Search Results for "sensationalism"

Jan 25 2016

The Challenges of Science Communication

Published by under Skepticism

Brian Resnick has written an interesting article on Vox in which he relates 11 common journalistic errors in reporting social science news, according to 20 social scientists that he spoke to. The points are good ones, and most of them apply to communicating all science, not just the social sciences.

The core of the issue is the essential tension between science and journalism. Science proceeds slowly and cautiously, is very conservative in its claims, and is skeptical toward any new finding (or at least it should be).

Journalists, however, want an exciting new and simple story. In fact bad science journalism is much closer to self-help gurus than to actual science – “do X and you will be happy.” I know that journalists often do not write their own headlines, and that there is a circle in skeptical hell dedicated to headline writers where they are tormented by the twin demons, Hype and Sensationalism.

To be fair, I also understand that we live in the real world where ratings and clicks matter to the bottom line. This has been made very clear to me since I have been running my own science Facebook page (The Skeptics’ Guide page). This gave me the experience of posting 6-8 science and skeptical news items per day, adjusting variables, and seeing directly how much reach each post gets.

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4 responses so far

Oct 30 2015


Journalists frustrate me. Whenever they cover a topic about which I have a fair degree of knowledge, or even expertise, they seem to do a generally poor job. There are excellent journalists out there, but the average mediocre journalist tends to fall for the fallacy of false balance, indulge in hype and sensationalism, overly rely on individual experts who may have quirky opinions, and often fail to put topics into a proper context.

These failings are exacerbated whenever the topic at issue requires critical thinking and a high degree of skepticism.

Even generally high quality news outlets, like NPR, tend to fail when they deal with topics which require both expertise and skepticism, such as alternative medicine. A recent episode of Marketplace with Colin McEnroe is an excellent example of how a generally reasonable journalist can completely fail when dealing with such topics.

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32 responses so far

May 14 2015

Why Is the Public So Wrong?

I had hoped that the advent of the internet would have a positive effect on public access to information, and perhaps it has. The problem is that it also facilitates access to misinformation. I also wonder to what extent people are availing themselves of this easy access to information (or are they just watching cat videos?).

I now frequently have the experience of being in a discussion with someone and arriving at a disagreement over a specific fact. Pre-internet we would not be able to resolve the difference, we would agree to look it up later, and usually would never do so. Now we can whip our our smartphones and within a minute or two find references to the correct fact.

Despite this there remains a disturbing gap between public perception and reality on many important issues. I discussed previously the recent survey showing significant differences between public attitudes towards certain scientific issues and the attitudes of science. The biggest difference was for the statement that it is, “safe to eat genetically modified food.” While 88% of scientists agreed with this statement, only 37% of the public did.

The gap is not limited to scientific issues, but spans the spectrum of civil issues as well. For example, 68% of Americans believe crime is worsening nationally, and 48% believe it is worsening locally, while crime has been steadily decreasing for the last two decades.

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35 responses so far

Feb 28 2013

Tattoo Electrodes

Headlines read: “Temporary tattoos could make electronic telepathy and telekinesis possible.” The technology is actually quite cool and interesting, but it is distressing how much of the mainstream reporting has been calculated to misinform for the sake of some cheap sensationalism. The technology is interesting enough without turning it into science fiction.

The temporary tattoos are really skin surface electrodes that can read electrical signals, such as EEG signals from the brain. They can also incorporate other sensors, like heat or light sensors. They can contain antenna to receive energy or communication, and wireless technology to communicate to devices.

The electrode circuits are also thin (100 microns), flexible, and small. Combining several features into such a small device is the real advance here, expanding the number of feasible applications of such technology.

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May 07 2012

Is Aura Reading Synaesthesia? Probably Not.

I am often asked, and wonder myself, if there are significant hard-wired and genetically determined brain differences between skeptics and new agers or conspiracy theorists (or name your favorite flavor of true believer). It can certainly feel this way when you are knee deep in a cyber-debate with someone with a radically different world-view than yourself. Obviously there is no simple answer to this question. Biological brain effects are filtered through culture, education, and personal experience, which in turn have an effect on the wiring of the brain (the brain has memory and learns from experience). Further, genetically determined hard-wiring, to the extent that this exists, is extremely complex, with many factors affecting each other.

While it may be difficult to tease out the contribution of genetic hard-wiring to things like belief in fairies, I think it remains an open question and it is not implausible that there is a significant contribution in some cases. Perhaps to some extent the conflict between skeptics and true believers is really a competition between different  versions of human brain wiring. Perhaps we will need to just accept this neurodiversity (its existence, if not its effect on our culture).

While this is a fascinating question, at the same time I feel there is a tendency in popular culture, especially among journalists and (ironically) some purveyors of dubious products and services, to reframe many phenomena with specific reference to the brain. Old fashioned learning is now “training your brain,” for example. While this is technically true, it makes it seem like a new, targeted, reductionist technology when in fact it’s just practice and learning.

A recent study explored one small aspect of the question of brain function and spirituality – researchers asked themselves if those healers and gurus who claim to be able to see a human aura are really synaesthetes, people with a hyperrobust connection among different brain regions that make them smell color, taste sound, feel numbers, or otherwise experience one sensation or experience with an overlay of another sensation. There is a form of synaethesia in which people experience the faces of those familiar to them as having a specific color.

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133 responses so far

Apr 09 2012

The Sunken City of Cambay

Published by under General Science

According to a BBC article by reporter Tom Housden, scientists have discovered the ruins of an ancient city off the coast of India in the Gulf of Cambay. Artifacts from the city have been carbon dated to about 9,500 years ago. According to the article:

The remains of what has been described as a huge lost city may force historians and archaeologists to radically reconsider their view of ancient human history.

