alarming news and headlines are so common at the moment that even I have stopped reacting to them. One week coffee/wine/tomatoes/shoes (insert at will) will kill you instantaneously and the next week the same item/food is the miracle cure for cancer. The Guardian called this “infotainment” rather than proper science journalism. I agree.
The situation is an unfortunate concoction of click-bait headlines, bad science journalism and a generally low science literacy. We cannot directly change how journalists write, and click-bait headlines will probably continue to exist until the internet dies. We can however build our own bullshit-deflector to make us less susceptible to media bollocks. It sounds harder than it is, but I will give you a few points and if you follow them, you have come a long way!
Let’s build your bullshit-deflector. Here are the first three main building-blocks:
- Where is the article published? Is it The Sun or maybe The Guardian or is it a highly reputable peer-reviewed scientific journal like Science or Nature? I am not saying that everything written in The Guardian is better than The Sun, but the sensationalist headlines tend to be more modest in The Guardian… Sensationalist headlines with a too simple message is often a warning sign like: “TV & Computer Gaze is Giving Kids Cancer” (printed in Daily Express). Reality is never that simple.
Despite of the damage these headlines are causing, The Sun’s headlines can at times be very entertaining like “Germans Wurst at Penalties”. More headlines from The Sun here.
- Does the headline contain: sex, money and/or health? These are the unholy trinity of journalism. “Have better sex with this simple trick” “This is how your jacket is a death-trap” etc… Is the headline you are investigating containing this sort of writing? If it does, then beware.
- Does the headline contain bold and largely written statistics like:“Coffee causes a 50 % rise in cancer”. OK, but what cancer and how many cases were there? Firstly, cancer is not a single disease, but a group of illnesses that have one thing in common: uncontrolled cell division. Secondly, if the risk of developing a certain type of cancer is two in 10 million and if you drink coffee it is three in 10 million. That is a 50 % increase. However, the numbers are so small that there is a large chance that the increase is simply due to chance – a statistical error. It is simply hard to find all cases since they are rare. There are however many good studies out there with very clear results, but they drown in a flood of nonsensical journalism. To write “a 50 % increase” in something is a completely useless information if you do not know how many there were from the start. I am not saying that coffee causes cancer. This was only an example.
Those were the top three tips for evaluating your daily science news.If you have more time on your hands, this is what you should look for:
- What is the background of the author? – is the author a scientist or a bat-shit-crazy mum with a degree from University of Google?
- Can you find the original source easily? – if you can, it is less likely they have something to hide.
- Is the original source a highly respectable peer-reviewed journal? – A peer-reviewed journal is a journal where everything that has ever been published has been read and re-read by a whole happy (?) bunch of nerds. The nerds often work in different groups and it can be made a sport taking each other down. After years of sweat and tears, the nerds themselves have to pay to publish their own work that the publisher then makes money of. Publication is often celebrated with cheap sparkling wine for 15 min before you go back to work. This nit-picking makes these sources very reliable, but the message can sometimes be lost in the transition from original source to newspaper headline (see the first three points).
Over the past few years many so called peer-reviewed journals have popped up that are a complete scam. One famous example was the joke-article “Get Me off Your Fucking Mailing List” by computer scientists David Mazières and Eddie Kohler that was actually accepted for publication in a very low ranking predatory journal called International Journal of Advanced Computer Technology.The whole article just contained the text: “Get me off Your Fucking Mailing List”. It was a very funny incident, but also shows the dangers of these bad journals.
You can check the journal’s quality by looking at the so called impact factor of the journal. It is a number that gives an indication of how serious the journal is. It can be found on the home page of the journal and >1.5 should in my opinion be considered serious. The impact factor far from tells the whole story, but it is a good start.
Like Mark Twain said:
“There are only three types of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics“.
Dr. Anna of The Imaginarium