How the media screws you with 'science'

February 23, 2016

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The media is breaking science. You're breaking science. And it's screwing you out of knowing just what the heck you're talking about. Scientific facts are guesses. A very well-designed kind of guess...


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The media is breaking science. You're breaking science. And it's screwing you out of knowing just what the heck you're talking about. Scientific facts are guesses. A very well-designed kind of guess that is tested over and over again to make sure that it's not leading anyone astray (learn why a fact is never really a fact here). It's called a hypothesis and the testing process is called the scientific method.

How a guess becomes a fact

One of the key aspects of the scientific method is the idea that you submit your hypothesis to a bunch of your scientific peers. This is one of the key reasons academic journals exist (you might have heard them referred to as peer-reviewed journals). People who are similarly qualified to judge what you're talking about and who'll test your guess themselves review your work, publish it and then replicate the study themselves. The point of this is that since humans are subject to a bunch of crazy biases, the more people that test our work, the more likely our hypothesis is to match reality.

More than 500 'facts' get taken back every year

There's a website out there called Retraction Watch. It's a blog that hunts down and publishes (with prejudice) all the scientific articles that were retracted because the hypothesis turned out to be bogus. Others tested it and found it lacking. Or, because the scientists are shonky and someone found 'em out. According to the guys that run Retraction Watch, over 500 articles get retracted every year across all the disciplines (not just psychology). That means that about 600 hypotheses are tested by someone, entered into the world and then a little while later retracted after their peers tested them and showed it to be false.

The scientific method isn't perfect

So, that's good, right? We separate the wheat from the chaff. Eliminate the weak hypotheses so we're all better informed. Except for the fact that something like 2,000,000 papers are published every year. That doesn't mean that only a tiny amount of them are incorrect. It means that only a slightly less tiny amount of them are being tested by their peers. If you publish something boring and uncontroversial, then it's pretty likely it'll get left alone. Even if you DO publish something that someone wants to retest, then you'll find that as often as not, you can't replicate their findings very closely. This is because it's a pretty straightforward thing to mess with the statistics to get the answer you want. As in this article, just by messing with the stats, they managed to show that people felt both older AND younger after listening to a Wiggles song. Then, they showed us that people became younger after listening to the Beatles. Yep, you read that right - their stats showed that people BECAME YOUNGER after listening to a song.

How the media is breaking science

Now, the crux of the matter. How often have you come across a media article that spouts something like 'science says blondes are going extinct' ( has a whole series on this kind of crap)? You now know that if the media publishes the article as soon as the information comes out, then it probably hasn't been peer-reviewed yet. Then, after thousands of people share it, the ridiculousness perpetuates itself; then people start to believe it. That's your bag - sharing false nonsense - don't do it. And if you've found some kind of miracle cure that science endorses, you might want to check just how many papers are published on the topic. Having just one means virtually nothing.
“A person who publishes a book willfully appears before the populace with his pants down. If it is a good book nothing can hurt him. If it is a bad book nothing can help him.” ― Edna St. Vincent Millay
You can still check whether you can count on information or not if it's not peer-reviewed properly yet - learn how to read research like a pro in five minutes. And, to incentivise you to read more stuff, learn how reading some kinds of books can make you more empathetic. Turning scholarship into wisdom without the usual noise and clutter, we dig up the dirt on psychological theories you can use. Become an armchair psychologist with The Dirt Psychology.

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