When you see how science is reported in the media, it is no wonder that the public often doesn’t trust or understand it or why it delivers itself into the hands of quackery.
“Researchers Discovered That…”
Every other day when you open a newspaper, watch television or visit a news site, you come across headlines stating “scientists discovered that” or “recent research shows that” or some such. Usually followed by something rather sensational.
It leaves a befuddled public in its wake. The more gullible fall prey to someone cashing in on the supposed miracle. The more cynical wait for the contradiction to be posted a couple of weeks later or for the first group to try the new wonder remedy and get zero results.
No matter what, the conclusion it has people all too often arrive at is that science can’t be trusted at all, because it always contradicts itself or its promises don’t come true. Science, as a whole, they then give as much credibility as the village witch doctor.
Yet it’s not science that’s the problem, but the journalists trying to report it.
The Story Of A Press Release
Let’s have a look at a fresh, practical example from a couple of weeks ago, when a research paper supposedly found exercise didn’t help against depression.
Eh, what? Wasn’t the exact opposite pretty much set in stone? But hold on, in a press release the authors of the paper wrote the following:
Current clinical guidance recommends physical activity to alleviate the symptoms of depression. However, new research published today [6 June] in the BMJ, suggests that adding a physical activity intervention to usual care did not reduce symptoms of depression more than usual care alone, even though it increased levels of physical activity.
Doesn’t that sound dire? However, in the release we find a link to the actual paper, where we read the following:
In addition to usual care, intervention participants were offered up to three face to face sessions and 10 telephone calls with a trained physical activity facilitator over eight months. The intervention was based on theory and aimed to provide individually tailored support and encouragement to engage in physical activity.
In other words: they found that people who suffer from depression mostly won’t get into exercising if someone encourages them, but leaves them to their own devices about how to do it. It’s all in that word “facilitate,” which is the intellectual way of saying “we told them it might be a good idea to do it.” In studies where people were actively guided, things looked a lot different.
The Media Reports
The beginning of the press release shows us that those scientists should never try to send out press releases, because they’ll botch the job of communicating what they found. If I was in a more dire mood, I could reason that they deliberately made their press release this sensational, to make sure it got coverage.
But whatever the case, a proper journalist should be able to not trust a press release and look at the actual paper, especially when the link to it is right there at the bottom. Yet what do they make of it? On the day the press release goes public, the BBC picks it up first, writing:
Combining exercise with conventional treatments for depression does not improve recovery, research suggests.
This is replicated in various other news source and at the end of that day we have come far enough for a Guardian journalist to not only misunderstand the study’s findings, but condemn science as a whole:
The problem with arguing with science is that it is often an uneven contest, a bit like hitting a steamroller with a stick of rhubarb. You have emotion, anecdotal evidence, a sixth sense; they have hard facts. And the facts here are seemingly indisputable: a new study, conducted by proper university academics, sufficiently large-scale, randomised and controlled, has confounded the experience of countless depression sufferers. The conclusion: all that exercise, the running, cycling, swimming, walking that you did to help you through the dark days of an illness that no one really understands was basically of no benefit to your state of mind. In short, exercise doesn’t help.
And on and on from there, until worldwide one news source regurgitates what another wrote. The end result are people stating the following on online forums:
I force myself to do 3 exercise sessions a day, in part because I’m told it will help with my clinical depression… all the places I looked suggest its good for depression….
Now it seems its makes not a jot of difference ….
Yet less than a month ago they were praising walking as a cure for mild depression…
Thank heavens for experts……
Where Are The Science Journalists?
Once upon a time, newspapers had real science journalists – people who not only knew how to properly write a story, but who could also disseminate a scientific paper.
But these days that kind of journalism isn’t that much valued anymore. Today we mostly have hacks who either don’t have time to research their articles or just look for a cool headline and try to get the best angle they can out of it.
These oversimplified, sometimes even false stories give leverage to dubious personalities cashing in on them. In the craze about raspberry ketones, for example, my hunch is that it may have been an almost direct result of bad reporting.
Never before has mankind had this many possible sources of information at its disposal as today, but, strangely enough, we might also never have been as misinformed.
I’m not sure whom to condemn about this. The readers, who aren’t willing anymore to pay for quality journalism, or the publishers, who want to squeeze the most profit out of their publications? Maybe both.