Simplistic science reports ‘inaccurate’

Until recently, scientists were always sounding the alarm over one thing or another. They would warn us about the harmful effects of a range of consumer products, telling us that wine can lead to alcoholism, that passionate kissing transmits diseases, that spinach may be infected by E. coli bacteria and that cycling can cause prostate cancer. Gymnastics can cause serious physical injury, apparently, and electronic games muddle the brains of teenagers. The list is endless. Steven Johnson’s new book «Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter» – excerpts of which were published in Kathimerini earlier this week – tries to refute these convictions. Research carried out by national centers for disease control and prevention shows that a few extra layers of fat help us live longer, that computer games may actually boost adolescents’ intellectual development, that playing cards boosts social skills and that gossip wards off depression. Have scientists gone mad or are we going to hear next that smoking is actually good for your lungs? Neither, actually. The secret for understanding scientists’ contradictory messages lies in their depiction by the mass media. First of all, we must remember that most of the foreboding headlines we read in newspapers are only half-true. For instance, when we read that coffee causes hair loss, what this probably means is that some scientists interviewed a reasonably large number of balding people and established that most of them liked coffee. This finding is then published in a scientific journal, where the experts note their reservations as the world of science is complex and ever-changing. The research falls into the hands of reporters covering scientific issues but, because journalism is not an exact science, the footnotes are either skimmed over or completely ignored. Television reports often are even less reliable as they reduce the research to the certainty that «coffee kills hair.» And this is how our insight into the world of science is influenced. That is not to say that all scientific reportage in the media is inaccurate but it may be showing one side of a complex story.