As someone who’s quite interested in science, I tend to notice when scientific papers and scientists are quoted in the media. News papers and magazines often use these papers or statements to support a story, or choose to spin the originals into a news-worthy story. It’s really nice to see that journalists are willing to talk to experts about their story, and maybe even want to make a scientific paper available as a light read. However, the use of science in media isn’t always unproblematic.
First of all, popular science articles usually refer to only one study, and quote one – or maybe two – scientists with enough experience to comment on the subject. That isn’t so bad on its own, as it would be quite hard to try representing all the arguments surrounding a scientific topic in an article meant for non-experts. The results from the studies are, however, often stated as absolutes by the time that the article leaves the journalist. This practice can be described as a kind of cherry-picking, where one viewpoint is used to support one story.
When going from inconclusive studies to absolutes is not enough, some writers might be tempted to spin the results in entirely new and exciting directions. Like this study on amino acids, which all over the world turned into the story about how dinosaurs might rule other planets. It’s not as if that was a small thing either; this was talked about in larger news papers, as well as in popular Internet media. Interestingly, they all seemed to have the same spin on the story. This points to another problem in science reporting, where one story might be traced back to one source. The subsequent levels of bad reporting are usually due to a lack of fact-checking from the journalists.
Even when it’s possible to tell that the quoted study is cherry-picked or completely blown out of proportions, it might be hard to verify. The study in question might only be acknowledged by a “… according to a study at University of X”, or even worse “… according to scientists from X”. Such studies might even turn out to be unpublished, which means that they haven’t yet been peer-reviewed or evaluated in any way. The points which are highlighted by the journalists will then be nothing but preliminary data, and there’s no guarantee that the data will turn out to give significant results. In other words, you run an extra risk by trusting an article that’s leaning on a badly referenced study.
So if someone tells you “I read about this study…”, it can be a good rule of thumb to be vary of whatever claims that follow. They’ve most likely read an inaccurate account. It’s equally as important to try to be skeptical yourself when reading the news or magazines. It can be very easy to get sucked in by a fantastical story, something too good to be true. More often than not, that just what it is.