Publicists and the news media share the blame, but responsibility for faulty reports on science falls mostly on researchers.
By Nirakar Poudel
I had to laugh a few months ago when I watched a rerun of John Oliver’s 2016 episode about scientific studies. In that episode, Oliver takes a dig at scientific studies that are twisted and blown out of proportion by the time they are presented to the public through popular media. He talks about an international conference where a group of researchers presented a paper on the roles of high- and low-flavanol chocolate consumed during pregnancy. They concluded that neither kind of chocolate had any effect on blood pressure or preeclampsia. The society hosting the conference misrepresented the study with a title that expressed the benefits of chocolate during pregnancy. That press release was further hyped up, and by the time it was broadcast on TV, the program was claiming that eating a portion of dark chocolate could benefit both the pregnant woman and the baby.
After reflecting on the show, I wondered who is to blame for the inaccurate reporting of scientific studies. Scientists and researchers are under immense pressure to publish their findings in this era of publish or perish. Publicity surrounding a scientific finding is often welcomed by both the researcher’s institution and the agency that funded it. In an article published by Nature in 2015, Terry Hébert, a Canadian pharmacologist, said, “It’s so hard to publish in science these days, that any press is good press, regardless of accuracy.” The university media that create the press releases are partially responsible for this. The British Medical Journal published a study that analyzed 462 press releases by top research institutions in 2011. It found that 36 percent of the press releases overhyped the likelihood that studies of cells and animals could apply to humans; 40 percent gave health advice that was inflated beyond the actual research findings; and 33 percent presented as causes and effects what the studies themselves reported as correlations.
The journalists who report on these press releases also have to shoulder some of the blame for what they write. Some reporters do not perform due diligence, while others lack a proper scientific background. Moreover, it seems that many science writers do not have a proper understanding of the difference between causation and correlation, leading to such exaggerations as the report on dark chocolate.
The final destination of this exaggerated news is the public. Part of me blames readers themselves for not being critical enough. My own training in engineering research has led me to approach many reports with caution. However, I realize that it is unreasonable for me to expect everyone to do the same. Training the public to approach science news as a scientist would is quite a mammoth task. It would require a huge investment of time and money and need to start in grade school. I believe, instead, that scientists and researchers have the greatest responsibility for accurately communicating their work to the public. I think the scientists should directly engage with the public and press whenever possible so that their work is not taken out of context. Some researchers feel that, if they don’t spice up their findings, they might not excite the public. Therefore, they either exaggerate the significance of their own work or stay quiet when others misrepresent it.
I believe that scientists, publicists, and reporters should work together to present research in a way that encourages the public to think critically. When reporting about a scientific study, journalists should provide context about the sources and also talk about the studies’ methodologies, in addition to accurately reporting conclusions drawn from the research. Journalists should also talk about the motivation behind the studies to give the public an understanding as to why that study is important. This approach to communicating scientific studies will also help lessen the frustration among researchers who feel their work was misrepresented and play an important role in engaging the public in a serious manner.
Finally, we must emphasize to the public that science is an arduous and time-consuming endeavor, and that although most researchers wish to change the world, not all of them will succeed. Science should not have to be glamorous tabloid fare to be appealing, nor should it be the butt of any jokes.
Nirakar Poudel recently graduated with a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of Southern California and is currently a product engineer in Beaverton, Ore. As he is no longer a student, this is his last Prism column.