Five Basic Scientific Realities All Journalists Need to Understand

Journalists get science wrong. A lot.

And that’s not their fault. We can’t expect a person who last studied physics in high school to explain string theory in perfect detail or a person who last studied biology by going on a bender to explain medical science. There’s also a pressure to summarize and simplify, to get the spirit of the truth rather than the full detail, so there’s always going to be a gap. I fall in it all the time myself.

True, we have science journalists but there aren’t a lot of them and many newspapers just stick some stringer on the beat.

So, to encourage more and more precise coverage from the Fourth Estate, here are a few basic facts about current science they need.

#5) A Scientific Theory Is Not a Guess

A scientific theory can basically be defined this way: the only theory whatsoever that fits the facts we have, but just can’t be demonstrated in a lab. Yet.

The classic example is evolution. Evolution is slowly being proven in a lab, but if a scientist is doing his job, he keeps an open mind. It’s not that there might not be some other explanation for the differentiation of life on Earth, it’s just that everything else is about as likely as, oh, Bugs Bunny erupting from your chest in a spray of gore to herald the invasion of a race of aliens that just so happen to look like copyrighted cartoon characters.

It could happen. But don’t bet on it.

#4) Anybody Telling You Any One Thing Can Cause or Prevent Cancer Is A Fraud and Should Be Treated Accordingly

Note I’m not talking about risk. Any competent physician will state that this thing or this other thing can increase your risk of cancer. That’s because of how cancer works.

Cancer is not a monolithic disease. It is hundreds of different diseases, with different causes, many of which we likely haven’t found yet and may be carefully and subtly intertwined with other factors. This is why some guy can pound Jack Daniels day and night for sixty years, suck down cigarettes like they provide life-giving oxygen, and die peacefully in his sleep while some health nut gets pancreatic cancer at forty and dies in the ugliest way medically possible.

But if you’re some jerk pushing a political agenda or a scam artist pushing a crappy product, cancer is great. If you get cancer, you didn’t eat or do enough of it. If you don’t get cancer, it worked.

It’s insidious and frankly god awful because it exploits people’s fears and gives sufferers false hope. Treat them as you would the Nigerian prince in your email: they are the same person with the same goals.

#3) If a Psychology Study Goes Against Your Common Sense, It’s Probably Crap.

This isn’t to denigrate psychology as a science, but it’s a profoundly tricky one. It’s hard to sort out actual psychological structures universally shared by all humans from biases inculcated by a society or unconsciously leaning towards conventional wisdom. Pretty much anything from evolutionary psychology falls prey to this problem, but psychologists in general can fall prey to this as well. The next time somebody tells you ovulation makes you racist or women secretly enjoy housework, know that they are full of crap. Which leads us to…

#2) Anybody Who Insists They Understand the Intricacies of the Brain Is Lying

We have no understanding of the brain. We’re working on it. We know more now than we ever did. But that’s not much. Take anybody insisting his MRI scans prove that we’re racists because of food coloring as a lunatic.

Or somebody under the pay of the anti-food dye council. Which leads us to our final and most salient point.

#1) Scientific Studies Are Often Paid For By Private Parties Looking For Specific Results

If you take away nothing else from this article, non-scientific journalists, take away this: most studies that cross your desk via press release are, at best, compromised.

Even academic studies really can’t be trusted. Scientists are under strict ethical standards in many respects, but anybody can hire a scientist and tell him exactly where his paycheck comes from.

And there are plenty of ways to essentially lie without fudging the data or committing scientific fraud. Here’s an example of a study I picked apart. I would never accuse these researchers of committing fraud: I’m sure that if I recreated their experiment, I would get at least some of the same results.

On the other hand, it’s also clear that somebody paid for a study expecting a result, and got what they paid for.

In short, be skeptical and don’t take anything at face value. No real scientist is going to complain if you do that, trust me.

image courtesy Kevin H. on Flickr