Bad science journalism has been buzzing all around me this week. This is a frequent topic on the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast, and they have a doozy of an example this week. Here’s what actually happened: a Harvard researcher spoke to a German reporter about the exciting theoretical possibilities of genetic manipulation, which could perhaps become possible in the future. He mentioned that cloning could someday be used to bring back extinct species, perhaps even Neanderthals. Translation back and forth between English and German are partly to blame for what happened next, but so is reporters’ failure to give a crap if their science story is accurate. It seems many just want to generate clicks. Even the more reputable organizations seem interested in science coverage primarily so they can spin the content into an irresistible headline that brings in traffic. A headline such as,
Wanted: ‘Adventurous woman’ to give birth to Neanderthal man – Harvard professor seeks mother for cloned cave baby.
Slightly less dramatic, but more frequent is the Killer Disease of the Week. A friend posted a link to this dramatic story, commenting on how scare-tacticky it is: Doctors Warn of New Stomach ‘Superbug’ Hitting U.S. The story is ridiculous on several levels. First, the only person referring to this as a “superbug” is the reporter. That fact is awkwardly disguised by the use of the passive voice in the lead paragraph – “A new strain of norovirus that wreaks havoc on people’s stomachs is so vicious that it’s being called a “superbug” by doctors.” Passive voice allows reporters to weasel out of providing a source. If you see it, your eyebrow should immediately rise. The rest of the story attempts to sensationalize a perfectly run-of-the-mill CDC report about the most recent strain of norovirus, which tends to cycle new types every few years, much like the flu does each year. The story even represents the CDC as saying that 50% MORE people could get sick, when as far as I can tell, the CDC merely noted that the Sydney strain is responsible for 50% of the norovirus cases this season. Anything to get people terrified of the plague so they click all your links, I suppose.
Finally, there’s this idiocy from (not unexpectedly) Yahoo News. Want to have more sex? Men, stop helping with the chores. Did you guess that the headline confuses correlation with causation? Not only does the study sound fairly crappy, with outdated self-reporting as the source of the data, but the reporting overlooks the observational nature of the paper, and of course doesn’t engage in the slightest inquiry into an independent, unstudied variable being responsible for both observed features. (An explanation immediately leapt to my mind. Households that keep to traditional gender roles report more sexual encounters. In addition to assigning yard work to men and laundry to women, traditional gender roles also tend to encourage wives to capitulate to their husband’s wishes.)
It makes me angry and sad. I hate to hear Steven Novella of Skeptics’ Guide talk about giving interviews. He says often reporters have a set angle on the story, and will go so far as to feed him a quote that supports their spin. They aren’t interested in his actual opinion, never mind in investigating and vetting facts themselves. So beware science reporting. These days it’s most likely a come-on for mouse clicks akin to Dog sentenced to death in Tennessee today because he is ‘GAY’ or Stars without makeup: The real face of fame.
(By the way, I can see how many of you click on those links. But I won’t judge you, I promise. I personally think Rihanna is cuter without the lipstick.)
(Oh, and if you hate slideshows, use this to view that makeup link. Love Deslide!)