I’m a scientist and a science teacher and this country has a serious science literacy problem. I find that most people know very little about how science works. No one knows the scientific process, no one knows how laboratory experiments are different from survey data, and nobody knows how to interpret a correlation.
Of course, this has produced a number of different problems, but the one that bothers me the most is how scientific data gets portrayed in the media. I’m not sure if journalists don’t understand the science or if they just don’t care that it is usually misrepresented, but I rarely see a well-written piece of journalism related to a scientific study (with the biggest exception on my reading list being Wired Science). The worst, by far, are the headlines. The media’s job today is far less about reporting facts than about creating headlines that immediately create fear or controversy.
This has given me no end of good material for my classes. We spend a portion of the first week looking at news articles and trying to determine whether or not they are good science. We look at the source of the material, who wrote it, motivations, money, and my personal favorite favorite, the actual data. The rule in my class is never take science by the headline, always look up the original source and draw your own conclusions.
Want to know what set me off this time? It was yet another round of red meat is going to kill us all stories, this time focused on L-carnitine and its conversion to a chemical called TMAO that may be linked to atherosclerosis. Only, the headlines say things like about red meat damaging the heart and increasing the risk for heart attacks.
Item 2: link and risk are always problematic words since they are almost always related to correlation and survey data. Just to clarify: correlation is not causation. Therefore, if people with higher amounts of this substance tend to have heart disease, that doesn’t mean one causes the other. In fact, the most likely explanation is that there is a third variable related to both things. For example, people who eat more red meat may have overall worse diets including high amounts of white bread, potatoes, and sugar. Therefore, these people might have, in this case, a particular bacterial community in their gut, which creates higher amounts of the chemical, TMAO for the study above. The study did not actually examine bacterial communities nor did it separate out people who eat red meat with higher or lower carbs. Those are both huge factors in possible causation.
So, for all our readers out there, science-minded or not, I’m really just asking for one thing: think about what a scientific study says or does before getting frightened by the media headlines. Not everything is going to kill you or cause cancer, but the folks who write the headlines want you to think so. Check the sources, check the facts, and always draw your own educated conclusions. If you can’t tell, ask your favorite local scientist for their opinion.
Science doesn’t take a particular brain pattern or a specifically high intelligence level to work out. It just takes a little thought, a little reading, and a little logic. I’m not asking too much of people, am I?