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When Science Reporting Fails
[ Issue 156 Page 6 ] Sunday, September 24, 2017, 14:31:25 Simeneh Gulelat Head of Intl simeneh@kaist.ac.kr

A new study shows that a glass of red wine is equivalent to an hour spent at the gym. Such are the typical headlines that propagate through media, heralding to the world yet another new, amusing finding. The follow-up article to such a headline will likely be written in a jargon-ridden manner to assure the reader that the study in question is in fact cogent. However, skeptical readers will likely be left scratching their heads trying to make sense of how this information will help better their lives. Are we really to be told that filling our glasses with wine and abandoning the need to be physically active will somehow improve our fitness and health?

Such types of news are of little practical value to the reader as they create more questions than they answer. For example, whenever a new study emerges regarding the health benefits of, say, coffee, pop science publications are quick to pick up on the headline and run a story on the newfound medicinal effects of drinking coffee without commenting on the full context in which the study applies. But, more often than not, there will be a different group of reports preaching completely antithetical sentiments. As a habitual reader of “pop sci” news — it’s not my fault, it’s everywhere — I became disgruntled whenever I found out that separate research had been done elsewhere showing the devastating effects drinking coffee presents to one of your internal organs or whatnot.

Few science news publications candidly address the scope of the research they report on. For example, it might be the case that certain individuals are more predisposed to respond positively to a regular intake of coffee. Or perhaps that the subjects of these particular experiments were kept under a strict dietary regimen to control for the effects coffee has on their metabolism and to what extent those effects can be measured. Even though such kinds of details are well-documented in the parent research journals, they almost never make it across to popular science channels. Popular science has hijacked media with a drive to dominate the online and print market, all thanks to the unwavering attention of the public who hungers for the trendiest, eye-catching headlines science has to offer, but will nevertheless be disappointed when those studies turn out to be not only fake but also unnecessary and misleading in the end.

One usually comes across two different breeds of “pop sci” news saturating the vast media. The first kind consists of instances that, having informed the public about the gravity of a particular new finding, fail short on addressing the lay audience about how it might affect them. The second type consists of the ones where the topic of interest is acknowledged to be completely useless other than serving as nothing more than mere amusement for the reader. What is even more despairing is that the latter cases are more likely to be mishaps of some statistical analyses posing as novel insights in order to seem interesting by promising to give the reader a new perspective on seemingly unrelated points.

Although it stands true that countless papers get published in numerous fields, some news come out contradicting previously established notions. However, the problem seems to me that news outlets — sifting through a large pool of journals — seek and subsequently latch on to findings that they think will pique the public’s interest the most without peering through the glass of pragmatism. And as for the readership, it is important to not take such scientific reports at face value and always filter through the garbage of fads, and to remain wary of how the intended objective of any research can just as easily be misconstrued when science reporting fails.

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