listen to a black hole scream into the void,” the reader is told that’s not actually the case: “scientists can create parameters for all kinds of numerical data by assigning those values to higher or lower pitches, or vice versa, to turn them into musical notes.”
I don’t know what will break this ongoing cycle, though I worry what will happen is that sonification will become such a routine source of unfulfilled promises — the science-journalism equivalent of empty calories — that it won’t ever really have a chance to become the useful tool it could be.
Back in May of this year I wrote an article for The Wire about sonification, and in it I interviewed Sara Lenzi from the Center for Design at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, where she helps run the excellent sonification.design online database of sonification projects. Lenzi herself argues against sonic purism in sonification, arguing that sound works best when we’re “combining it with other sensory modalities,” such as data visualization.
Sonification clickbait articles are the precise opposite of what Lenzi encourages, because they actively isolate the sound from the facts at hand. The point of sonification, in the context of the popular press, is to lend meaning and approachability to data by rendering it in sound. But by repeatedly tricking readers into thinking they’re hearing the actual source of the data and not a representation of the data, the online publications making advertising-adjacent slivers of pennies for each click are undermining the science they’re purportedly promoting.