To put the significance of such a find in perspective, the oldest human cities are about 7,000 years old, and the oldest Indian city is Harrappa, about 4,600 years old. If the Cambay ruins are genuine, then that would predate the oldest known human city by more than two thousand years and the oldest Indian city by 5,000 years. The implications of this, if true, would indeed be huge. The BBC article offers this quote:

“There’s a huge chronological problem in this discovery. It means that the whole model of the origins of civilization with which archaeologists have been working will have to be remade from scratch,” he said.

It doesn’t take long, however, for the entire story to begin to unravel, once a critical eye it turned toward the claims. I always like to consider the plausibility of such claims. In this case, finding a city older than any previously known city is not entirely implausible. It’s possible that a culture in one location developed a city which did not survive and was forgotten to history. The oldest example of anything is always only as old as the oldest example discovered, and so scientists are frequently pushing back the date of the “oldest” something as new discoveries are made.

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Feb 15 2011

Reporting Medical Cases as Human Interest Stories: Chase Britton Edition

I have not been shy about discussing journalistic behavior that I despise – so here’s another one. Take an unusual medical case and report the following about it: 1) Doctors are baffled,¬† 2) this challenges everything we thought we knew, 3) some are calling this remarkable case a miracle, 4) the patient (or their parents) did not listen to the doctor’s negativity, and bravely persevered.

In the reporting of the case make sure you emphasize the unknown as much as possible. Doctors are just besides themselves with how dang impossible the whole thing is. Then find a physician or other expert who is relatively clueless about how to deal with the media and goad them into saying all kinds of irresponsible but very sensational statements. In order to showcase the triumph of the human spirit, exaggerate as much as possible how much better the patient is doing than they should be, according to those nasty skeptical doctors.

Now before someone accuses me of being a curmudgeon, let me say that I get the human interest angle of unusual medical stories. I have no problem with showcasing brave and optimistic patients or parents, or even overly enthusiastic therapists. But I do object to rank mystery-mongering, getting the facts wrong, and not talking to proper experts. I also find it annoying when physicians or scientists who are not media savvy ram their feet down their throats.

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28 responses so far

Nov 15 2010

Investing in Basic Science

A recent editorial in the New York Times by Nicholas Wade raises some interesting points about the nature of basic science research – primarily that it’s risky. I follow science news reporting quite closely and this is a point that journalists, and the general public, do underappreciate (if they appreciate it at all).

As I have pointed out about the medical literature, researcher John Ioaniddis has explained why most published studies turn out in retrospect to be wrong. The same is true of most basic science research – and the underlying reason is the same. The world is complex, and most of our guesses about how it might work turn out to be either flat-out wrong, incomplete, or superficial. And so most of our probing and prodding of the natural world, looking for the path to the actual answer, turn out to miss the target.

In a way I liken such research to my philosophy about taking pictures – it doesn’t matter how many bad pictures you take, only how many good ones. You can always delete the bad ones, or just let them sit on your hard drive, but the good ones you can frame and display. However this is not literally true because (unlike taking digital pictures) research costs considerable resources of time, space, money, opportunity, and people-hours. There may also be some risk involved (such as to subjects in the clinical trial). Further, negative studies are actually valuable (more so than terrible pictures). They still teach us something about the world – they teach us what is not true. At the very least this narrows the field of possibilities.

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Feb 05 2010

Desiree Jennings – The Plot Thickens

As promised, I watched the Inside Edition segment last night following up on the Desiree Jennings case. If you remember, she is the 25 year old woman who claimed to have a neurological disorder called dystonia following a seasonal flu vaccine. Her story never added up, and the video of her disorder that was made public (and disseminated, of course, on YouTube) did not show dystonia. Every neurologist who viewed the video and commented publicly, including me, were of the opinion that her symptoms were psychogenic.

The question at hand is whether or not she has a neurological disorder and whether it can plausibly be connected to the flu vaccine. I have made a strong case that her symptoms are not neurological but psychological (and to be clear, neither I nor any physician commenting on her case has accused her of lying or hoaxing her symptoms). Despite this, the anti-vaccine movement was quick to jump on the case and exploit Ms. Jennings for their own propaganda purposes. They were also quick to criticize me and others for commenting on her case, and in fact they grossly distorted the opinions we expressed.

Ms. Jennings eventually found her way to Dr. Buttar, who has been criticized by the North Carolina Medical Board for charging patients exorbitant fees for unproven and ineffective treatments. These complaints are still under investigation. Buttar diagnosed Ms. Jennings with both a viral encephalitis and mercury toxicity – when it would be impossible for her to have been exposed to both mercury and a live virus from the same vaccine. He treated her with chelation therapy and a few stints in the hyperbaric chamber, and then claimed a dramatic cure. In fact, I predicted this would happen and further predicted that an improvement in her symptoms that was too quick for any biological cause would confirm the diagnosis of a psychogenic disorder.

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24 responses so far

Oct 01 2009

Homeopaths Are Anti-Vaccine

I try not to let my blog get too focussed on any one topic, but the point of this blog is to engage the public and the media and so at times a hot topic requires increased attention. When the creationists are campaigning to impose their ideology on science education, for example, they will garner my blogging attention.

Perhaps one of the hottest media science topics today is the swine flu/H1N1 pandemic and upcoming vaccine, and the anti-vaccine movement in general. This is a perfect storm of quackery, sensationalism, misinformation, and public concern.

One aspect of the anti-vaccine movement is that those who are proponents for an unscientific medical modality are keen to criticize science-based medicine because they are their competitors (ideological and/or financial). The same is true generally of pseudoscience – in order to promote your pseudoscientific claims you have to simultaneously attack the real scientists who are likely to point out that your claims are bunk.

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