Friday, November 30, 2012

Science in Popular Media: The Internet, It Lies

Amy and Meaghan have recently come to the conclusion that all journalists are failed detectives. It's the same general job concept: both professions enjoy exposing crimes and scandals, wearing trench coats, and smoking pipes. However, when detectives get something wrong they lose their job, while when a journalist gets something wrong, they sometimes print a retraction. When a detective blows something out of proportion in order to generate some controversy, people think said detective is an idiot. When a journalist does the same thing, they get hired by Fox News as a sensationalist.

Exhibit A.

Recently Meaghan and Amy have been encountering the sour bouquet of incompetence that is science in the media on a more-regular-than-is-pleasant basis. From students asking when dinosaurs are going to be cloned, to their parents warning that the Yellowstone Supervolcano is about to erupt, the Vengeance Team are tired of explaining away the stupidity of their friends' and families' news sources. In order to avoid giving themselves ulcers or concussions from rage blackouts, Amy and Meaghan have compiled a short list of things to keep in mind when reading any non-peer-reviewed article on science.

1) What you're reading is coming through a filter.
Do not ever assume that the reporter knows what they're talking about. Reporters like all of us, are human... which means that a substantial proportion of them are intensely stupid. We're talking like full on, manatee squash levels of stupid: unable to interpret what is exactly in front of their faces because it may not meet their preconceived notions or doesn't match whatever will the article a green light of approval (see #2&#3). Sometimes, this stupidity is apparent if you're more cynical than the reporter; sometimes it's only clearly wrong if you're not.

Take the example of the second linked article, a scathing report on the discovery of a "Unicorn Lair" in North Korea. While hilarious, the article is written from the perspective of someone biased to consider North Koreans as hopelessly gullible peons searching to support their beliefs that Kim Jong-un is amazing and super awesome and rides mythical beasts. That level of filter and bias caused the author to stop at Exit Ridiculous and not explore much further; the next day the website posted a follow up after looking at some more of the details. The discovery of this cave, of which "Unicorn Lair" is a very loose translation, is actually more the equivalent of  finding out that a legend used a name of a real place, person, or occurrence. That doesn't lend the legend more credibility - it's just finding a bit more of the root story at the bottom of a game of historical Telephone.

Sadly, this was photoshopped. See #5 for details

2) The reporter is inevitably writing for people even stupider than they are.

Yes, just like all the employees at the DMV, reporters expect you to register somewhere between pretty damn to holy shit amounts of stupid.

So the knowledge that they put into their articles is not only filtered by their own stupidity, but is then boiled down so it would make sense to a mildly literate slime mold. Metaphors are a well-loved tool for explaining difficult concepts, but sometimes they get used because the reporter didn't really understand what the scientist was talking about. This happens in education as well; sometimes using a metaphor imparts a totally different message than you anticipated.

3) Being interesting sells better than being accurate. 
News articles must be sensational, unique and capable of attracting the population that also thinks Jersey Shore is classic prime time entertainment. That means that journalists tend to use words, ideas and general untruths to pull viewers into their venus fly trap of pretty pictures. This is most obvious when looking at headlines, which are simultaneously incredibly oversimplified and exceptionally over dramatic. Now, the Vengeance Team is no stranger to Drama and Dramatic Oversimplification (see any of our posts ever)... we just get all rageface when we see it's not obviously separated from science.

After all, which of the following titles would you be most inclined to click on?

4) "Expert" is a word without credentials. 
 One of the things that sells is controversy, even if that controversy is pretty much not accepted by the scientific community at large. The fact that popular media often capitalizes on controversy ends up with flawed or outright false information being listed with equal weight to genuinely researched information. They often do this by employing both Experts and "Experts" and pitting them against one another in a fight to the verbal death.

Expert is a very slippery term, one which is often self-ascribed. In the news, you don't have to have a degree or a work background to be an expert... you just have to have an ego and a mouth that spills out big words, particularly if those words are contradictory to common perception or common sense. Since journalists refuse to perform background checks on morons, you're going to have to do it yourself.

Recently, CNN invited a "pair of experts" to duke it out on TV over climate change. Their experts were Bill Nye the Science Guy, who holds 3 honorary PhDs and a Bachelors of Science in Mechanical Engineering, and Marc Morano, who has a B.A. in political science, has never published a scientific article, and is funded by organizations who receive huge amounts of money from gas and oil companies.

Just kidding! NEITHER OF THESE THINGS BELONG, because NEITHER OF THEM are Climate Experts. There are reasons why both of them were picked: Marc Morano is one of the few Climate Denialists, and he's wealthy and persuasive enough to avoid showing up covered in rotten tomato stains. Bill Nye is famous, super awesome, and coined the term "Science!" This makes them appealing for a 10 minute rambling debate, but it doesn't actually make them experts: they were chosen because they could draw people in, not because they were the best at what they were talking about.

5)  Those pictures aren't always related.
We know we're about to mess with your view of all that is good and true in the world, but it's time to pull the bandaid off and just tell you: sometimes Google isn't right. We know, we know - we gave you the red pill when you wanted to keep taking the blue, but it's time. To prove this to yourself, go ahead and pick an animal that you know a lot about. For example, sloths. Put that into google images search, and scroll down a few pages... are all of those sloths?

Now imagine you're a journalist suffering from the affliction mentioned in point #1, doing research on some sort of fossil animal you've never even heard of. You put your fossil name into google images and come up with some skeletons! That's how you get an article that's about dinosaurs that has a picture of a horse skeleton with glued on fangs. It's also how the two bits below were woven together, when having a elementary school student on staff would probably pick up the mistake:

"Fossil find: The discovery of the thigh bone of a Tyrannosaurus Rex in Montana, USA, revealed patterns only previously found in the bones of pregnant birds."

6) Consider your source.
A peer-reviewed article means that people who are theoretically just as intelligent and qualified as you are read your article, made you rewrite it a time or two, and then said it was good enough to publish. An article from a website or a newspaper typically goes through at least one editor's hands, who is unlikely to be any more familiar with the content than the journalist was, and who looks to make sure there aren't any half sentences. Blogs often aren't looked at by anybody: case in point, if they were, do you think there would be so many damn curse words in ours? (SORRY MAMA)

The process of editing and reviewing papers or articles is important. Scientific journals rely on their integrity to be published, so when they mess up and somehow, somehow-dear-lord-HOW, manage to publish press releases named "could “advanced” dinosaurs rule other planets," they are quickly humiliated into retracting them. This particular example also relates back to #3: the original article was mostly about how molecules on Prebiotic Earth shared similar structure, but the press release focused on and amplified the crazier bits. 

In Summary
Hulking out about science in the media is not good for the Vengeance Team. While Amy does seem to live on a refined fuel of Top Ramen and Pure Rage, Meaghan is trying desperately to coax her to swap in some vegetables. Meaghan herself is already at her limit of apoplectic fits because all the Olds in Eugene are much faster bicyclers than her, so she can't handle the additional strain on her tiny, china-doll heart. Please, for the sake of Meaghan and Amy's health, consider your sources, consider your authors, examine their motivations, and don't ever assume Google Images is telling you the truth.

If you are a journalist or journalism student reading this, and you are offended and have works of your own that defy these trends, please email us! We want to reward good journalists who do their jobs, understand the scientific process, and don't contribute to our burgeoning ulcer problems. We know you're out there... we're just not sure where.

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