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Why the media reports on science so poorly

Here is an interesting article from the Guardian Weekly that attempts to explain this.

... I've been collecting specimens, making careful observations, and now I'm ready to present my theory.... Science stories usually fall into three families: wacky stories, scare stories and "breakthrough" stories....

Wacky stories... never end. Infidelity is genetic, say scientists. Electricity allergy real, says researcher. I've been collecting "scientists have found the formula for" stories, carefully pinning them into glass specimen cases, in preparation for my debut paper on the subject. So far I have captured the formulae for: the perfect way to eat ice cream (AxTpxTm/FtxAt +VxLTxSpxW/Tt=3d20), the perfect TV sitcom (C=3d[(RxD)+V]xF/A+S), the perfect boiled egg, love, the perfect joke, the most depressing day of the year ([W+(D-d)]xTQ MxNA), and so many more....

A close relative of the wacky story is the paradoxical health story.... These stories serve one purpose: they promote the reassuring idea that sensible health advice is outmoded and moralising, and that research on it is paradoxical and unreliable.

At the other end of the spectrum, scare stories are a stalwart of media science. Based on minimal evidence and expanded with poor understanding of its significance, they help perform a crucial function for the media, which is selling the reader to their advertisers....

Once journalists get their teeth into what they think is a scare story, trivial increases in risk are presented, often out of context, but always using one single way of expressing risk, the "relative risk increase", that makes the danger appear disproportionately large.... [H]alf the papers got the figures wrong. This error, you can't help noticing, is always in the same direction.

And last, in our brief taxonomy, is the media obsession with "new breakthroughs": a more subtly destructive category of science story. It's quite understandable that newspapers should feel it's their job to write about new stuff. But in the aggregate these stories sell the idea that science, and indeed the whole empirical world view, is only about tenuous, new, hotly contested data....

But enough on what they choose to cover. What's wrong with the coverage itself? The central theme: there is no useful information in most science stories....

Why? Because papers think you won't understand the "science bit", all stories involving science must be dumbed down, leaving pieces without enough content to stimulate the only people who are actually going to read them - that is, the people who know a bit about science. Compare this with the book review section in any newspaper. The more obscure references to Russian novelists and French philosophers you can bang in, the better writer everyone thinks you are. Nobody dumbs down the finance pages....

[Via Dave Farber's IP list.]

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