Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Problem With Science Journalism

Poor science journalism is irresponsible.  It misleads the public and policymakers.  It can lead to hysteria, public health crises, bad public policies, and can fund or defund research.  The major problem with science journalism is that these journalists are not scientists.  In fact, about 80% of them don't have a science degree.  So how can you spot bad science and avoid writing about it when you can't tell the difference between good science and bad science?

A few months ago, a pretty big science blog was looking to hire an intern.  They said that they wanted someone with a science journalism background, but that people with advanced degrees in a science could also be considered.  Not wanting to waste my time, I emailed the supervisor directly and asked if I had a chance, as a blogger and science communicator with a PhD in biology.  His answer: maybe, but I wouldn't be as competitive as someone with a science journalism degree, and he had lots of applicants so I'd only be considered after the ones with the right degree.  How is it that as a scientist with a PhD, publications, conference presentations and lectures under my belt, and a plethora of blog posts, I am perceived to be incapable of communicating science?

Yesterday, my friend sent me this article.  Nevermind that it is shoddily written and badly sourced, but it cites another article and an "expert" whose background is in psychology, and whose publications I was unable to find (other than her book) after spending considerable time looking.  These articles spoke about this study, which looked at 30 000 women in Sweden over a 20-year period, and tried to find a causation between all-cause mortality and lack of sun exposure.  This study was poorly designed and analyzed, and the authors do state that as a major cause of bias.  They go further to say that this paper cannot be used to establish a direct cause-effect relationship and that more work needs to be done.  Further, they also state that the results cannot be extended to other areas of the world, because the UV index and sun availability in Sweden is unique to the latitudes in which the country is located.  But as you can see from those two "news" articles, the media did not take any of that into consideration.  No, this has now become canon, and continues to feed this irrational fear of sunscreens and other chemicals.  If this story continues to gather speed the way it seems to be, public health and science will be recovering from this for a long time - just like the vaccine/autism fiasco.

Recently, I wrote a piece about beetles able to sequester plant defense compounds for reasons unknown to us at the moment.  The authors of the study I reviewed posited that maybe this beetle was using the same type of defense mechanism as the cabbage aphid, which sequesters mustard oils to use as "mustard bombs" against predators.  However, WE DO NOT KNOW WHY THE BEETLES DO IT!  Here are the headlines from the university press release (correct, though a bit of a stretch) and a science news site (incorrect and sensationalist):
Both of these headlines are guilty of sensationalism, but one is correct and relevant to the actual story, the other isn't.  This may not seem like much of a problem, and I guess in this case it's not.  But when the headlines become things like this:
Then it becomes a problem.
Many people assume that scientists are incapable of not using jargon, and describing science to a lay audience.  I beg to differ.  This is a skill, like any other, and one that many scientists are beginning to work on.  I've been doing it for years.  Quite honestly, if you can't explain a topic clearly, it's because you don't know enough about it or you don't understand it.  I've explained my PhD research to 15 year olds with no problems.  I think that this assumption is the major problem with science journalism.  When a scientist has to translate their research, and a journalist with a tenuous grasp of it then has to translate it to the audience, something inevitably gets lost in translation. 
The problem with science journalism is that science journalists are not interested in reporting the truth, they want to sell their stories and make sponsors happy.  They resort to sensationalist headlines and reporting certainty when there is none, because uncertainty isn't sexy (but there's a lot of it in science).  They show both sides of debates evenly (ie. with climate change or evolution), making an ill-informed public believe that both sides carry the same weight, when they in fact do not (see this great John Oliver video for science communication done right).  Bad science journalists don't understand the difference between cause-effect relationships and hastily made connections.  Calling something a "miracle cure" when it is a promising finding doesn't help anyone, and it makes people impatient with scientific progress.  There are people who believe that there is a cure for all kinds of diseases out there and that the public is being held hostage by scientists and "big pharma".  Where would they get an idea like that?

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