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Science vs. Journalism

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posted on Mar, 5 2006 @ 08:43 PM
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Newsweek's cover story this week addresses the confusion that has resulted from recent stories which claim that scientists have been contradicting themselves when it comes to fat and its effect on one's health.

www.msnbc.msn.com...



You couldn't miss the headlines. The New York Times: LOW-FAT DIET DOES NOT CUT HEALTH RISKS, STUDY FINDS. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: REDUCING FAT MAY NOT CURB DISEASE. The Boston Globe: STUDY FINDS NO MAJOR BENEFIT OF A LOW-FAT DIET. The Los Angeles Times: EATING LEAN DOESN'T CUT RISK. When the results of a massive, federally funded study were released last month, TV, newspapers and, yes, magazines around the country trumpeted what seemed to confound conventional wisdom and standard medical advice. Fat, these articles seemed to say, wasn't so bad for you after all. In fact, the results of the study, the Women's Health Initiative (WHI), were actually more complex—as all these articles explained to readers who got beyond the headlines.

It wasn't (as many of us might have hoped) a signal to rush out and gorge on cheeseburgers—especially if you're a man of any age or a woman under 50. That's because the study involved only older women—from 50 to 79. And the primary goal was far narrower than those headlines implied: to test whether cutting fat would reduce the risk, specifically, of breast cancer. After an average of eight years, researchers found no statistically significant difference in breast-cancer risk between women on a low-fat diet and women who had made no changes in what they ate. But that is not the bottom line. The results showed what researchers call a "trend" toward a low-fat diet reducing breast-cancer risk; this effect was actually significant in those who started with the highest levels of fat. Scientists will observe the women until 2010, when we could hear a whole new message. "I wouldn't worry about the headlines of today as far as low fat and breast cancer are concerned," says Dr. Jacques Rossouw, the WHI project officer. "They may be wrong."

To those of us without an M.D., it sometimes seems as if scientists are deliberately trying to mess with our heads—especially when it comes to nutrition research. The WHI study is the latest in what appears to be a series of dietary flip-flops. All fat was bad; now some fat is good. Eggs were bad; now they're OK in moderation. Nuts were verboten; now their fats are beneficial. Coffee has been up and down more often than hemlines. We've even been reading that chocolate could be a health food. (We've got some bad news on that. Read on.) Meanwhile, Americans are getting fatter and fatter. Two thirds are overweight or obese, and we're shelling out millions annually in a futile effort to shed those excess pounds.


Please visit the link provided for the complete story.


Check out that third paragraph - not only are the pointy-headed scientists releasing contradictory information, it's their fault that so many Americans are fat!!

First of all, when is the last time you picked up a paper or a magazine that didn't have a "corrections" section? How often do you see a newspaper story with endnotes or a bibliography that lists sources that support the numerous claims found in the story? When is the last time you saw a journalist cite other articles that tended to disagree with the thesis they were trying to sell (as is nearly always the case in scientific journal articles)?

In any case, I think that most scientists work very hard NOT to purposely mislead or obfuscate their results - they leave that to the media. The real story, imo, is that journalists are ignorant and too often revel in their ignorance. They don't understand the narrow points that most research is about and in an attempt to make a bigger story out of incremental steps make claims that end up making scientists look like they are being duplicitous. When a new article is published that appears to contradict the "big story" (but not the actual primary source on which it was supposedly based) they cry foul.

Most of the time, when I read articles of a scientific nature in the popular media, I am appalled at the level of ignorance, misunderstanding, and sheer laziness on the part of the reporter. They make blanket statements that are clearly unsupported by the primary source or paper they are attempting to summarize. They fail to mention up front the clear and unambiguous caveats that nearly every scientific paper points out - usually in the first few pages.

This seems particularly true when it comes to medicine. Medical research is extraordinarily complex because there are so many uncontrollable variables. Experiments and studies that attempt to establish causality between a potential health hazard and actual health problems are darn near impossible and in the end often become more of a study in applied statistics than actual medicine. Furthermore, medical research does not often lend itself well to pithy news stories that have to get the point across in as few words as possible.

Personally, I think that journalism schools ought to start establishing more rigorous coursework requirements - particularly in the sciences, and that reporters should allow the authors of the work they are reporting on to review the stories prior to publication.




posted on Mar, 6 2006 @ 05:24 AM
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When an English Major is writing an article/short story/novel on Science, expect massive distortions, hype, spin, and down-right ignorance of the Scientific Method.



Personally, I think that journalism schools ought to start establishing more rigorous coursework requirements - particularly in the sciences, and that reporters should allow the authors of the work they are reporting on to review the stories prior to publication.


HA! That'll be the day!
If that were to become a possiblity in the next millenia, then it has to start from the Bottom, we need to demand that Students have the same amount of Science education as they get in English. After grade 10, all science credits are fricken electives, while English is mandatory until graduation. I smell a conspiracy actually. Woopee, we can all talk and write semi-legibly (because most students promptly forget what they learned when they start working), but ask us to do a simple lineal algabraic formula, or balance a simple chemical formula and most are completely lost.

[edit on 6-3-2006 by sardion2000]



posted on Mar, 6 2006 @ 07:02 AM
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Excellent points! The news media looks for interesting and controversial studies. Things that would rate a mere 'blip' in the academic press suddenly are trumped by the news organizations as a huge news item -- and I think you've hit the nail on the head on the reason why: because reporters themselves are largely ignorant of science.

It ain't Huge News in the science world until it's been confirmed by several independant studies. Till it's confirmed, it's just an "interesting item." Interesting items will be combed to see if previous studies confirm them or if they're confirming previous studies. The whole thing will be hashed out in great detail in the journals until the study is known as either "trivial" or "a really good piece of science" or "total nut-job."

Maybe we should point the news media back to the Inept Celebrity of the Month and put up a Science News Advisory Committee to release science news.



posted on Mar, 6 2006 @ 04:41 PM
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Originally posted by sardion2000
HA! That'll be the day!
If that were to become a possiblity in the next millenia, then it has to start from the Bottom, we need to demand that Students have the same amount of Science education as they get in English.
[edit on 6-3-2006 by sardion2000]


I was interviewed by a reporter for a work related story about 6 years ago. My partner and I did request a look at his story before publication, explaining that if we were misquoted, it would make *us* look stupid and not the reporter. Much to our surprise (and the Public Affairs Rep that escorted the reporter), the reporter agreed. We were able to fix a couple of glaring errors that, indeed, would have made us look like idiots. The PA guy advised us not to edit the prose and just stick to fixing facts.
I'm pretty sure this was a very rare exception.



posted on Mar, 6 2006 @ 11:53 PM
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(some/most) Journalism is like sociology. No one is concerned with facts, rather everyone is enamored by topics such as ethics, morals, and sociological impacts because they are aesthetically pleasing to the mind, for most peoples.


Originally posted by sardion2000 we need to demand that Students have the same amount of Science education as they get in English.


It cannot happen as long as most education systems rely upon a teaching level/rate geared towards the slowest learners. You essential have to kick the slowest learners out of class. But if you do that, journalist will be in an uproar. Manly because those slowest learners end up becomming journalist!

[edit on 6-3-2006 by Frosty]



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