I tend to be very skeptical about news articles where the headline reads: “Scientists have found that…”. Too often the scientist or researchers involved aren’t even named and there is no way of digging in further to see if it was indeed professional scientific work that led to the conclusion.
This is especially annoying as research that makes headlines is usually negative and or contradictory stuff: something may cause cancer, something contradicts common beliefs, something radically new has been discovered or invented. And these are exactly the research findings that are most likely to be wrong. The criticism that may follow the new discoveries hardly ever makes the news so the public sits up with the headline as THE TRUTH and never learns that the research was fundamentally flawed or the “scientist” was actually a fabulation of a reporter at “The News Of The World”.
We see examples of this kind of reporting in the news every day. This article from Pravda is a prime (but most random) example: Music Has the Same Effect on Humans As Good Food and Sex!
This “news report” is just wrong in so many ways. Who did the research? How was the effect measured and compared? What were the “special methods of scanning the human brain”? And what on earth does “80 percent of people are able to feel touched while hearing certain melodies” mean?
When the media writes about scientific discoveries they should:
- Name the researcher and his or her institute (university, hospital, company)
- Say where the research has been published. If it hasn’t been or isn’t about to be published*, it isn’t news material. If it is a web publication a link wouldn’t hurt.
- See if the findings contradict other research on the subject and name that as well.
- Keep watching the criticism or further research that may change the original results and write about these developments also as they happen.
As a general note it might also be a welcome change if the mainstream media would also from time to time write about positive scientific discoveries. I don’t remember seeing many articles about something that has proven not to be carcinogenic, while research that hints that something may possibly cause cancer are in the media every day.
Personally I think that the scientists themselves should make it possible for scientists and laymen alike to ask questions and criticize their work directly as the feedback may prove most useful for them and other researchers in the field also later on.
But let’s not ask for too much at once. Getting reporters to talk professionally about science may be hard, but getting scientists to rethink their traditional work procedures could be flat out impossible.
* By “published” I mean made available rather than necessarily reviewed and published in a scientific publication.