The Dangers of Science Journalism
Your health is on the line.
Scientific communication involves scientists communicating their findings to the public. It’s not always exciting and interesting, but it’s all factual. You’ll find these articles published in scientific journals.
Scientific journalism involves journalists seeking out an interesting story to highlight to the public. It often involves eye-catching headlines and might exaggerate things a little to gain reader’s attention. You’ll find these articles on news websites.
Scientific communication and scientific journalism are so different and it’s becoming dangerous.
Exaggerating stories a little isn’t always a problem, but it does become dangerous when we’re talking about our health. Say you come across an article, Want to lose weight and live longer? Eat chocolate. Oh, that sounds nice, let me read that. You read that a study at Harvard University found that those who ate a modest amount of chocolate lived almost a year longer than those who ate none. And this is because cocoa contains antioxidants, which are also found in red wine, and help protect against cancer.
Before indulging, I took a deeper dive into this article. I wanted to read the study that came to this conclusion because I just couldn’t believe it. When I looked though, the article had no link to the original publication. Maybe they forgot to include it?
I went to Google and typed in Harvard University study chocolate longer life” hoping it would pop up. No scientific journals came up with this information came up, but I did get several other news websites talking about the same study. One of these news articles must have cited the study…
I did find one news article that mentioned the study was published in the BMJ (British Medical Journal). I went there to look and finally was able to find the originally publication. After reading it, I was disappointed, something wasn’t adding up.
Before you run off to get your sugar fix, look at the amount of candy consumed. The participants that lived the longest only consumed candy 1–3 times a month. They proved that people who consumed candy lived longer than those who didn’t, but moderation was key to increasing lifespan in this study.
The news article from the New York Post mentioned that chocolate increased lifespan and most likely because of its antioxidant properties. However, the original study says candy may increase longevity, not chocolate specifically. There is even a comment at the end of the study, “We could not differentiate between consumption of sugar candy and chocolate in our study”. If this is the case, then we can’t conclude that chocolate increases lifespan through its antioxidant properties because candy doesn’t usually contain antioxidants.
Scientific studies typically include a control group (the ones who didn’t consume candy) and an experiment group (the ones who consumed candy) to determine a cause and effect relationship. It’s hard to determine a cause and effect relationship with human studies because there are so many other factors that can effect the results and it’s impossible to control for all of them. In this study, the group that did not consume candy drank more and were more likely to smoke than the experiment group. So did the experiment group live longer than the control group because they indulged in candy, or did the control group live shorter lives because they drank more alcohol and smoked more cigarettes?
While this might be a reputable study, the conclusions drawn from it are not. You cannot conclude that eating more chocolate causes weight loss and a longer life span from this publication.
Most people read the news without questioning the source, and this is when scientific journalism becomes dangerous. If you read “Want to lose weight and live longer? Eat chocolate,” without taking a look at the original source, you might have changed your diet to include a chocolate bar everyday to get extra antioxidants in and live even longer and lose more weight. This will probably do more harm to your health than good.
While an article like this can be dangerous to our health, there are many others out there that can be beneficial:
Articles like these help us understand the ingredients in the products we are using and help keep us up to date with public health issues so we can protect ourselves from disease. They keep us aware of issues that are impacting our health.
Science journalism is essential for our health, but it is important to check sources they refer to to make you are reading factual information. You don’t need to be a scientist to be able to debunk fake science news, you just need to be skeptical of what you read. Scientific literature can be scary to read, but it doesn’t need to be. Here is an article to help read scientific papers that news articles may cite:
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The Dangers of Science Journalism
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