If you’ve ever opened a newspaper or spent time on the internet then there is a good chance that you’ve seen headlines like these:
These types of sensationalist headlines are nothing new – articles like these have been around long before the phrase “fake news” entered into the public vocabulary. They are (particularly bad) examples of so-called ‘popular science’; journalism meant to bridge the gap between scientific literature and the general public.
The goal of the genre is a noble one, as it is undoubtedly important that the public are kept informed about developments in scientific research that may affect them personally or society as a whole. Pop science summarises research with language that is accessible to a general reader, and makes no assumption of prior knowledge of the topic or of the scientific process.
Pop science websites like I Fucking Love Science exist somewhere on the spectrum between slapdash news articles about how literally everything is causing cancer and the jargon-ridden complexity of a paper from a scientific journal. Being interested in science is no longer something to be ridiculed à la Ross from Friends, and IFLScience claims to be fostering this new wave of interest by sharing “the lighter side” of science.
Pop science websites like I Fucking Love Science exist somewhere on the spectrum between slapdash news articles about how literally everything is causing cancer and the jargon-ridden complexity of a paper from a scientific journal.
Generally, anything that inspires people to be curious about the world and to enjoy the pursuit of knowledge is a pretty great thing. And who knows, maybe some of the younger audience could ultimately turn that interest in science into a STEM career. But while platforms like IFLScience and traditional news media have certainly done an excellent job of presenting the exciting side of science, the problem is this: modern scientific research sometimes really isn’t all that interesting. And, more often than not, a comprehensive understanding of the topic in question is necessary in order to understand the implications of such research.
But good public relations are vital to ensure that research continues to be funded, and the researchers know this. This leads the scientific or academic bodies that release the research to ‘dress up’ their press releases to make the contents more appealing to a general audience. A catchy headline can erase all sins, whether it be a small sample size, the context of wider research, a need for replication studies, private interests, and anything else that may make the findings inconsequential or misleading.
If the scientific bodies don’t spice up their findings then the media outlets will do it for them. While this ultimately makes the work sound much more interesting and appealing for a general audience, the research is often being transformed to such an extent as to be an entirely false representation of the reality.
Let’s take the example of one of our earlier headlines, which claimed that “too much thinking can make you fat”. The study in question from the University of Laval suggested that mentally demanding work increases calorie intake, concluding that the rise in knowledge-based work rather than manual labour may be contributing to the current obesity epidemic. To prove this, the participants were given some sort of mentally taxing task and then taken to a buffet, where they ate 29.4% more calories than the control group.
Shocking, right? But what many of the articles written about this study fail to mention is that the sample size for this study was a measly 14 participants, all of whom were female students under 30 years old, and the energy expended during the mentally taxing work wasn’t quantified. Worse still, the participants were aware of what the study was about beforehand, which may have influenced how they responded.
It’s also worth highlighting the irony that Popular Science, having originally reported on this story, later made a list of “Nine overhyped and misleading health headlines debunked”, in which they pull apart this example themselves by looking at the original paper (and yes, their original article is still standing). They even conclude their hit piece by saying; “the idea that knowledge work puts us in the mood for an Oreo binge would explain a lot about the obesity epidemic, but it’s going to take better experiments and journalists who don’t publish vague findings as fact before we can blame our waistlines on thoughtful days at work”.
It is evident to anyone that this type of bastardisation of research can be dangerous, particularly when it comes to people’s lifestyle choices. And reporting questionable research that suggests that pregnant women would be safer giving birth at home or that drinking alcohol makes you live longer is nothing short of irresponsible.
So how did pop science end up losing its way? According to reports, IFLScience started out with wholly good intentions, and the original admins claim that the early days of the Facebook page focused entirely on hard science. As the years went by, however, the mini media empire has faced criticism for increasing prevalence of clickbait and misleading scientific articles.
In part, it’s difficult to blame pop science websites for going in this direction, given that it’s the catchy, attention-grabbing headlines that drive traffic (and therefore profit) to a website. But most clickbait, while irritating, is usually harmless. At most, it might trick you into reading some non-story that you ultimately regret clicking on. Misleading science headlines, however, can have real consequences.
Researchers are now increasingly concerned that science popularisation may lead to non-scientists overrating their own understanding of complex, technical subjects
In 2016 Michael Gove infamously announced that Britain was “sick of experts”, and he appears to have been – at least partially – right. Researchers are now increasingly concerned that science popularisation may lead to non-scientists underrating their dependence on scientific experts, and overrating their own understanding of complex, technical subjects. When science is simplified to be digestible to a general audience it may embolden people to reject scientists in favour of forming their own opinions on a topic, such as what has happened with climate change or vaccines. The rise in pseudoscience celebrities like David Wolfe also muddy the waters and confuse people as to who is an expert and who isn’t.
It would be nice if the onus of responsibility could be placed solely on the people delivering pop science to the public. But ultimately it is also down to individuals to ensure that they are not being taken for a ride, and there are steps that you can take to protect yourself from being deceived by cheap sensationalism.
If you have an interest in science then take the time to learn a little about the scientific process, and what makes a scientific study strong or weak. Fact check information before acting on advice, and see what others in the scientific or non-scientific community are saying about a topic or a piece of research. Try making the move to science journalism websites like ScienceDaily, which always links back to the original paper so its a simple task to check the source yourself.
This all isn’t to say that science is infallible, or that the experts are always right. But as comedian John Oliver recently said on the topic: “Science is by its nature imperfect, but it is hugely important. And it deserves better than to be twisted out of proportion and turned into morning show gossip.”