10 January 2011

Bad Science and/or Bad Science Writing

This humorous article posted by a friend on Facebook got me to thinking about science writing. Poor science reporting is a pet peeve of mine. Sometimes it's difficult to suss out which is really bad: the science writing or the science itself....or both. Many writers reporting on science lack a scientific background themselves*, which makes it challenging enough; add in a reporter's need to sensationalize, and you often get some really horrendous science writing.

This disturbing tendency is particularly damaging when it comes to health-related science. "Research Suggests Consuming X Leads to Cancer" for example. How often do we see headlines like that? I can never tell what to take seriously, because it's difficult to tell who is doing a bad job: writer or researcher....or both...or neither (if in fact the conclusions are sound)? But taking the information at face value, I can't know how seriously to take it. People who eat X get cancer at a rate 1.5x higher than others. OK, but is that cause and effect? Correlation? Coincidence? Is it environmental? Genetic? For example, maybe the problem is that people who eat X have a taste for X because they possess a gene that makes them crave it, and that gene has a dual role, one that leads to a higher tendency towards cancer. Or maybe people who eat X like the taste and the substance has a taste similar to something else that is in fact causing the cancer. Or maybe it is coincidence. (Don't start with the 'no coincidences' thing!) If you take enough data about enough things and draw enough conclusions, you will sooner or later run into coincidences like this. It's not just possible: it's quite probable. Anyway, the point is that the permutations and possibilities are practically endless: genetics, environment, both, neither, coincidence, epigenetics or just plain flight of fancy....or some unimaginable combination of all.

Occasionally there are more mundane reasons for bad science reporting. I recently read an interesting piece in Discover magazine about taste. The writer said that everything Americans think they know about the 'map of the tongue' is in fact based on a very bad translation of a German study. So forget that bit about sour being on the sides, sweet on the tip or whatever.

And sometimes it is a question of science writers bowing to and passing on received 'wisdom', information that is passed along so many times that we all - including science writers who should know better - just believe it. Take that utter and complete nonsense about needing eight cups (64 oz, roughly 2 liters) of water a day. This ridiculous 'fact' is based on a bad journalist's laziness. In the 1990s, a New York Times reporter mentioned it in a piece. He had gotten it from a study done two generations earlier. Problem is, he didn't bother to read more than the 'eight cups' part: the study's author went on to say that 30-40% of that amount is gotten from our food anyway. Now we have an entire bottled-water industry built on the premise that if your urine isn't 100% clear, you're dying of kidney failure within the hour.

Bottom line: next time you read a science headline, take it with a grain of salt...but no more than a grain, as otherwise you'll die of heart failure immediately, according to a recent study.


*Not that there's anything wrong with that, says the science buff who has a degree in languages and who barely passed high school biology thanks to a distinct squeamishness about frog dissection.

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