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Bad Science Reporting Shows The Importance of Science

by Eric Hall

October 5, 2013

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Donate Whenever I give my students a test, I feel the same anxiety I felt as when I was a student. I share this with my students, and work to structure my exams such that they are still a thorough evaluation without causing too much stress. I do this with the understanding that science can be difficult to grasp at times. This doesn't mean we all shouldn't work hard to better understand science. The lack of science understanding was very evident in several news stories I came across this week from both legitimate and not-so-legitimate news outlets.

Let's start with the fringe websites. My social media feed came up with a story on the giant hornets killing dozens which are in the news recently because some news organization started talking about the 40 deaths and over 1600 injured in China this year from these insects. They are a shocking sight, because they look like most other bee-like bugs, but much bigger. Somehow, a few "independent" news sources took off with this and reported the story like this:
In the wake of the world’s most catastrophic nuclear disaster, hospitals in central Nebraska have recently been reporting several deaths caused by a particularly venomous species of Asian wasp that has found its way into the states.

It was reported that these pests have been contaminated by radioactive debris from the failed Fukushima power plant. This has caused them to nearly quadruple in size, and become hyper aggressive.

As if that wasn’t horrific enough, the giant hornet also possesses venom which is nearly 2000 times stronger than that of the common wasp.
The science is so far off it is amazing how much it has been shared as truth. It would appear the post originated at a spoof website which does not clearly state it is as such. Yet it is being passed along as legitimate. One of the other sites reporting it is a natural and holistic website with hilarious comments. A few message boards also had posted the article - and people are legitimately scared - without a single question of the obviously poor science written in the article. Social media posts similarly pass it off as legitimate without any pause as to the bad science.

On a more legitimate site, a headline read as follows:1.3 Million Tons of Cocaine Found On Flight. One of my colleagues was kind enough to do a few minutes of calculation and research on the matter:
Hats off to Air France whose plane undoubtedly set a record, since Wikipedia tells us the previous greatest payload lifted by airplane was 254 metric tons. The suitcases are also remarkable, carrying a bit over 43000 tons each with a density, assuming a 100 liter suitcase volume, of 400 metric tons per liter or 400 kg/cm3. (Interestingly, a white dwarf star has a not so different estimated density of 1000 kg/cm3. ??). Prices have really dropped, too, since a ton of cocaine is going for $208 or about 10 cents a pound.
It took several hours before it was corrected. I can find no mention of the mistake.

On my commute, I usually listen to podcasts. Earlier this week, I forgot to load a new set on my phone, so I turned on the local public radio station to catch up on the news. The program Fresh Airinterviewed author Jonah Engle, who writes about drugs and drug policy. Engle has made a name for himself writing about these topics for years. Several times during the interview however, Engle seemed to be taking a position not based in science or even scientific principles, but from his own bias. At one point during the interview, he claims banning the pseudoephedrine should be a simple decision because there are alternatives available - without ever discussing their effectiveness. When asked why the gelcap form isn't used to make meth, he says it is harder, but is not sure why. I'm not asking him to be a biochemist, but I would think these would be important pieces of information to investigate before declaring the only thing that will work to control meth is a ban onpseudoephedrine.

All Things Consideredran a story where the title is about the only thing that isn't misleading. The article, titled "Doctors Say Changes In Wheat Do Not Explain Rise Of Celiac Disease" centers around Dr. William Davis, the author of wheat belly. It starts with Dr. Davis being quoted and mention of his anecdotal evidence for his diet working to "cure" celiac disease and a whole host of health problems. The problem is the 2 writers on the story never mention these as anecdotes. They then go with the counterpoint of someone who studies wheat production, who says wheat hasn't changed much in the last century. They set up a false dichotomy and make it pretty obvious they are giving equal weight to anecdote versus published, peer-reviewed information.

Another problem with the story is the use of the word theory. When referring to Dr. Davis' assertion, they refer to it as a theory. This might work in casual conversation, it is important to make a distinction between theory and hypothesis, as well as the difference between a good and bad hypothesis. Later in the story, they do use the term hypothesis - in relation to the "Hygiene Hypothesis." I won't detail it here, but this is an idea that our super clean life we live is what is causing the increase in auto immune diseases. There is a plausibility, though the evidence is certainly not yet clear. So as such, it is properly classified as a hypothesis. Unlike someone referring to an untested or unproven hypothesis as a theory - it should be properly stated as a hypothesis. It is the obligation of science reporters to do as such, and to explain the difference if necessary. Being casual with these words only weakens them.

Overall it is a terribly constructed article that focuses more on balance in the form of equal time rather than showing any semblance of critical thinking. Science journalists need to learn that there is a big difference between forming a scientific opinion versus a normal opinion on policy. While our scientific opinions may not always be correct because of missed evidence or even our bias, careful application of research and a constant evaluation of those opinions will lead us closer to the truth. I hope my work on the Skeptoid blog in a small way helps with that cause.

by Eric Hall

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