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Shock and Awww

Research indicates that embellishing science could kill both you and your loved ones

My all-time favorite work of scientific journalism is a September 11, 2007, article in the New York Times titled: “If the First Bite Doesn’t Do It, the Second Will.” It’s a piece about the comparative anatomy of pharyngeal jaws in moray eels. If reading this article sounds like a solid method for inducing coma to you, then perhaps you never got to the second and third paragraphs, which read:

“One of the most famous monsters in film history is the extraterrestrial beast of the ‘Alien’ series. It slowly opened its glistening fangs to reveal a second set of jaws that shot forward to kill its victims. Scientists have now discovered a fish that does the same thing.”

That’s right: fish, scientists, film history, and “extraterrestrial beasts.” Include a car chase and Jessica Alba in leather and it’s a perfectly good summer blockbuster. The “science” article ends with an interview with the Swiss artist who created the alien, H. R. Giger, apparently just to make sure he doesn’t have a secret background in ichthyology.

The alien fish article highlights the inherent contradiction in scientific journalism: science requires readers to be smart, while journalism assumes everyone is an idiot. As a result, scientific journalism removes the icky numbers (t-tests? Who has ever heard of a t-test?), waters down the “ginormous” words to second-grader speak, and adds a bit of flair. The razzle-dazzled glittered-up remains typically fall into one of two general forms. The first à la “alien fish” is a hackneyed comparison that links a scientific study to some bit of pop culture or conventional wisdom. The second is a proclamation from a cabal of modern day Nostradamoi who predict a vague future catastrophe that will end all life on earth.

Ben Goldacre, whose weekly column in the Guardian, “Bad Science,” hunts down journalistic crimes against science, has published a hypothesis of why bad science reporting occurs. Journalists, from his experience, rely too much on press releases and authority figures. This assumption is perfectly logical because most news comes from those two sources. If a journalist were covering a presidential campaign, obviously the best way to get information would be from the campaign’s press office or from a member of the campaign.

Unfortunately, science moves in bursts too slow for press releases. An initial report could have a flaw in methods or irreproducible results revealed upon further review. This is why scare stories and fad stories typically follow a certain pattern: an initial report, over-extrapolation, panic, sustained panic, suggestions based on panic, a decrease in panic, a report that the panic was only panic, rinse, and repeat.

Similarly a reliance on authority figures casts a skewed image on science. Science is not based on the words of one person; it is a collaborative process of discussions and revision by the entire scientific community. The words of the researchers should pale in importance when compared to the evidence. However, detailed accounts of evidence in scientific journalism are few and far between. Entire articles can be often published without the smallest amount of necessary information. What chemical is being tested? What is the sample size? What is the p-value? Where I can I find the entire dataset?

However, scientific journalism needs not be so bad. I find it highly amusing that newspapers have a pathological repulsion to statistics, names of organic molecules, and other “sciency” words because of the fear that the reference will be above their readers’ heads. Yet this oft-cited fear quickly evaporates when including references to obscure Russian poets, 1950’s French art-house film, or German philosophy. Obviously the media is just adjusting to the demographic fact that most Americans hold PhDs in literary theory even though they failed high school chemistry. It isn’t absurd to expect journalists working the politics section to understand politics or those in the arts section to have a background in art. Why is science reported differently?

Readers are not stupid, and instead of scaring them or placating them, the science section should treat them like thinking human beings. Science will probably do more to change society in the next fifty years than anything else. To neglect science because of sub-par reporting grossly violates the duty of journalism to provide important information to the public. Readers should demand and the press should supply science articles that are short on drama and long on facts. Who knows? Somebody might learn something.


Steven T. Cupps ’09 is a biological anthropology and economics concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.
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