‘Sexy’ studies, the media, and scientific certainty

2009-07-07

in Geek stuff, Science, Writing

A post on RealClimate identifies some problematic aspects of science reporting, such as how the media preference for new and surprising information means that spectacular and unreproduced studies can get more attention than those that have been carefully examined and replicated:

The more mature and solid a field, the less controversy there is, and thus the fewer news stories. Ironically, this means the public is told the least about the most solid aspects of science.

The whole post is worth reading.

The consequences of this tendency are probably pretty serious. For one thing, it makes science seem less credible than it otherwise would. One day, scientists say red wine is good for you, the next day they seem to say something else. We would all be better off if the most authoritative studies, such as the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or the systemic reviews undertaken by the Cochrane Collaboration, were represented as such in the mainstream media, as well as if individual unconfirmed studies were described with an appropriate focus on methodology, and an awareness that those studies which are new, surprising, and contradict well-established hypotheses are often later shown to be incorrect or of limited application or importance.

I also like the rule of thumb the post attributed to Richard Feynman: “the last data point on any graph should be discounted because, if it had been easy to obtain, there would have been another one further along.”

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

oleh July 8, 2009 at 2:07 am

It seems that this can be a general observation of the media. The media reports on the sensational over the substantive. We will hear ad nauseum about a human dying from a bear attack and not about the millions who die from heart disease. Unfortunately the media apply the same test to science. (An exception might by sports where the mundane is covered in great detail such as the details of the Vancouver Canuck’s 53rd game in a 82 game season.)

. February 22, 2010 at 6:21 pm

“There is no such thing at this date of the world’s history in America as an independent press. You know it, and I know it. There is not one of you who dares to write his honest opinion, and if you did, you know beforehand it would never appear in print. I am paid weekly for keeping my honest opinion out of the paper. Others of you are paid similar salaries for similar things. and any of you who would be so foolish as to write honest opinions would be out on the streets looking for another job. If I allow my honest opinions to appear in one issue of my paper, before 24 hours, my occupation would be gone. The business of the journalist is to destroy the truth, to lie outright, to pervert, to vilify, to fawn at the feet of Mammon and to sell his country and his race for his daily bread. You know it, and I know it, and what folly is this toasting an independent press? We are the tools and the vassals of rich men behind the scenes. We are the jumping jacks. They pull the strings, and we dance. Our talents, our possibilities and our lives are all the property of other men. We are intellectual prostitutes.”

— John Swinden, 1953, then head of the New York Times, when asked to toast an independent press in a gathering at the National Press Club

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