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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

When Science Reporting Goes Horribly, Horribly Wrong

By Phil Plait

I’m a big fan of comedian John Oliver’s show, Last Week Tonight. Unlike other satirical news programs, he tends to take one topic and do a deep dive, really getting into the nitty-gritty on why some particular thing is outrageously dumb.

On Sunday, he took on science. Specifically, how it’s done and far more importantly, how it’s reported. This is well worth your time.

Oh, it also sports some NSFW language. Fairly warned be thee, says I.

Oliver makes a lot of really good points in this segment, and as someone who stands at the gate between science research and public consumption of that research, I have opinions on this.

Lots and lots of opinions.

To be clear before I start, I agree with pretty much everything Oliver said in this segment. The problems he points out are legit, and if I have any beef, it’s that he should’ve had a one-hour special to cover more of this topic. But I’ll be happy to add in my $0.02.

First, despite being denigrated in so many media, I know people in the U.S. love science. Lots of polls show this, and the fact that there are entire networks on TV devoted to science kinda bears that out.

The problem, in many ways, is how science is communicated to the public. There are a lot of venues from which to consume science information, and not all of them are equal.

To be clear, I don’t have a problem per se with, for example, social media accounts that boil down a lot of stories to factoids. People consume a lot of info (maybe too much to really remember any of it, a problem all on its own) via Facebook, Twitter, and so on. Getting info quickly is part of society now, and likely isn’t going away.

The problem is when these accounts are just dead wrong, or don’t cite references, or don’t give any real information. A pretty picture or cool fact is great every now and again, especially if it inspires the reader to look up more information, but if you only eat Skittles (say) all the time, you’re going to run into some health issues.

But even that isn’t as pernicious as the examples given by Oliver in his segment. This is when things get bad. Science is by its nature an incremental process; it’s incredibly rare for sudden groundbreaking research to change the way we see the Universe. Generally, small steps are taken, usually not all in the same direction, until eventually (and hopefully) a bigger picture builds up.

But that’s not how media work. More and more they demand big, splashy results, something they can use to pop momentarily above the sound and fury of the noise on the ‘net. And that’s when you get grossly erroneous stories like the ones cited by Oliver.

Science is our best way of understanding the Universe. Thirty second segments on chat shows, not so much.

But even those tend to come and go. A far bigger issue in my opinion is death by a thousand cuts. Oliver covers this (starting at 13:02): When a small study shows that under extremely limited and narrow circumstances, coffee has some marginally potential benefits if consumed a certain way, that’s not really news. But it gets reported like it’s some huge advance, and that’s bad, because another study will inevitably come along and show that, under slightly (or wildly) different narrow circumstances coffee consumption has some potential marginal downsides, and then that gets reported as some big breakthrough.

The problem here is that this erodes public confidence in science. People don’t blame the media for their reporting, they blame science for not being able to make up its mind. That’s hugely unfair. And in the case of medicine and climate science, incredibly dangerous. When science is pushed out, charlatans and science deniers are all too happy to step in.

The media tend not to report the statistical significance of the study, the sample size, the lab conditions used. As Oliver points out, a lot of “news” shows don’t even talk about what kind of mammal was used in the study. It’s atrocious. But then, most news media venues downsized (read: eliminated) their science journalists years ago. The people covering science in a vast swath of American media really don’t have any experience in it, so the coverage is shaky. At best.

On top of this, the media and science talk different languages. When the World Health Organization listed cellphones as a possible Group 2B carcinogen, of course the media (and everyone reading it) freaked out. The point wasn’t that this made it “possibly carcinogenic to humans” with no actual causal link found, the point was it was listed at all.

And don’t even get me started on “theory” versus “hypothesis.”

Which brings me to where science is in all this. Heaven knows I see a lot of press releases that try to sexy up the science; some tie them to recent cultural events (oh my, when Star Wars came out last year did I see an uptick in cutesie releases) or wind up using clickbaity headlines.*

But even then that’s not usually the scientists’ fault. They’re just doing their research, and generally don’t have a lot of say over what happens once they talk to their local press information officers.

The good news is that I’m seeing more media-savvy scientists. I can’t speak for other fields, but in astronomy I see a lot of people who have done research and are getting time in front of a camera, or are writing their stories themselves. Professional organizations are creating their own news team. The American Astronomical Society has AASNova, summarizing recent research and written by professional astronomers. AstroBites is similar, written by graduate students. Many astronomy blogs are written by astronomers. Say.

I think a lot of scientists are on top of the idea that they need to understand how the media work to be able to get their message across. Certainly climate scientists are aware of this (the RealClimate site is written by professional climatologists).

This is a step in the right direction. It’s not a cure-all, of course, since I don’t think any such unicorn exists. If such a beast were real—if there were one thing I would change about how we consume information—it would take the form of people learning how to think critically about the news they get, assessing it logically. Is the medium biased? Who funds that particular outlet? Are you as a consumer biased, willing to believe something more readily because it aligns with your personal beliefs? What information are you being given that’s wrong, and what’s being left out?

That would be a wonderful thing. A lot of media outlets would vanish in a puff of logic were such conditions to prevail. And the world would be a far safer, healthier, and smarter place.

* And to be honest I don’t have an issue with clickbait headlines per se; the point of a headline is in part to accurately summarize an article in a few words to make it attractive to a reader. But the “You won’t believe what happens next” types of heds are irritating at least, and I’ve seen lots of headlines flatly contradict the article they’re headlining. Writers for many outlets don’t generally write their own headlines. I do, which is why they’re usually puns. You’re welcome.

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