There are many reasons why science reporting in the popular media, especially television, is crap. But one major problem, according to a writer in Vox, comes from the fact that “half of the studies you read about in the news are wrong”.
At least it’s a fact according to a new study. Which means there’s a 50-50 chance that this particular research is wrong?
Maybe. But let’s continue anyway.
Yet as researchers in PLOS One recently found, journalists typically only cover those initial papers — and skip over writing about the clarifying meta-reviews that come later on.
What’s more, the study finds, journalists “rarely inform the public when [initial studies] are disconfirmed” — despite the fact around half of the studies journalists write about are later rebutted by follow-up studies.
What’s more, journalists really, really like to report on studies that deliver positive results — even though studies that deliver negative results are equally valuable.
And although journalists gravitate toward covering single studies concerning lifestyle choices such as diet or exercise, these were actually the least likely to be confirmed by a meta-review (as opposed to non-lifestyle papers on topics like genetics).
What do the researchers suggest could be done to improve the quality of the science reporting most people are likely to consume? The article offers one suggestion:
Pick up the phone, and ask researchers whether it is an initial finding, and, if so, they should inform the public that this discovery is still tentative and must be validated by subsequent studies.
Which is likely too complicated for both the journalists, most of whom probably studied very little science in school, and their audience’s attention span.
So, I have another approach to the matter: How about if we teach the process of analyzing scientific reporting to our students in K12? Not just in “science” class but as part of critical reading, media studies, and social studies instruction.
We want students to graduate with a fundamental understanding of the concepts of science. But that understanding should include the necessary skills to intelligently evaluate and question the reporting done on science issues presented in the media they consume. At the very least, they need to learn this very basic fact: “in science, truth takes time”.
Maybe, if we educate a more scientifically literate population, they would demand better quality science reporting.
However, that will also take time.