Did you know that the number of people who have drowned by falling into swimming pools has a moderate correlation with the number of Nicolas Cage films released that year?
I know, it’s absurd. But it does work. The thing is, when we know the link is implausible, we assume that the correlation is by chance.
But what if I told you that moderate wine consumption correlates with longevity? Of all the health stories that recur in the media, this one is definitely up there in the pop-science charts.
But it is also false.
While it has not been conclusively decided that it is detrimental to your health to have a few glasses a night, the evidence supporting the original hypothesis that moderate wine consumption increased longevity was questioned last year. A meta analysis in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs suggested that there was no obvious benefit to moderate drinking. The study explored the quality of the research that followed the mortality rates of people who abstained from drinking, people who drank moderately and those who consumed several standard drinks every day.
The data was adjusted to account for the individual characteristics of each study and the reasons for abstinence of each participant, such as reformed alcoholism or pre-existing health risks. The analysis then found that “low-volume alcohol consumption has no net mortality benefit compared with lifetime abstention or occasional drinking,” and that excess drinking correlates with an increase in mortality rates.
So why isn’t this in the headlines? Perhaps it’s just not as appealing to viewers as “GO DRINK MORE WINE!”
But the media’s tendency to hyperbolise scientific research can be seriously detrimental to those conducting it. Misrepresentation of serious research as “pop-science” even has the reputation of ruining careers. Still, it is essential to report on science and its impacts. Good science journalism has proven capable of filling some of the most widely read magazines on the planet.
There is more to bad reporting than it simply being false. Even if science has a reputation for being a bit scary and hard to understand, journalists have an obligation to check their facts.
In the increasingly demanding news cycle, a lack of scrutiny on the part of the media puts the democratic power of journalism at risk. Being told a lie about something as serious as your health or environmental issues is worse than never being told anything in the first place. As any science student would know, it takes a trained eye to know what is solid research and what is not.
But the real danger to science as a profession is when the reported facts are almost true. Misleading coverage of research that is well conducted, peer-reviewed, and repeated with supportive results can end up with good scientists losing a hard-earned reputation. Perhaps the worst part is that these cases of journalistic inaccuracy often cluster around big topics like cancer, heart disease or climate change, global issues that end up being misunderstood by millions because of a poorly worded headline.
Part of the problem is the complexity of the research. Because most of these journalists don’t come from science backgrounds, they rely on the word of these scientists without actually understanding it. And if the teams doing the research can’t coordinate a simple enough summary, they risk leaving the journalist to cut out the parts they don’t understand.
But good science journalism is out there.
New Scientist, Cosmos, and National Geographic are always filled with interesting and accurate depictions of modern science. And then there’s The Conversation, where award winning journalists give brilliant names in science the opportunity to share their story first hand through interviews as opposed to press-releases. But the problem remains that these quality publications mainly attract academics and other scientists; people who are equipped with the knowledge to interpret the original work.
Science journalism can’t always be written by those completing the research. While it may be more factual to have these articles written by the scientists conducting the experiments, a fresh set of eyes ensures that someone with virtually no understanding can still wrap their head around it. Though most people wouldn’t, there are those few who seek to further themselves by muddying the waters with fiction. The world of science is under the same fiscal pressures as the news industry, and privatised research has been known to skew press releases for financial gain.
So it seems that there is more than just one problem with science writing. The journalists writing it need the guts and the training to try and understand something they don’t have a degree in, and the researchers behind the findings need the tools to explain the intricacies of their experiments to us common folk.
While there are some resources available once you’re in the field, it seems nonsensical not to have this issue addressed earlier considering it’s near inevitability. At some point, whether to a journalist or a company or a consumer, these ideas need to be communicated simply and effectively. And until science and journalism students are being taught these skills as a necessity, it is up to the brave few to dedicate their time and efforts to a cause often overlooked.