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Five "Science Reports" We're Tired Of Seeing

Here’s the problem with major news outlets covering science: they have to pick the stories that grab the attention of people essentially disinterested in science, and they often have non-scientists trying to explain to other non-scientists what that science actually means and its practical application.

And to be fair, they’ve got newspapers to sell to a dwindling audience. The problem is that, more often than not, that results in the same articles published over and over again.

Like for example:

#5) People You Don’t Agree With Have Something Wrong With Their Brain!

This has all sorts of variants: “the people you don’t agree with have lower IQs!” “The people you don’t agree with have smaller brain parts than you!” And on, and on, and on, ad infinitum, ad nauseam. Even supposedly respectable publications like New Scientist get in on the act.

It’s pretty simple: the newspaper gets to tell its readers that they’re smart, especially since they need all the readers they can get, and the reader gets to feel validated.

The entire problem, of course, is that these are rarely “studies” in any accepted sense, and when the studies are real, the research is often sensationalized or overgeneralized. For example, that New Scientist article we linked is actually a fairly reasonable piece about how our subconscious brain and how we react to stimuli may affect our political beliefs in some respects. Saying the subconscious has an effect on the conscious isn’t really controversial…but you can bet it was pushed as such on Facebook.

#4) People Just Looooooooove Traditional Gender Roles

We’ve expressed our near-bottomless contempt for “evolutionary psychology” before, but it never fails: some ass in some podunk university’s psychology department does a study and proves women secretly enjoy folding laundry, or men can’t commit because something something cavemen something something.

Usually these studies aren’t a reflection of how our brains work, but the hang-ups of the people conducting the study. The problem isn’t in the research, it’s in how the numbers are looked at, and the insane conclusions people jump to when looking at the data. The fact that somebody can insist ovulating makes women more racist and not be laughed right into the McDonald’s drive-through window job where he belongs tells you a lot more than the study itself.

#3) X Is Hurting Our Children!

We’ve talked about this before when it comes to video games, but it applies to pretty much anything else as well; if somebody is telling you something is bad for your kids, odds are pretty good they have an agenda. “Think of the children” is a time-tested go-to tactic for scare groups ranging from gay-haters to meat-haters.

Part of the problem, and we’ll get into this in more detail later, is the fact that journalists have to strive to be neutral on a topic. It really doesn’t matter if the person you’re talking to clearly has an agenda, if you’re told to report on them, you’ve got to report on them. You can find somebody sane who disagrees with them, and in fact that’s your job as a journalist if you’re writing a good piece, but you still have to treat them as if they’re not a raving loon. Hence, week in and week out, raving loons get to run their scare stories as if they’re actual science.

#2) Science Is Running Amok!

Man, where to start with this one?

The most recent example is probably the Large Hadron Collider. So many people believe that the Large Hadron Collider is going to destroy the world that Wikipedia has what amounts to a huge cup of STFU explaining it’s more likely Porky Pig will erupt from your fly and dance a lambada with the Flying Spaghetti Monster than it will the LHC will kill us all.

But the reality is, things like this scare the crap out of people who don’t understand them, and a lot of people don’t understand them. And if the editor tells you “Jenkins! Cover how people think the Large Hadron Collider will kill us all!”, then that’s what you have to give him. Even if you mention that the odds are remote, the headline will read “‘Large Hadron Collider Will Kill Us All’ Says Senator”.

#1) ‘Controversy’ Surrounds a Scientific Theory

Here’s a little secret: “controversy” is the editorial version of a weasel word.

Take climate change. If you look at the science behind it, climate change is pretty much indisputable. Skeptics who have actually gone back and done what scientists are supposed to do, namely review the research of their peers, tend to find that, oh yeah, their peers have done their job properly. There is no “controversy within the scientific community”, and everyone knows it.

Here’s the problem: “Scientists Generally Agree That Something Bad is Happening” doesn’t sell papers. Drama sells newspapers. But you can’t lie about the facts.

So you find somebody who gives you the facts you want. Scientists all agree on climate change? Find a non-scientist who disagrees with them and BAM! There’s controversy!

It doesn’t matter if, say, the guy saying evolution shouldn’t be taught in schools turns out to be a lunatic everybody hates, and his “concerned parents group” consists of his parents, who are concerned he’s off his meds. “Controversy” sells newspapers, so “controversy” it is.

In short, approach any newspaper article about science the way you’d approach something making extraordinary claims: with rubber gloves and skeptical eyes.

image via HowardLake on Flickr

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