Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Nasty Fate of Scientific Articles in the Media

When I was in graduate school, one of may papers was chosen by the university for a press release. That's when I learned first-hand what happens to science when it passes through the filters of the media. Here's how it went:

Step 1: We sent the paper to the press release office, where someone read it and write the first draft of the press release. We later learned that this was a fairly entry-level position and the person responsible for writing the press release was a communications major with no scientific background.

Step 2: We were able to edit our press release and correct some of the conclusions the press release writer seemed to find. We converted the more sensational language back to more scientific non-committal language. For example, we changed "X does Y!" to "The study shows that X may contribute to Y happening." In otherwords, we made it a lot less exciting again.

Step 3: Repeat steps 1 and 2.

Step 4: The press release goes out! LOOK! WE'RE ON THE INTERNETS ON A WEBSITE! It was exciting, for sure! Then we watched more and more places pick up our press release and summarize it even more.

Step 5: Watch your hard work get further distilled into sensationalist conclusions and inaccuracies.

Step 6: Give up.

PhD Comics did a pretty accurate cartoons about it here. I have to say, ours kind of stopped around step three of the comic's cycle, no one is really that interested in fungi unless they're watching Monsters Inside Me. But I've certainly seen the rest of the cycle happen to other perfectly respectable papers.

Why does this happen? 

  1. It happens because of a lack of scientific acumen in the science reporters of the world. Most of them weren't science majors or have not had rigorous training in scientific reporting. It's a crying shame, because how many of you think we have cured cancer a thousand times? Well, we've discovered certain drugs help reduce the tumor size in certain cancers, but that information got distilled by the science reporting cycle. Someone read "has been shown to reduce tumor size" and translated that into "treats" which later got translated into "cures." Publishers of these articles (including newspapers, popular news websites, etc) could and should hire scientists to be their science reportetd or else spend some money to send their science writers/reporters out to get some education. If a someone writes to the editor to correct errors, the editors shouldn't blow them off, they're trying to help (totally had that happen after I saw a very facutally incorrect news story).
  2. Clickbait is way more exciting than facts. I mean, I get it. I have a tendency to click on certain kinds of clickbait (sorry, I like lists!!) BUT when it comes to SCIENCE, clickbait pretty much undoes everything that we work so hard to do. No scientist thinks that they've "cured" something and no scientists "hate her" because a regular Jane discovered that baking soda cures skin cancer (it doesn't).
How do you know? Read my post Is it fake? Read the original article. Even if you can't, try reading the abstract, which is a summary of the article written by the authors. If all else fails, ask someone! You can certain ask me, or find a friendly neighborhood scientist and ask them. 

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