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

This month for “Sensational Science” I wanted to dig into some of the nuances of what makes a claim “sensational” and how you can start to tell right off the bat. On the internet, we often look at the source. For example, an article from ACS Nano (where scientists converted dog poop into graphene) carries more weight than a chain email. The sensationalism comes from intermediaries. For example, a blog linking to the ACS Nano paper that says: “Alchemy is real! Poop converted to valuable nano material!” That’s where some of the digging and investigation needs to start happening. To illustrate this point here are three posts from the same intermediary source- a technology blog Gizmodo.

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Arguably all of them have sensational headlines at first glance. But the difference between them is the way they summarize the article they’re linking too. In the first, the author clearly lays out potential conflicts of interest. Yes, there was a paper where doctors declared hot dogs to be as bad as cigarettes. However, the group publishing the study has a very pro-vegan agenda. Not to completely discredit them- they are doctors, and hot dogs aren’t the most nutritious meal- but it buts their claims into context. The author of the blog post even point out that the amount of hot dogs you would need to eat to impact your health significantly is something like one a day. Here, you have the facts, and both sides of the issue and you can decide for yourself.

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Our second post talks about a study out of Europe where young people age 7-19 were split into groups with or without brain tumors, and then their use of cellphones was analyzed. The researchers didn’t find a link between cell phone use and brain tumors. However, only one line of the blog post is dedicated to the flip side of accepting this study. They note that the researchers made a point that this age group is better known for texting than talking on cell phones. Yes! That’s huge! The whole reason you would get a brain tumor from a cell phone is if it was being held next to your head! That should have been a bigger point of the post. The take away should not have been that cell phones are now safe. This study doesn’t show that at all. In addition, this doesn’t take long term use/exposure into account.

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This last one got some decent exposure (it came through my RSS feeds on multiple blogs). A cell biology professor from UC Berkeley argues that cancer isn’t cell mutations, but a different species that is a parasite feeding on the host human. The entire post of the article convincingly describes this professor’s theories. To a lay person or maybe even a science hobbyist it might seem interesting, accurate, and revolutionary. Not one reason NOT to believe this professor’s claim is outlined… until you get to the comments. Thankfully, astute readers do a double attack on this article explaining why the theory is a crockpot one, and why the professor is a less than reliable source. The professor is widely known (and discredited) for believing that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS. He argues, and selectively chooses data to point to his belief that recreational drug use is the cause.

 

So what we have here are three somewhat sensational claims that have been explored and debated in the blog posts to different degrees. It varies from no mention of opposing views in the third article, to a full disclosure in the first. The problem is you never know what you’re going to get when you read a blog post- even from the same website. It isn’t enough to “trust” a website to tell you everything they should. So it falls on the reader to dig into the peer reviewed literature, and consider the principal investigator’s reputation. And yes, unfortunately errors happen in the scientific press too, but by doing some basic digging you can protect yourself from sensational science on the internet and in the news.

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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?

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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