Reporters that manufacture pseudoscience: please go away

Photo by Casey Gomez

I am sick of pseudoscience.

Let me clarify: I am sick of the phenomenon of replacing what we can term “real” science with its largely quack-based and/or vapid counterpart. There is nothing wrong with getting into astrology as long as one does not then choose to reject peer-reviewed literature on probability and game theory. Unfortunately, this is exactly what is happening in the world today.

The reasons behind this regrettable circumstance we find ourselves in are difficult to identify. In fact, upon close investigation, the diagnosis is ugly and involves several root causes that have been allowed to fester in our society for quite some time.

The most important of which that can be addressed in a short period, however, is the advent of “sexy” science. Any person that has been on a social media platform within the last five years likely has been exposed to this.

“Drinking alcohol more effective than exercise for living a long life, study finds.” This was the real headline for a story run by the CBS 6 news station based in Virginia this past Tuesday. The study was based on analyzing the habits of some 1,700 individuals over the age of 90. According to the report, a correlation was found between modest drinking daily and the longevity of the participants.

But importantly — and sadly for aspiring alcoholics — the article in question finishes with the damning line, “However, while the UCI researchers found a link between these daily habits and a long life, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the lifestyle choices caused the participants to live to 90.”

This is always the case with 99 percent of these “miracle” lifestyle studies. There is simply a correlation with no evidence of causality. Here’s how it works. Some money is thrown at a random study on patients afflicted with leprosy. The researchers look at the lifestyles of the patients. They figure out that about 55 percent of them like to eat fruit for breakfast. The results of the study are published. A story is then written with the headline, “Eating fruit for breakfast could lead to leprosy, new study finds.”

Now obviously this is a ridiculous example, but the actuality of what is really happening is not very different at all. And the reason that this reality is so dangerous to the public consumption of science is that it has drastically changed what people expect. If I mentioned that there was a new scientific study out to random cross-section of the population, I can almost guarantee that they would expect me to then describe something akin to the absurd leprosy study I just fabricated to prove my point.

And when people are taught by their local news outlets to understand that scientific studies are simply an extension of the diet and lifestyle section of their favorite magazine, we as a society are in deep trouble. I would argue that this is why you see such resistance to ideas like global warming and climate change, despite their backing by consortiums of scientific authorities. The public has come to expect happy and fun scientific “discoveries” and thus recoils when presented with unpleasant news.