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Science Journalism: An explicit source of misinformation.

Post of the Month: November 2014


Subject:    | Science journalism: hyperbole vs. fact
Date:       | 02 Nov 2014
Message-ID: |

A problem often discussed here relates to the overblown and exaggerated claims about scientific findings as published in science oriented news aggregations or blogs. The most recent has to do with the post in "Oh those Randy Scots" about "Australian scientists have tracked down the origins of the intimate act of sexual intercourse". The quote itself comes not from a sciencey news source but from Business Insider:

Such sensationalist claims do attract attention and that attention produces positive benefits, sometimes monetary, for the publisher, the institution where the original research was done, and even for the scientists involved in the research. However reading the actual research paper shows a drastically more subdued tone and rather more modest claims usually accompanied by suitable hedge words – perhaps, might, seems to suggest...

The problem is not new. I just received an article "Research Must Pass an Ethical 'Smell Test'" by G. McKhann in "Brain in the News" from the Dana Organization. This is a publication that aggregates articles published in newspapers and magazines about brain research and McKhann is the science advisor responsible for selecting articles that both contain important science and also accurately represent that science – exactly the issues that confront us when we see science papers in the news. The article in the Oct. 2014 issue of "Brain in the News" is a republication that originally appeared in Nov. 2007 so the problem is not new. The notion that scientific ethics is involved relates to the fact that hyperbolic claims about medical research by researchers connected to pharmaceutical or biotech companies often bring enormous monetary rewards to those researchers. Sadly, little monetary reward accrues to investigators in evolutionary biology.

The full text is at

Here is the relevant portion:

"The problems often start with how research findings are presented to the public. I get an overview of this problem every month as we select articles for Brain in the News. We wind up using about one in ten potential stories. Part of the problem rests with investigators who are touting a company, a product or simply themselves. I am sometimes astounded at what prominent scientists will say to members of the media – things they would never say in front of discerning colleagues."

"The media are equally at fault. The scientific expertise of many science writers and editors is minimal. Nevertheless they are quick to jump on a flashy story, even though it may be based on just a few cases or be extrapolating basic findings to clinical problems in inappropriate ways."

The moral is that you really have to be careful about what you read. "I saw it on the internet so it must be true." The real content of science is what is published in primary research articles, something drilled into students in science education. Unfortunately, the primary research literature (peer-reviewed journals) is exceptionally dense, virtually impossible to understand without an enormous amount of background learning, and incredibly tedious and boring prose to boot. There does exist truly wonderful science journalism that accurately and simply conveys the results of research. But you have to be able to find the needles in the haystacks.

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