I don’t know about you, but when I look at the world I’m constantly looking for things to “fix”. Either way there’s one problem, as a Dietitian and a supporter of scientific research, that really grinds me. The way science is spun.
Let’s start with a study.
Most of the well-done studies are published in major scientific journals which later flow into aggregators like PubMed and ScienceDirect. Not all mind you, but there’s still an impressive amount of content on these sites.
Let’s say there’s a study talking about a “breakthrough” in Cancer research.
Like any good scientists, the researchers who write these papers avoid any kind of definitive language. Instead, they might say;
“This method offers a promising alternative to lung-cancer therapy that may prove more effective than the standard treatment”
No empty promises, no exaggerations, always clear but low key.
So where’s the problem? Watch what happens next.
A promising study might get picked up by a well reputed news source like NewScientist.com
Though they mostly paraphrase the conclusion, it might sound more like;
New approach to lung-cancer treatment shows groundbreaking success.
It’s important to note these sites generally still cite the original study at the bottom.
Let’s take it one step further though.
When major media players like CNN and Fox News get involved, the original discovery apparently isn’t impressive or definitive enough to catch the viewers attention.
So it gets twisted like this;
Groundbreaking cancer treatment shows remarkable success in newly released study.
Ah there’s that familiar 6 O’Clock catch line. You know the one, where they tease you at the beginning of the show and give you a 20 second snapshot right before they read the send-off.
Our study has now become…
Sadly this is the way the vast majority of people hear the news, in diluted sensationalized snippets. No wonder it seems like science can never make up its mind about anything. Butter is good is followed by fats are bad, butter is bad, fat is bad but butter is good, olive oil butter is better than butter. So on and so forth while the rest of us just sit here wondering if we’ll get take out or cook from home tonight.
This kind of headline science is not only bad for fields like nutrition, but it’s terrible for those actually trying to eat better or use science to make lifestyle choices.
So what can you do?
1. Don’t trust anything that makes a claim about a study without actually citing it. This is the #1 red flag that they either didn’t actually look it up or that they’re trying to hide the actual conclusion from you.
2. Look for “red flag words”. These are usually definitive statements like “always” and “never”, but can also include sensational words such as “shocking” “remarkable” “groundbreaking”.
3. If it sounds too good to be true, it often is. Lose weight fast in 2 weeks with one simple trick. Ding Ding Ding! Red flags should be screaming in your ear so loud the hair stands up on your neck.
4. Never get all of your news from one source. News stations can be bought, reporters can be biased, commenters can be arm-chair nobodys, never trust one source alone.
These were tips drilled into my head during a Research Ethics class that I still offer to clients on a daily basis. So what do you say? Give it a try and next time you find a red-flag news report be sure and post it down below in the comments
Be good to each other.
– Joshua Iufer, RD