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What can we do to defang bad science headlines?

Filed in Encyclopedia ,Gossip ,Ideas
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Decision Science News does not read news often. (We took Herbert Simon’s advice that checking the news every week or so is enough and are much happier since). However, each time we do we see headlines of the following sort:

Want to live longer? Get a grip! (On the correlation between longevity and hand grip strength).

If you want to live longer, then walk faster (On the correlation between longevity and walking speed).

If you’re reading Decision Science News, we don’t have to tell you that there’s not a scrap of evidence in the research cited in these articles that walking faster or giving firmer handshakes makes you live longer. See a target article to see it’s all correlational, not causal.

This is serious. First, it’s saying something that isn’t true. The news shouldn’t do that. They seem to get away with it by virtue of the fact that most people can’t conduct research themselves. (If they lied about testable relationships, e.g., “Want to avoid a ticket? Park on the sidewalk,” people would stop believing them rather quickly). Second, the effects are pervasive. We’ve seen PhDs in every field get suckered by a bogus headline.

(Speaking of headlines, DSN finds it hard to believe that anyone doing science journalism for more than a week wouldn’t fully grasp the correlation/causation distinction, if they didn’t have it already. Thus, we suspect there might be a strange relationship between people who write the stories and the people who write the headlines. We will check with our sister.)

It is handy that there is a Wikipedia article entitled Correlation does not imply causation, but how can people stand a chance against media machines that propagate new stories of this type every day?

A simple step is to prevent these stories from getting credibility with search engines by putting rel = “nofollow” in the URL when we ever have to link to such articles (as we have done above). But admittedly, that’s pretty weak.

Can we think of something better? This is 2011. We’re not at the mercy of a few media giants anymore. Online, people can exert a ot of collective power. What can be done about this? Maybe a browser plugin (like xmarks) that can overlay ratings on top of hyperlinks? A collective that keeps a kind of blacklist, perhaps punishing a publisher with less traffic each time they post such a headline?

What have you got?


  1. Phil Waymouth says:

    The issue’s more fundamental than bad journalism – it’s actually a problem with journalism itself, so far as it relates to popular reporting of science.

    I have a good friend who’s a government advisor on science policy who laments some popular science news because ‘standard’ reporting prides itself on attributing equal time to different viewpoints.

    This is borne out of a noble – and correct – stance that alternative viewpoints on lots of situations are equally valid. Problem is, this basically isn’t true when discussing certain aspects of science: you may have a situation where 999 scientists & their results conclude A, and 1 scientist & their result concludes B. It’s difficult for popular journalism to report the alternative conclusion withouth making B seem significantly more likely than it is…

    Cf. the MMR vaccine controversy, and the impact of ‘science by press conference’.

    January 21, 2011 @ 11:43 am

  2. Evan says:

    The problem seems to be more with the headlines than the body of the articles. One of the articles does not mix up correlation and causality at all, and the other only does so in the last sentence, possibly to make a joke.

    Often in journalism, the headlines are written by copy editors rather than the original authors article. So the problem seems to be more that copy editors are looking for catchy headlines. The bodies of the articles are pretty reasonable.

    January 21, 2011 @ 4:46 pm

  3. dan says:

    Evan – I also observe the difference between articles and the headlines. But the outlet needs to be accountable for the package and stop the bait and switch.

    January 21, 2011 @ 5:43 pm

  4. Evan says:

    Dan, you observed the difference between the headlines and the original research. My point was that the science journalists’ articles (as opposed to the original research articles) were mostly fine. The problem is with the headlines, which likely were not written by the science journalists. So I don’t think this is a good example of bad science journalism, as the articles themselves are mostly fine. There are much better examples of bad science journalism at http://www.badscience.net/ .

    January 21, 2011 @ 6:08 pm

  5. dan says:

    Hi Evan,

    In my entirely parenthetical paragraph, I’m referring to the distinction you have in mind (as opposed to that between headlines and original research). I agree there are better examples out there, but I’m mostly concerned about getting the headlines to stop propagating myths.

    January 21, 2011 @ 7:04 pm

  6. Evan says:

    Dan, okay, but ironically, your headline was a bit misleading too. The article did not quite deliver what your headline “bad science journalism” promised.

    January 21, 2011 @ 9:21 pm

  7. Tweets that mention How can we stop bad science journalism | Decision Science News -- Topsy.com says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Vitaliy Vandrovych, Dan Goldstein. Dan Goldstein said: What can we do to defang bad science journalism? http://goo.gl/fb/I8S5P […]

    January 22, 2011 @ 12:05 am

  8. ChristianKl says:

    Newspapers sell stories by overhyping them.
    The economics of a dying industry force them to do everything that pushes sales.
    I don’t think that there something we can do to prevent it.

    January 22, 2011 @ 10:37 am

  9. dan says:

    Hi Evan,

    Ok, in your honour I’ve changed the title from “journalism” to “headlines”. If we can stop the false headlines, it’s progress, and I think it can be done.

    The larger issues Phil talks about, those are tougher nuts to crack.

    January 22, 2011 @ 4:35 pm

  10. Evan says:


    January 22, 2011 @ 4:46 pm

  11. Pete says:

    A great article Dan, something that has bugged me for a while. Although if we are broadening to headlines which are simply misleading, this is not just found in science reporting but in all journalism. It is almost as if “headlines” are excluded from the rules that govern accuracy in journalism as long as the main text is fine.

    January 24, 2011 @ 6:56 am

  12. Mike says:

    This article has had me thinking for days. I like the science rating idea, with the caveat: How do you keep the rating system from being captured by ideologues? And with the understanding that no matter who we are and what our intention is as rational beings, we all subscribe to beliefs that are unfounded.
    Science itself lumbers along under misconceptions for a disturbingly long time before self-correcting, but of course, it’s the best system we have.
    With that in mind, I like the rating system as an idea for rewarding good science journalism and scolding bad. It works great in wikipedia. (For science – to see where wikipedia breaks down, check out any politically sensitive topic any how much fighting, bullying and censoring goes on on the discussion page).
    But a rating system will take a long time to take hold and for people to commit to.
    Perhaps a more effective strategy for the short term is mockery.
    Respond to “Want to live longer? Get a grip!”, with an article about causation vs. correlation.
    “OMG! Dead people losing their grip!”, or “Journalism loses grip on health metrics!”.
    Thanks for the article, and I’m glad that Brad sent me a link to your blog.
    One proposed correction: I think we are largely at the mercy of a few media giants, still. 6 or so giant corporations control a disturbingly large percentage of the US media market. See: http://www.freepress.net/ownership/chart/main

    January 24, 2011 @ 10:25 am

  13. Aimstar says:

    Thanks for the info. The data is very good. To begin a serious study.

    January 25, 2011 @ 1:48 am

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