How To Avoid Bad Science Journalism

Updated: May 11

The key to finding good science journalism is to become skilled at avoiding bad science journalism. Bad science journalism is like junk food. It's not good for you, but it tastes good, often by telling you something you want to believe is true.

Good science journalism is clear, transparent, and accurate. To create it, the journalist must understand something complex (the science) and translate it into something digestible for non-scientists. This is hard. Bad science journalism is easier to create and therefore common.

Bad science journalism is bad for you in at least two ways: it wastes your time and pollutes your thinking with untrue beliefs. If you're not vigilant with your information diet, you won't be able to build the mental muscle you want even if you're getting plenty of other exercise.

In a recent episode of Good Chemistry, Dr. Ziva Cooper offered tips for how to spot bad science journalism. The clip below contains some of these and I have added more below.

Signs Of Bad Science Journalism

1.) No clear description of what kind of study was conducted. This should be at the beginning of the article. Was it a double-blind, placebo-controlled study in humans? Was it a study done in mice? Did scientists just pour drugs onto some weird cells growing in a petri dish? You need to know because, even when the results are robust, the majority of pre-clinical studies never end up translating to humans. There's lots of bad journalism out there that makes it seem like something will be true for you based on one study that had nothing to do with people.

2.) No link to the underlying scientific study. At best this is an indication of laziness by the journalist or editor. If you can't see the original study, you also can't do a quick sanity check to see of the study's conclusions match the headline.

3.) Treating science as an object, rather than a method. Science is a process, not a holy object. It's a method people practice when they're serious about being careful. Bad science journalism tends to treat Science (capital "S") as if it was an infallible pope delivering Truths to mere mortals. This often takes the form of, "Science says..." statements, typically followed by something carnal ("Chocolate is the key to chiseled abs!") or politically affirming ("Your enemies are wrong!"). If a headline starts with, "Science says..." I automatically do not read it.

4.) The headline doesn't match the paper. If the article passes the first three filters early on, then do one more sanity check. Click the link to the underlying study and read the Abstract of the study. This is simply the first paragraph of a study, summarizing the main results and conclusions. Read this and use common sense to determine whether the study at least seems like it's in agreement with what's described in the article.

By following these guidelines, you will be better equipped at detecting bad science journalism. Once detected, bad science journalism should be immediately ignored. With a little practice, you will be able to ignore whole articles just by glancing at the headline or reading the first paragraph. This will save you time and help keep your mind uncluttered with junk.