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Sensational Science Headlines: Read This or Die

Ever see a news article title and have to do a double take? For example: “Drunk scientists pour wine on superconductors and make an incredible discovery”. Sensational science headlines like that make me want to dig deeper and find out the truth. In this example the cited “source” is indeed a report on the effect that different forms of alcohol have on superconductivity, but there is no evidence that the scientists were drunk, or that their research was accidental in any way.

Below I’ve outlined a couple of other recent examples of how the headlines that the popular press shares with the public don’t always match up with what the scientific press actually reports. Or, as in most cases, how the report is twisted in such a way to make for a good “story”.

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The Gist: An 18-year old kid suffered asthma attacks when stalking his ex-girlfriend on Facebook.

The Scientific Report: Facebook: a new trigger for asthma?

The Twist: The article starts by stating that it is well known that psychological stress can trigger asthma. So is it really any surprise that seeing your ex-girlfriend is having fun on Facebook without you would stress you out and trigger asthma (assuming you’re predisposed to asthma?) As with an alarming number of scientific breakthroughs, there’s nothing surprising here. This story could have just as easily been “seeing your ex-girlfriend with another guy in the mall could kill you.” Such a sight would likely have the same stress response as the Facebook photos. And of course, the “kill you” part might be a tad dramatic.

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The Gist: Twenty different drugs, including alcohol, were ranked ending with alcohol being ranked as the worst overall- above heroin, meth, tobacco and more. The takeaway is that the way the government classifies drugs as legal or illegal is flawed.

The Scientific Report: Drug harms in the UK: a multicriteria decision analysis

The Twist: First, the author was previously employed by the UK government to do this kind of research. After getting “sacked” he formed his own “Independent Scientific Committee” to continue the research. So, there might be some axe grinding going on. Further, if you’re like me, you may have assumed that the rankings were based on data like crime rates, health issues, etc. to determine which drug is “worst.” Instead, the study and the rankings were based on the opinions of experts of the field.

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The Gist: Mixing beer and lime and getting on your skin can lead to an unsightly skin condition.

The Scientific Report: Mexican Beer Dermatitis: A Unique Variant of Lime Phytophotodermatitis Attributable to Contemporary Beer-Drinking Practices

The Twist: Mixing lime juice with beer does not make a nasty acid that messes with your skin. Instead, components of lime juice (phototoxic coumarin compounds) can, with the help of UV light, cause phytophotodermatitis to varying degrees. The scientific report actually only outlines two (that’s an n of 2!) cases. So, no need to completely give up Mexican beer and lime- just try not to spill it on yourself when you’re sitting in the sun.

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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. His most random thoughts on science can be found on his blog.

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Seen any other sensational science headlines recently?

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9 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. Craig D.

    wrote on February 9, 2011 at 9:43 am

    Yet more examples of poor and sensationalist reporting on scientific articles. They have to get their readership somehow, I guess sometimes at the cost of being totally accurate. Great article!

  2. b.cereus

    wrote on February 9, 2011 at 12:40 pm

    Love the examples! The beer dermatitis one really cracks me up though – the description of how the lime and beer is mixed along with the "finger-swipe" pattern of dermatitis on one of the cases is great. Now I will be careful to drink my mexican beer with lime while under an umbrella and wash my hands immediately after adding and mixing the lime.

  3. e.coli

    wrote on February 10, 2011 at 10:31 am

    And nothing says "scientific rigor" like an n of 2…

  4. Megan

    wrote on February 9, 2011 at 1:08 pm

    I’m a biomedical artist with a minor in graphic design. This article is right down my alley. My thesis is about getting the facts straight about stem cell research. Its gotten such a bad rap thanks to the media. I’m going to change that with a campaign to (re)educate the science curious. Participants will be able to communicate with researchers via social media sites like facebook, twitter and word press. They won’t be thumped with info…instead they’ll be able to learn first, through fun, anatomically correct information graphics. Then, they can opt to investigate at their own pace by visiting links to reputable sites on the blog. This is the only solution I can see…we can’t force the general public to learn only hope they aren’t gullible enough to believe this smut. The news is taking care of that themselves and overtime they’ll be ranked down there with the tabloids. Sorry so long. Very passionate! Look for the “stem cell gurus” this spring on facebook and wordpress!

  5. blotter

    wrote on February 15, 2011 at 1:05 pm

    lesson learned – never let pesky data get in the way of a good axe-grinding…

  6. phosphofan

    wrote on February 15, 2011 at 1:11 pm

    … and when stalking on Facebook, always have an inhaler within arms reach.

  7. William Penrose

    wrote on February 17, 2011 at 1:38 pm

    Shall we count the number of times cancer has been cured by the newspapers?

    Imagine how a terminal cancer patient feels when s/he reads that her tumor could have been cured in the early stages by judicious doses of pickled beets, or a diet of lynx liver?

  8. William Penrose

    wrote on February 17, 2011 at 1:45 pm

    Responsibility lies at a number of levels. After we wrote a proposal to use a modified silicon device to capture tuberculosis bacilli, the PR Department of our university wrote a press release announcing the development of this miraculous new gizmo for detecting TB germs. It was written as though we’d already developed and commercialized the sensor. We had not been given an opportunity to clear the press release before it went out. Weeks passed before the storm of calls from magazine writers, newspapers, hospitals and TB patients died down.

  9. Sensational Science: Army Origami to Space Infections

    wrote on April 20, 2011 at 8:19 am

    […] Facebook Stalking can Actually Kill You […]

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