Sensationalizing and distorting science: the media and “shared knowledge”

Researchers Shocked To Discover Hidden DNA Code”!  Anyone even casually interested in the ever expanding pool of shared scientific knowledge is likely perk up at such a headline.  It takes a lot more than casual interest, of course, to keep track of scientific discoveries:  dozens of credible websites (let alone scientific journals) are crammed with articles about yet more discoveries about the human genome—or about yet another exoplanet  or species of bizarre beetle. Barraged with far more information than we can grasp,  we want, understandably, the news that stands out–a “breaththrough” or, at the very least, “a ground breaking discovery.” And this, in mainstream media, is what we get.

Or do we? A recent episode of the podcast The Skeptics Guide to the Universe focuses on the way that any critical thinker has to be a careful in sifting through knowledge claims—even when those knowledge claims are made in reputable news sources and report the findings of even more reputable scientists.  (Minutes 14:06 – 21:42, Episode #440, Dec. 21, 2013.)

Looking at a particular news release on the function of genomes, neurologist and podcaster Dr. Stephen Novella points out with understandable vehemence that a genuinely interesting discovery is virtually submerged by mis-statement and over-statement. In the process of expressing his anger with this particular news release Dr. Novella identifies several useful reminders of ways we can all approach science stories in the media:

1. First, we should be particularly guarded when we see excitable word choices, paramount amongst them words like “scientists shocked”,  “baffled”, “mystified” or “flummoxed” or when we see any claim that a long-established theory has been  “overthrown” or even contradicted.

 2. Second, even when we realize that a news story is over-written or sensationalistic, we should try to look past the silliness to tease out what actually has been discovered—not just for our increased knowledge, but perhaps even more importantly for our appreciation of how scientific knowledge expands.  As Dr Novella says, “I really enjoy it when science news reporting…takes the approach of walking you through the sequence of discovery and the thought process of scientists:  this is what we thought, this is what we knew, this is what we didn’t know and this is how it fits into our evolving picture of scientific understanding….”  Of this particular news story he says it is “an exciting new piece—and that’s the story they should be telling”.  “Instead they concoct this ridiculous story about how little we knew before and how totally transformative this is.” In fact, this is “an incremental piece of information but it’s like a puzzle piece that’s fitting into a an existing puzzle.”  Worst, perhaps, a science report like this is a “missed opportunity to tell the story of science and how cool it is.” As he concludes, this press release demonstrates “everything wrong about how to report science.”

3. Third, we should be alert to the ways in which a news story can be used by ideologues to discredit either science in general or one field of science in particular.  A study that provides a refinement of understanding of such politically charged areas as climate science or evolution can be reported as proof of the weakness of science: “See!” exclaim such contrarians, “Here is yet more evidence that you can’t trust those scientists:  now they’re admitting they made mistakes. First they expected us to believe one thing; now they’ve overturned that and who knows how long before they change yet again.”  ( You might like to look back to an earlier post in this blog: “’Uncertainty’ in science: TOK and UN Climate Change Report, Sept 22)

So why do even reputable news sources sometimes sabotage science by the way they report well-founded knowledge? First, of course, it hardly needs to be stated what everyone knows:  sensationalism sells.  Other reasons for such misrepresentation are less obvious. Typically, science stories come to us through three stages, each of which can sensationalize and thus obscure the real news behind the story:

1. Scientists themselves can exaggerate the degree to which their discovery is a “breakthrough”, particularly if they are desperate to maintain uncertain funding.

2. An institution in which scientists work can issue a sensationalized press release, especially if they employ public relations professionals with the job of boosting the profile of the institution.

3. Third, news media can add another level of distortion not just to sensationalize it but also for other reasons.  They may wish to push a political agenda of their own—or with the best will in the world, they may simply get it wrong.   Sadly, apparently fewer and fewer news sources hire scientifically trained journalists to write their science columns.  Science reporting is ripe for misinformation—or disinformation.

And getting it right is important. Many (though not all) of the critical issues that face our globe can be solved only through understanding science and using it responsibly — food security, climate change, water security, and pandemics among them. It is no accident that the chapter “The Natural Sciences” in the IB TOK Course Companion concludes with this social and ethical question: “What responsibilities do societies have for understanding and influencing the sciences?”  Recognizing sensationalism in reports on science is one step toward understanding how this area of knowledge actually works and being better able to respond thoughtfully to its findings.


The press release: “Scientists Discover Double Meaning in Genetic Code”

A reported version:

The critique cited here:  The Skeptics Guide to the Universe Episode #440, Dec. 21, 2013, Minutes 14:06 – 21:42.

Another critique of the absurd hype given to the story:

Eileen Dombrowski, Lena Rotenberg, Mimi Bick.  Theory of Knowledge IB Course Companion.  Oxford University Press, 2013.


Image via National Institute of Standards and Technology, quoted from Genetic Literacy Project

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