20. Science Reporting. How to tell the Good from the Lazy

Science reporting in the popular media represents an important method of widely publicizing interesting and intriguing results of scientific studies.  A good science reporter can distill what is unique about a study and deliver it with style and intelligence.  Those reporters make the arcane interesting.

Good science reporting is time-consuming and difficult.  Lazy science reporting, on the other hand, takes no time at all.  But, how can one tell the difference?  Not to worry, lazy science reporting has a number of red flags to alert you to its questionable quality.

Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

If the reporting of a study in the media looks suspiciously similar to all other news reports on the topic, then either everyone has read the research and arrived at the same conclusion (highly unlikely) or everyone is simply spitting out the same press release written by the authors of the research, or their institutions, or the journal in which the research was published (highly likely). Never confuse sheer quantity and similarity as a mark of the accuracy or quality.

It’s Hard to Predict the Future

Some of the most important scientific findings have been published in obscure sources and may lay undiscovered for many years. Do not confuse attention with importance. We rarely know immediately what piece of work may prove to be critical or lead to important research in the future.

Two out of Three Doctors Disagree

If you see any statement such as: “It is widely agreed upon” or “As everyone knows” or “No one questions the fact that” then you know for certain that whoever is writing the article has never been within a mile of any scientist. The only thing we know for certain is that scientists agree on nothing. And even on that, they disagree.

Science-y Versus Science

Just because science-y terms are being used, that doesn’t mean it is science. Science-y terms go through fads and tend to rely heavily on metaphors. For many years, computer and quantum physics metaphors were in high fashion.  The current science-y terms seem to revolve around the neurosciences. Hello, neuroplasticity! Enjoy your time in the sun!

Replication, Replication, Replication

The reality is that science is kind of boring. Once you get an important and fascinating result, you must replicate it. That is, you must repeat the experiment and, if you get the same result, then you may be on to something. If you cannot replicate a study’s result then, no matter how fascinating the original result may have been, it was probably a fluke and not of any value.

Despite the importance of replication, it is difficult to get a replicated experiment published. It is even harder to have it reported in the media. Science reporting in the media tends to move quickly from one shiny object to the next shiny object. Rarely, do science reporters back-track to correct or modify their original story.

One Source Bad, Two Source Good

And, finally, never rely exclusively on one source and never fully trust a secondary source.  And that includes this blog.

Mr Science John Candy