Science journalism skewered

Paul Raven @ 28-09-2010

If you’ve not been linked to it already, you should definitely go and read this: “This is a news website article about a scientific paper“. It’s a real zinger; here’s the opening:

In this paragraph I will state the main claim that the research makes, making appropriate use of “scare quotes” to ensure that it’s clear that I have no opinion about this research whatsoever.

In this paragraph I will briefly (because no paragraph should be more than one line) state which existing scientific ideas this new research “challenges”.

If the research is about a potential cure, or a solution to a problem, this paragraph will describe how it will raise hopes for a group of sufferers or victims.

This paragraph elaborates on the claim, adding weasel-words like “the scientists say” to shift responsibility for establishing the likely truth or accuracy of the research findings on to absolutely anybody else but me, the journalist.

Ouch; it hurts because it’s true. The Grauniad is doing its best to rise above the clichés portrayed therein (as are a few other mainstream news venues), but there’s always one factor that tends to be overlooked in discussions of what makes for responsible good-quality science reporting… namely that the market for it is vanishingly small by comparison to sensationalist “OMG New Pill Cures Cancer, Expels Illegal Immigrants and Boosts House Prices!!!1” hucksterism.

The root cause of that, one assumes, is that a large percentage of the population is functionally illiterate in scientific terms. (Repeat after me: “correlation is not causation”…) Being realistic about it, in the current economic climate newspapers and websites will inevitably publish whatever pulls in traffic to eyeball the ads they run… and that’s the one major stumbling point for the no-paywall model of online publishing (a matter that is rather closer to my heart than I’d like right now, as shall be revealed later this week).


Gender differences in perception of beauty

Paul Raven @ 25-02-2009

This little bit of neurological research is all over the news outlets at the moment. Here in the UK, The Guardian leads their piece with the headline “Women appreciate beauty better than men, says study“.

Brain scans of people looking at paintings and photographs have revealed that beauty is not only in the eye of the beholder. When men and women see something they think is beautiful, their brains react differently, with the female brain showing more activity than the male, according to new research.

[snip]

The researchers believe the different responses are linked to the ways in which men and women process spatial information, but suggest that men may tend to look only at the picture as a whole, while women also pay attention to the smaller details.

We never seem to tire of these gender difference studies, do we? It’s as if we thought we were having something we’d always known proved to us, no matter what the actual meaning may be at a scientific level.

But it’s always interesting to watch how they’re reported by different media channels. So, for extra points, here’s Big Blog of Cheese running the comparisons – why not play along with headlines from your own country?

BBC: Art appreciation ‘a gender issue’

Science journal: Sex-related similarities and differences in the neural correlates of beauty

Daily Telegraph: Why women cannot read maps and men lose their keys

Headlines and links in the comments, please!