Published on June 16th, 2011 | by Aberdeen University Science Magazine5
How the media gets science right, all the time.
Or, Twisting the Truth, by Gina Maffey
If you were hoping to read a blogpost glorifying the media’s relationship with science then I’m afraid you will be sadly disappointed. I wanted something juicy, tasty and intriguing to pull you in, regardless of how it reflected on the rest of the piece. This is exactly what the following examples of newspaper headlines have also done, and as you will see, their headlines too sometimes had only a tedious link to the research they reported. This is not intended to be a damning report on the media, there are many examples of good reporting out there. However, the impact that one sensationalist headline can have on the perception of the research in question is huge, and something we should all be critical of.
HEADLINE: Teenage brain lacks empathy (MSNBC)
MISINTERPRETATION: This study looked at how people anticipated their intentions, it was not directly looking at empathy. Interestingly, the study actually found more activity in the area of the brain responsible for empathy in adolescents, this was explored in subsequent research.
HEADLINE: Twitter can make you immoral, claim scientists (Daily Mail)
RESEARCH TITLE: Neural correlates of admiration and compassion
MISINTERPRETATION: This study found a difference between the brain blood flow when subjects experienced social pain or physical pain. It does not mention Twitter. It does not mention Facebook. It does not mention social networking websites (Ben Goldacre). The connection to twitter and other social networks, as far as I can see, makes no sense (Daimasio – author).
HEADLINE: Sex diseases soaring due to Facebook romps (The Sun)
PRESS RELEASE: Warning as syphilis cases increase (NHS Middlesborough)
MISINTERPRETATION: This causation link was made entirely by the paper and not the study. A comment in the original press release on how social networking sites are making it easier for people to meet up for casual sex, was reinterpreted in a much more sinister way as Dr Petra Boynton explains.
MISINTERPRETATION: This study looked at the exposure of different social classes to contaminants, linked to bladder cancer, found in water. Although higher social classes drank more bottled water they were still exposing themselves to the same levels of contaminants through frequent use of swimming pools. Bladder cancer was not the focus of this study.
HEADLINE: Darwin may have been wrong, new study argues (Huffington Post – AOL News)
MISINTERPRETATION: As Steven Newton explains, the study did not actually give any indication that Darwin was wrong. Instead it looked at how animals could have diversified by expanding into empty ecological roles, rather than by direct competition with each other. However the study considered large eco-spaces, not the small scale competition that Darwin referenced.
HEADLINE: Do aliens live in this lake? (Daily Mail online – need to register to see article)
RESEARCH TITLE: A bacterium that can grow by using Arsenic instead of Phosphorus
MISINTERPRETATION: Scientists discovered a bacterium that was able to take on arsenic. This finding has ramifications for how we consider the search for extraterrestrial life, it does not mean that we have aliens on earth.
RESEARCH TITLE: Flexible electronics: Within touch of artificial skin
MISINTERPRETATION: This was a report on the development of the use of nanowires to create ‘skin’ for prosthetic limbs. The Daily Mail gave it the more sinister twist of giving robots the ability to feel as Peter Hitchens explains.
HEADLINE: Much of recent global warming actually caused by Sun (The Register)
MISINTERPRETATION: Martin Robbins shows that despite most reporters grasping that this study actually showed that the sun’s role in global warming may be slightly misrepresented (Sun’s role in warming the planet may be overestimated, study finds – The Guardian), The Register decided to take a slightly different angle.
HEADLINE: The mini ice age starts here (Daily Mail)
MISINTERPRETATION: The research said that natural fluctuations in ocean temperature could have a bigger impact on global temperature than expected. It did not however claim that there was to be a shift from global warming to global cooling as was widely misreported at the time. Latif talks about the misinterpretation of his research.
MISINTERPRETATION: This study found evidence of water vapour and ice particles emitted from Saturn’s moon Enceladus, these suggested the presence of a subsurface ocean. There was however no reported evidence of fish.
Know of any other interesting headlines? Come across some questionable reporting? Please do keep us informed!