Ah, bad science headlines. We’ve all seen them. We all know them. They’re used to drive traffic and eyeballs to otherwise mundane stories and articles. We can’t really blame the journalists or the publishers – they need ad revenue to survive and keep doing what they’re doing. But still, every time I come across one my eyelids twitch a little, and sometimes a little vein on the side of my head pushes out. As much as it pays for the stories, in the end they hurt more than help, giving people the wrong impressions about what science does, what it looks like, and who’s doing it.
Bad science headlines usually involve some use of obviously over-the-top exaggerations, easily-refuted statements, and bold exclamations. Sometimes it’s even all three wrapped up in one.
While a specific list of examples would be both painful and exhausting, here are some of the varieties, the categories that I’ve found bad headlines fall into. If you happen to spot any of these signs, then save that click for something more worthy:
The confused academic: Sometimes headlines will blare that scientists are stumped or flummoxed or bewildered by something found in nature. That’s…kind of sort of true, all the time, but misleading. Science is a process of posing ever-more sophisticated questions to nature, and arriving at answers backed by reason, mathematics, and empirical evidence. If scientists were to stop being confused, then they’d be…done. But the confusion is always at the boundaries, the margins of knowledge. One single experiment or result isn’t enough to throw an entire field into disarray.
They were wrong the whole time: An offshoot of the confused academic. One result, one study, one hypothesis, one experiment, one observation, and all of a sudden the whole body of knowledge that we’ve been carefully constructing for decades is now overturned by a new paradigm. That’s not how this works. One result or idea that conflicts with the prevailing views is…interesting. Nothing more, nothing less. Get that repeated and verified, then we’ll talk.
Nature is going to kill you: An exotic star that will die in a fiery explosion, raining death and destruction on the Earth. A chunk of rock, screaming through the solar system at tens of thousands of miles per hour, and it’s headed right for us. A never-before-seen storm system. A dangerous animal. A super-duper virus. A…shudder…chemical. Sometimes it seems like the only thing scientists do in their profession is to discover all the fun, wonderful, grotesque ways that nature will murder us.
Math never lies: It’s true, math is math and numbers are numbers. That’s why they’re so powerful and widely used in science. We can put error bars on our measurements to tell us how well we know something. We can test against theories and not have to revisit the issue based on some vague wording. And so much more. But statistics, even good statistics, can be put to poor use. Numbers quoted out of context are essentially meaningless. Results stated without uncertainties are useless squiggles on a screen. Math doesn’t lie, but people do.
The wishful thinker: Could science deliver some life-saving miracle by the end of the year? Is science on the edge of developing some game-changing technology? Will science be able to fix your personal problems? Probably not, and that’s all I’ll say about that.
Once you see these kinds of headlines you can’t un-see them. And if you do go on to read the article, just remember that the process of science is slow, meticulous, almost always mundane, and never knows the answers ahead of time.