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:


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  •  
    identicon
    Yogi, Aug 28th, 2012 @ 1:19am

    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.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
     
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 28th, 2012 @ 1:40am

    Finally a solid explanation of why Techdirt's treatments of third hand stories always seem to come out positive for piracy and against copyright, patents, and trademarks.

    Wowser.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      icon
      Chargone (profile), Aug 28th, 2012 @ 2:48am

      Re:

      *blinks*
      ...
      ...
      ...
      conclusion is erroneous and obviously shill-like, but this one's actually Logical in how it gets there, and shows basic reading comprehension.

      do we have some sort of prize for that? 'cause we totally should.

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, Aug 28th, 2012 @ 4:31am

      Re:

      If you're going to complain about techdirt being baised then you should also be complaining that the MPAA/RIAA/BSA only ever publish statements in favor of stricter copyright and agiast piracy.

      I won't hold my breath

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      identicon
      abc gum, Aug 28th, 2012 @ 5:05am

      Re:

      1) critique the writings of others in blog
      2) get accused of being biased
      3) provide additional facts in support of conclusions
      4) get accused of being a shill
      5) ?????
      6) profit !!!

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 28th, 2012 @ 5:59am

    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.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, Aug 28th, 2012 @ 6:13am

      Re: It's not press, it's entertainment

      It's not news it's fark.

      Or foobies(not safe for wok)

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, Aug 28th, 2012 @ 7:10am

      Re: It's not press, it's entertainment

      How would you know?

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      icon
      John Fenderson (profile), Aug 28th, 2012 @ 10:08am

      Re: 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%

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Pete Austin, Aug 28th, 2012 @ 6:56am

    Here's the latest example

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

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/27/teen-pot-use-iq_n_1834392.html
    http://content.usatoday .com/communities/ondeadline/post/2012/08/study-pot-use-before-age-18-harms-iq-attention-memory/1
    ht tp://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-19372456

    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.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Dave Nelson, Aug 28th, 2012 @ 11:43am

    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.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here
Get Techdirt’s Daily Email
Save me a cookie
  • Note: A CRLF will be replaced by a break tag (<br>), all other allowable HTML will remain intact
  • Allowed HTML Tags: <b> <i> <a> <em> <br> <strong> <blockquote> <hr> <tt>
Follow Techdirt
A word from our sponsors...
Essential Reading
Techdirt Reading List
Techdirt Insider Chat
A word from our sponsors...
Recent Stories
A word from our sponsors...

Close

Email This