How The Press Misinterprets Scientific Studies

from the dream-recording-machines dept

There’s an absolutely awesome comic by Jorge Cham of PhDComics (which you should read whether or not you’re a PhD student) about the science news cycle, in which a nuanced scientific result showing a slight correlation is turned into a causal relationship by the press, leading to a flat out frenzy of others in the press who don’t even bother to understand what the original research was about.

Click image to see full version
I’m reminded of this particular comic as the folks at On the Media point us to a story, told by Moran Cerf at The Moth (my favorite storytelling operation), about how, as a grad student, he got some research accepted for publication in Nature, the top of the top in terms of scientific journal prestige. His rather interesting research was about sticking electrodes in patients brains during brain surgery, having them think of certain things, and being able to have a projector project an image of what they were thinking. Cool, right? You can watch the video to see what happened once the press got hold of the story.

In case you can’t watch the video, the short version is that Cerf had put together a short video about the research, and at the very, very, very end, when talking to a colleague about how this kind of research might advance in the future, the research mentions something about studying and recording dreams. Now, nothing in the actual research is about studying or recording dreams, but… the BBC picked up on this part of the story, and then everyone picked up on this part of the story, and things only got worse from there. And no matter what Cerf did, everyone was just focused on these claims about dream recording — even to the point that director Chris Nolan asked him to come on tour in a discussion about the movie Inception.

You can see the original Nature story here, followed by the BBC piece that focuses on dreams, even though that’s not in the actual research. At least it admits that such things are far, far away. Others in the press weren’t so careful. There are plenty of other such reports, but my favorite may be Metro in the UK that claims we’re on the “brink” of recording people’s dreams, despite that not being even close to true. For what it’s worth, it appears some sources, such as Reuters did not parrot the dream recording angle, but plenty did.

It’s a pretty good reminder that, especially when it comes to scientific research, you really shouldn’t believe everything you read.

Oh, and as a random aside, while this story from Moran is entertaining, it does not come close in entertainment value to this other story that Cerf told at a different Moth event about his life as a bank robber. Seriously. No matter what you’re doing today, find ten minutes to watch this next video:

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Comments on “How The Press Misinterprets Scientific Studies”

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Yogi says:

MSM policy

“It’s a pretty good reminder that, especially when it comes to scientific research, you really shouldn’t believe everything you read.”

This my policy when reading MSM (which is rare, but sometimes necessary. I assume that what I am reading or watching is:
1 – completely false, or else
2 – some kind of political propaganda (lies mixed with some facts)or,
3 – some kind of commercial/public relations effort (wishful thinking coupled with some lies)or;
4 – a fluff piece or a provocative piece intended solely for getting attention.

In any case I assume that the item:
5 – has not been fact-checked by anybody (since the media believes that there is no difference between truth and lies, what’s the point of wasting time and money checking so-called “facts”?)

This policy has saved me a lot of time and energy, not to mention increased my mental health tenfold. I also save a lot of money by not buying newspapers.

This news-viewing policy is published under a CC license and may be used freely by the discerning public.

Anonymous Coward says:

It's not press, it's entertainment

The press doesn’t misinterpret scientific studies. The press, whether it’s traditional print, television, or online, is in the business of making money. That’s their only bottom line. Stories are spun in a way to maximize readers/viewers. It’s entertainment, not news. And just like traditional entertainment, they’re going to appeal to the lowest common denominator to attract the biggest audience.

If you want unvarnished science news, then you need to go to publications such as Nature, which as a rule, require a higher intelligence level to grasp.

Pete Austin says:

Here's the latest example

Reported everywhere: “Teen Pot Users Risk Long-Term IQ Drop, Study Says”

Typical mistaken, correlation==causation reporting.

Kudos to the BBC for adding the following sentence at the bottom, “She also cautioned that there may be another explanation, such as depression, which could result in lower IQ and cannabis use”, but I can’t find any other site that has realized the issue.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

It's not press, it's entertainment

True, the vast majority of “news” is actually entertainment and not to be taken seriously. However, that doesn’t mean that “the press doesn’t misinterpret scientific studies” at all.

The press routinely misinterprets scientific studies, precisely to make them more entertaining.

From my years working in a research lab, I can’t overstate how hated journalism was amongst the scientists. Even the best-intentioned reporters got the stories wrong in ways that totally distorted the meaning of the research. As a result of that experience, I simply do not believe news reports of scientific studies. They are wrong.

You can suss out the truth, though, form knowing that the majority of the time the stories are wrong in one (or both) of two ways: either by leaving out or underplaying important qualifiers such as “might,” “suggests,” etc., or by failing to put percentages into context. “x increases your chance of cancer by 300%!!” is scary, unless you know that your chance of the cancer actually raised from 0.000001% to 0.000003%

Dave Nelson (profile) says:

That's Show Biz, Folks!

Let’s face it. AC was exactly correct. ALL “news” organizations are in the entertainment business, period. Their sole criterion is how many readers/viewers they can garner from a given story (and thus how many advertising dollars they can collect). Fact, “the truth”, reality, have nothing to do with the issue. It’s really too bad. Like the buffet restaurants in Las Vegas, all “news” organizations now have to be profit centers or they are disbanded. It’s ruining both.

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