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Sensational Science: Truth Behind the Headlines
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Sensational Science: Truth Behind the Headlines

Ever see a news article title and have to do a double take?  Below I’ve outlined a couple of 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: By mixing together DNA, gold nanoparticles and virus capsids self-assembly takes place to make a lattice of these materials where the DNA links the capsids and the gold.

The Study: DNA-controlled assembly of a NaTl lattice structure from gold nanoparticles and protein nanoparticles

The Twist: No computers (next generation or otherwise) were made with this technique, nor was that the apparent focus of the research.

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The Gist: Food intake of children from 3-8.5 years old was monitored by questionnaires filled out by parents. Assessed IQ at age 8.5 showed children who took in processed foods had lower IQ.

The Study: Are dietary patterns in childhood associated with IQ at 8 years of age? A population-based cohort study

The Twist: First, there is no control for socio-economic factors. That is, rich people can afford more healthy food and also more activities to stimulate growth and intelligence. Further, the “link” only showed a 1 IQ point up or down for the different groups. Is there a link? Maybe. Is it a big one? Not really.

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The Gist: Researchers had made the first programmable nanoprocessor- a huge step forward!

The Study: Programmable nanowire circuits for nanoprocessors

The Twist: A commenter on the web post had a good point: “this article reads like it was written 15 or 20 years ago unless I am missing something…” Indeed, the processor in your iPod, cell phone and PC are all built on the nanoscale, and are (thankfully) programmable. What the post missed that really makes this study important is that these processors were built from the bottom up- “grown” if you will- instead of starting with bulk material and whittling away to make the transistors. The post focused so much on the programming (which isn’t really that big of a deal), rightfully avoided focusing on making the nanowire devices (done for a while now), but missed on the fact that so many of these devices could be made in a directed fashion on a small area so that they COULD be programmed.

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The Gist: Students in high stakes testing situations did better after writing about their anxiety (versus sitting still for 10 minutes.)

The Study: Writing About Testing Worries Boosts Exam Performance in the Classroom

The Twist: From the titles alone you can tell there is a difference. Diary writing (or what the study called “expressive writing”) doesn’t make you smarter, but it did show an increase in the performance of students on high stakes exams. Even if that’s what was meant by “makes you smarter” the study doesn’t prove, to me, that writing about the exam is the root cause. Their control group was students sitting quietly for 10 minutes, or writing about something else emotional to them (to control for writing about the test or not). I would think that conjuring up something completely unrelated that is emotional to the student would cause additional stress. (And sure enough, the group writing about something else did as poorly as the group sitting quietly.) What if the students were really able to take their mind off the pressure and play video games for 10 minutes?

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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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3 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. kritic

    wrote on March 11, 2011 at 8:41 am

    its scary how many of these "reporters" still have jobs. think of what would happen to us if we took this much liberty with analysis of our scientific results! glad to know at least someone's keeping them honest! keep it up!

  2. Sensational Science: Army Origami to Space Infections

    wrote on April 20, 2011 at 5:41 am

    […] Scientists Make Computers with Gold and DNA […]

  3. Sensational Science: Why It’s a Great Time to be in Science

    wrote on June 22, 2011 at 9:18 am

    […] origami that the Army enlisted is interested in, or the DNA used to make next-generation computers NaTI lattices that I’ve reported on in the past, these researchers have actually been able to compute square […]

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