Science, or Science Journalism, Failing?

Scott Adams recently had a great post about Science’s Biggest Fail, in which he makes the case that science has failed at everything to do with diet and fitness. The article is very entertaining, and he make lots of great points, but I think his core point should be directed more at science media and its hyperbolic and even disingenuous interpretations, than the actual science itself. Adams writes:

We humans operate on pattern recognition. The pattern science serves up, thanks to its winged monkeys in the media, is something like this:

  • Step One: We are totally sure the answer is X.
  • Step Two: Oops. X is wrong. But Y is totally right. Trust us this time.

Science isn’t about being right every time, or even most of the time. It is about being more right over time and fixing what it got wrong. So how is a common citizen supposed to know when science is “done” and when it is halfway to done which is the same as being wrong?

I think this captures the true heart of the matter.  Science, and our scientific method, are not broken, but reporting and science journalism certainly may be functioning, lets say, less than ideally. I think Adams loves science just as much as I do. He states:

Science is an amazing thing. But it has a credibility issue that it earned. Should we fix the credibility situation by brainwashing skeptical citizens to believe in science despite its spotty track record, or is society’s current level of skepticism healthier than it looks? Maybe science is what needs to improve, not the citizens.

I think he nails it spot on, but the track record that is spotty is the shoddy journalistic and media interpretations of the research.  In my experience reading actual studies, scientists generally seem to be guarded in their conclusions. They will only try to make claims that the data actually supports, which is often very conservative. There are certainly exceptions to this, which can be particularly worrisome once you trace the source of funding of the studies, but in general I find the actual science to be rather conservative and humble.

Once Men’s health and Time get ahold of the study, however, everything is blown out of proportion.

That’s how we go from this in 1984:

Time: Cholesterol :(

Time: Cholesterol :(

To this in 2014:

Time: Eat Butter

Time: Eat Butter

Well, it turns out that maybe science wasn’t “wrong”, and a number of scientists who look at the actual studies and data have understood this for a long time.  It’s a typical case of science journalism being too quick to jump to conclusions, and not (intentionally or not) understanding that correlation does not equal causation.

Gary Taubes portrays this beautifully in his incredibly well-researched tome, Good Calories, Bad Calories.  For those with a little less time, I’d recommend his lighter version, Why We Get Fat.

Overall I think Adams raises some great points, and I respect his opinions a lot. One thing I think we can take away from this is that we shouldn’t trust the hyperbolic and over simplified bite-sized headlines of science journalism.  Science is always more complex than that.  For things we really care about, we have to dig into the studies and learn to interpret science for ourselves, rather than let the media pundits do that for us.This can certainly be a daunting task, and understanding science can be a small education in and of itself, but we do have ways of solving these problems.

Some people, like Mr. Taubes, and Dr. Eades, are trying to write about what the science tells us in a more rigorous way that is consumable for the masses.  I think we’re starting to see more and more bloggers and even journalists who seek to be rigorous, and relay information to others about what the science really says, and what claims it actually can’t make (yet).  This level-headed approach has some promise, and everyone should begin to seek out journalists, bloggers, and scientists who they come to trust over time for their analyses.  More and more today we can more easily get the actual studies online, or read interpretations from the actual doctors themselves on their blogs.  What a wonderful thing :)