mass media: say it now, fact check it later

Driven by the need for clicks and eyeballs, media outlets are almost uniformly bad at reporting science stories without giving a platform to cranks and denialists.

broadcast media room

Ever since media agencies started slashing science departments and reduced science writing to a thankless task done either by opinionated pundits who want to whip up a controversy for ratings or to use a bully pulpit to steer public opinion, or whoever can do a quick write-up, there has been plenty of junk and exaggeration in a wide array of science stories. As a recent article on Ars Technica’s science blog Nobel Intent notes, some writers seem to have been going out of their way to get things wrong since the first weeks of the year, setting up a rather disconcerting pattern of disregard for accuracy in the name of hype. I suppose that’s what happens when ratings and entertainment become more important than fact and so nonsense and deliberate distortion of reality is being reported with a straight face and an authoritative tone to hundreds of millions of people.

As you can probably imagine, one of the biggest topics to be scientifically abused are articles concerning the climate change debacle. And we’re not just talking about Christopher Booker’s self-serving op-eds here, but major news organizations getting the story wrong to keep up the ideological back and forth, going as far as to invent conclusions from scientists and scientific organizations. Nobel Intent explains what happens after one blogger did a little fact checking into the story about the imminent start of another ice age in the Daily Mail and of course, Fox News, which rushes to entertain any story contrarian to global warming models…

A prominent climate blogger contacted both Latif and the [National Snow and Ice Data Center]; he quotes Latif as saying, “I don’t know what to do. They just make these things up.” Referring to the “facts” attributed to it by the article, the NSIDC’s director said, “This is completely false. The NSIDC has never made such a statement and we were never contacted by anyone from the Daily Mail.”

There’s also the ridiculous tale of Jenny McCarthy being brought on as an autism expert by ABC to critique a study on whether certain diets help in combating autism. They don’t. But nevertheless, McCarthy demanded that the medical establishment starts accepting anecdotal and very subjective evidence from parents whose method of dealing with their kids’ autism is to spend thousands of dollars on biomedical quackery as solid evidence that their ideas are really working.

It seems that ABC decided that the looks and fury of a former nude model are a sufficient counterbalance to medical degrees and controlled studies carried out by experts. Even inviting doctors who are passionate adherents of biomedical woo would’ve been a major step up from this. As long as ABC is at it, they should probably contact me about the latest discoveries in the field of chemistry. No, I’m not a chemist and have about as much of a grasp of the subject beyond the basics of the atomic theory of matter as Jenny McCarthy has of epidemiology and pediatric medicine, but I can be really passionate. Or do I have to show some skin before I fully qualify to be a TV “science expert”?

And of course we should mention space news while talking about science abuse in the media. According to a doomsday article in The Telegraph, our planet will be decimated by a supernova in progress called T Pyxidis since when it goes off, our atmosphere will be stripped away. Though if you were to ask an astrophysicist who knows the actual science behind the headline, like Dr. Ian O’Neill, you’d see that the rumors of our imminent demise have been greatly exaggerated.

True, it’s possible for our planet to suffer a blow from big gamma ray bursts of dying stars, but to generate the kind of fearsome GRB that should make us all run for cover, the stars which produce them would have to be both very massive and very close. Since our galaxy is dominated by red dwarfs and our own Sun is in the top 10% of the galaxy’s stellar population by mass, the odds of being fried by a rogue death ray of a star collapsing into the a black hole aren’t all that great. We should also note that for an actual GRB hit to take place, the dying star’s poles have to be pointed at Earth, which isn’t the case with some of the real candidates for a dangerous blast in the near future, and by near, we mean about 100,000 years.

Science abuse in the media is nothing new and lest you think only natural sciences are hit hard with the kind of distortion that makes experts pull their hair out, even computer science gets confused with sci-fi on a pretty regular basis, so much so that engineering academies are thinking about legal codices for AI. You know, a bit like the ones from the Animatrix episodes chronicling the downfall of humanity. The ones we don’t have yet because we lack requirements for them and because they’ll take many decades and billions of dollars to build even when we do. And when robots stop hauling in the page views, there’s always a psychological study to mangle for a quick and easy religious debate transparently manufactured for cheap hype…

# science // mass media / news reports / popular science


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