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 Not only does the study sound fairly crappy, with outdated self-reporting as the source of the data, but the reporting overlooks the observational nature of the paper, and of course doesn’t engage in the slightest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!)
Would you be surprised to learn that Time Magazine published an article criticizing bed sharing and staying with a baby or toddler until he’s asleep? Me neither. Would you be surprised that the “science reporting” involved was pathetic? Me neither. How about the fact that the story is framed in an inflammatory, accusing manner? Not a shock, huh?
This was back in 2008. Time put out an online article with the headline How not to Get Baby to Sleep. The article reports on two different areas of study, but discusses them in tandem to make its point: If you’re present when your baby falls asleep, or bring them into your bed, you will cause significant sleep problems. This in turn is “associated with an increased risk of being overweight and having emotional and behavioral difficulties in adolescence and adulthood.”
The referenced study discusses parents being present when the child falls asleep, taking the child into the parental bed, and giving food and drink upon night waking, and describes these actions as “maladaptive parental behaviors” . (I don’t know if the study authors are just presumptuous, judgmental jerks about cosleeping, or if “maladaptive parental behavior” is an actual, defined term of art in this field. Regardless, I felt like I needed a barf bag nearby for use every time I read it.) Of course, the first two “maladaptive” behaviors are common practices of attachment parenting. According to Time, these behaviors “led to disrupted sleep — bad dreams, short sleep time and delays in falling asleep — in children of preschool age.”
The clear message of the Time article is, “If you cosleep, you’re causing your child’s sleep problems and probably dooming them to a fat, stupid, anti-social adulthood.”
The problem is, the cited study actually comes to almost the opposite conclusion:
Findings support the hypothesis that maladaptive parental behaviors develop in reaction to preexisting sleep difficulties. Further, early sleep difficulties are more predictive than parental behaviors in explaining [bad dreams] and foreshortened [total sleep time] beginning at age 50 months. Results are interpreted in light of early emotive/physiological self-regulation problems. . . .
When controlling for early sleep factors, most parental behaviors no longer predict future sleep disturbances ([bad dreams], [total sleep time]) or remain predictors only in interaction with prior [sleep onset] difficulties.
The study found that it first appeared that cosleeping and staying while a child falls asleep might be causing sleep disturbances, but when they controlled for early sleep difficulties, it showed that parent behaviors had almost no effect on sleep problems. The one effect that remained was that taking a child into the parental bed upon night waking was associated with a sleep onset time of more than 15 minutes. So if you’re really concerned that it might take your toddler 16 minutes to fall asleep instead of 14 minutes, you might want to worry about that.
(And actually, given that the study relied on questionnaires filled out by parents, how reliable is this? How do parents who aren’t present at sleep onset determining the time until sleep onset? I think the results would be better summarized as “When parents are absent at sleep onset, they assume their kid fell asleep faster.” Who would have thought that it seems shorter when you’re downstairs watching Game of Thrones than when you’re in the dark, singing “Toora Loora Looral” for the twelfth time in a row!)
But it’s not good marketing to write an article that says some kids are born worse sleepers, and that parents wind up lulling them to sleep or cosleeping more often, but that there’s nothing you can really do about it. People want to have directions on how to fix infant and toddler sleep problems, and the ammunition to judge those smug, freaky AP parents who don’t let their babies cry themselves to sleep. Subtle, equivocal results just aren’t sexy.
And this speaks to the larger issue of the diminishing quality of science reporting. In a recent episode of The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, Steven Novella pointed out that every major news article got the “Did dinosaur flatulence warm the Earth?” study totally backwards, no doubt because it’s a more charming, clickable headline if dinosaurs farted themselves to death, regardless of what the science actually says. He also mentions being interviewed and having reporters feed him quotes. They didn’t care what their expert source actually thought or what the evidence showed – they just wanted a ventriloquist’s dummy with some letters after his name to mouth their preconceived angle on the story.
Luckily, Emily at Double X Science has a good checklist to run down when you see a showy “science” headline: The Double X Double-Take Checklist for Reading Science News is a great list of suggestions that will help you avoid being taken in when science journalism goes to the dark side.
I suggest you keep that checklist (and possibly that barf bag) handy whenever Time addresses attachment parenting.