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Media Misrepresenting Science April 18, 2009

Posted by Dwight and Lynn Furrow in Current Events, Ethics, Science.
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Here is an interesting assessment by Ars Technica of two recent science stories that received lots of attention in the press but were seriously distorted by the press reports.

One study was about the alleged correlation between the use of Facebook and lower grades. The other study was about the effect of new communications technology on the emotional processing of moral behavior.

In both cases, the media sensationalized the results and drew conclusions not warranted by the data. The report is interesting in that it doesn’t point fingers at journalists only but at the whole system of science reporting that introduces perverse incentives.

Journalists are the most frequent targets of complaints about the state of science reporting, but it’s important to emphasize that all of these problems occur before they even get involved. In Karpinski’s case, most of the journalists that handled her story seem to have described it in ways that she was comfortable with. Even in the one case where she felt things went seriously off course, it appeared that the writers had done a good job in the initial draft she’d seen, suggesting problems arose later in the process.

In other words, editors and marketing experts are shaping the reporting in ways that mislead readers.

Incompetence and willful misrepresentation in the media, especially regarding science, are an important issue. As a society we are utterly dependent on science and on the public’s understanding of it. We routinely make personal decisions about what to buy and what activities to engage in based on science reported in the media.

We cannot afford a media that distorts science in order to sell newspapers.

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Comments»

1. Nina Rosenstand - April 19, 2009

Very interesting, Dwight. On p. 2 of the article there’s a reference to an interview with neuroscience guru Antonio Damasio:

We also managed to talk briefly with Antonio Damasio, one of the authors of the study who was quoted in the press release. Damasio sounded concerned about the presentation of the work in the press release, and asked for confirmation of its wording. He specifically stated, “I would not have used Twitter,” and said that he intended to look over the contents of the press release after he got off the phone.

Damasio has previously been misquoted by science journalists, who declared some years ago that Damasio claimed to have found a “moral center in the brain.” I certainly bought into that. What a handy soundbite! Turned out to be shorthand for a natural moral ability to detect and discard actions that harm others (which is also shorthand–what can you do?). Damasio found it necessary to address the issue and straighten it out in Looking for Spinoza. The lesson here for philosophers is (1) not to trust the surface reporting of the media, and (2) to spend time reading the actual research reports if we want to weigh in on the impact of neuroscientific research on traditional philosophical issues.


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