Science on the internet can be an incredibly mesmerizing and contradictory thing. Is coffee good or bad for you? Do opposites really attract? Should you stretch before running?
Depending on where you look on the web, there are different answers. Almost all of us these days are influenced, consciously or not, by science stories that are featured abundantly in the media, whether it be television or more often the internet.
But those reports are often contradictory, and the findings may be oversimplified and taken out of context.
The problem with ‘science journalism,’ if we can call it that, is a complex one. The media tends to favour brief, easy-to-digest content that quickly attracts people’s interest. This is necessary because we are all drowning in a sea of information. On social media, content is slimmed down even further until what remains are short, sharable headlines.
While we cannot expect those who cover science to have the same understanding as the researchers, it is sad that the constant pressure to churn out articles restricts journalists from having the time or headspace to comprehensively represent these studies.
An outcome of this leaves us with catchy headlines on our Facebook or twitter newsfeed that contradict one another. Science coverage is in itself a translation of a translation. They are a rehash of statements from university presses, who in turn translate scientific papers.
And once these stories gain online leverage, the online media machine takes over, replicating the content in ever shorter formats until they remain one-liners that contradict each other.
But the problem does not lie with science journalism alone.
The science world is heavily influenced by the current culture of ‘publish or perish.’ The reasons for all these contradictory findings are in part due to scientists being under constant pressure to publish, with tenure and funding on the line. And to get published, it helps to have results that seem new and striking.
Then there is also something known as ‘P-hacking’–a phenomenon where data can be manipulated (by expanding and narrowing it) until it supports a particular hypothesis.
Most people do not think about the extensive scientific studies that hide behind these media reports, but that shouldn’t be a problem. Responsible journalism brings important findings to the public so that they don’t have to.
Science deserves better than gossip headlines that sound catchy and draws in clicks or views.
It is important to understand (and I cannot stress this enough) that the notion that science can be casual reading is what lets people get away with denying climate change and believing that vaccines cause autism.
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