Sensational Science in the Popular Press: Can Anyone Get it Right?

This month for “Sensational Science” I decided to resist my go-to sensational blogs and look around some popular press (OK, TV). How popular? I’m talking ABC, FOX, BBC, etc. It doesn’t get more popular than that. But before I get into some of the misleading headlines these giants dole out, I want to take a moment to reflect on the prominence of science news in the most popular of presses: the websites of these TV organizations. For lack of a better order, I’ll go alphabetical.

The ABC News page does not have the word “science” anywhere on it. Instead you must choose either “Tech” or “Health”.

The BBC however, has a link to their “Science” section in three places: very top, very bottom, and smack in the middle of the page. And their science section is quite good (pretend I used a British accept for “quite good”!)

CBS is just like ABC, although once you click on “Tech” they start talking about “Sci/Tech” which is better than nothing. I think.

CNN also has the “Health” or “Tech” options from their homepage, with no science. Although, in searching the homepage for any mention of the word “science” I came across the headline: “Science behind ‘teh intarwebs‘”. I literally couldn’t bring myself to read the article, so let me know if it is any good.

FOX has a “SciTech” link from their homepage, and that section has multiple sub-sections about different science and tech fields. In contrast, the “Tech” sections on the other broadcasters’ sites focus on technology, the internet, gadgets, etc. instead of the natural sciences.

Finally, NBC (in this case MSNBC) has a “Tech & Science” link at the top of their page and when you roll over it this crazy menu drops down and you can choose “Science” or other science and tech related sub-sections.

Of course, that’s not to say the quality there is great- two of the MSNBC top science stories were about mythical beasts: one about the Yeti and one about the kraken. And in their “Tech” beat CNN reports the BlackBerry outage has impacted almost every planet. If the other planets NEVER have BlackBerry can you really count it as an outage?

Is that really science? Or is that really what scientific news has boiled down to? Either lumping it in with “tech” or not giving it much coverage at all. Plus, as I’ll show below, even the coverage science gets is pretty weak.

 

Why it’s misleading: The headline and opening paragraph of this article imply eating fruits and veggies can “have an effect on genes linked to heart disease.” Really? What you EAT can alter your genetic material? The article goes on to state “that eating fruits and vegetables may actually change a gene variant, called 9p21, that is one of the strongest predictors for heart disease.” That seemed far out to me, and of course that’s not what the actual study suggests. Instead, the direct quote from the actual researcher notes: “We found that in people with this high-risk gene who consumed a diet rich in vegetables and fruits, their risk came down to that of people who don’t have that gene.” That makes more sense, what you eat isn’t going to change your genes. Whew!

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Why it’s misleading: The reporting isn’t too far off, but the author of the article interviews “a co-author of the study, which pointedly does not use the word “cloning” to describe the results.” In this way, the impression is given that they really did cloning, but are too nervous to bring up such a controversial topic. In reality, it is probably more likely that the researcher didn’t call it cloning, because it isn’t really cloning. They didn’t create an exact genetic copy- they knew they had extra chromosomes in their cell lines. They were abnormal. They were close to making a clone, and it might be easier to explain it that way to lay people but call it what it is, and don’t call it what it isn’t! If they’re able to use this technique without ending up with extra genetic material, then it would be a clone. How would you write that new story? “Scientists who cloned are able to actually clone?”

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Nick Fahrenkopf is a Ph.D. candidate studying nanobiosciences- applying physics and engineering concepts and techniques to biological and medical problems. Outside of his research he enjoys curling, and resists the urge to dig too far into the science behind it. Always skeptical, he enjoys debunking email chains and digging deeper into popular science articles and blog posts. Follow his most random thoughts on science on Twitter.

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Need to catch up with other recent Sensational Science headlines?

Potatoes Kill Cancer With Electrons from Fukushima? Suspicious Indeed.

How to Spot Sensational Headlines (Hint: They’re Everywhere)

Memory Expansion and the Purpose of Happiness

Why It’s a Great Time to Be in Science

The Death of Bin Laden and Space Medicine?

Army Origami to Space Infections

Scientists Make Computers with Gold and DNA

Researchers Link Processed Foods to Lower IQ in Kids

Science Proves Keeping a Diary Makes You Smarter

Facebook Stalking can Actually Kill You

Alcohol More Harmful than Heroin

Mexican Beer Dermatitis: Booze Plus Lime can Cause Nasty Rash

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