Fake News and Science Reporting - Comments

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stevendaryl
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You're absolutely right, that people should not be satisfied with a news story about some event without checking into sources. However, it's often the case that confusion about what happened is actually cleared up in the original article itself, and people come away with a false impression just because they only read the headline.
 
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Such an important topic to discuss! It will be a great challenge going forward!
 
fresh_42
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The best part of it is your example:
Wendelstein 7-X is the world’s largest fusion device of the stellarator type. Its objective is to investigate the suitability of this type for a power plant.
(Source: http://www.ipp.mpg.de/w7x - Homepage of the Max-Planck institute in Greifswald, which operates
Wendelstein 7-X, including an email address for questions.)

This statement includes the fact, that the device isn't supposed to be a prototype of a functioning nuclear reactor, rather a scientific tool to investigate the possibility of a stellarator compared to (the pulsed operation of) a tokamak.
 
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You're absolutely right, that people should not be satisfied with a news story about some event without checking into sources.
I'm willing to bet extremely few people outside the relevant specialty give any time to investigating sources.

people come away with a false impression just because they only read the headline.
People don't have time to fully read anything these days. Marketers know this extremely well and craft catchy and sometimes down right deceiving headlines. It's the problem with news information being a business. Social media has made it worse.
 
stevendaryl
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People don't have time to fully read anything these days. Marketers know this extremely well and craft catchy and sometimes down right deceiving headlines. It's the problem with news information being a business. Social media has made it worse.
Yeah, there is a lot of intentionally misleading headlines out there. But even when the headline is not intentionally misleading, the reader can get the wrong impression if he only reads the headline (or the headline and the opening paragraph).
 
fresh_42
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I'm willing to bet extremely few people outside the relevant specialty give any time to investigating sources.
I have read a quotation posted by my nephew on the US election, determined to influence opinions. As I've looked up the sources of that article, I've found the first seven sources have been a self-quotation of formerly posted statements on the same website and the eighth has been a FOX news report ...
It's not that difficult nowadays to find the sources.

I liked this a lot:
Flow chart for claims of major proofs:

Is it sent to one of the leading journals?
-- No: It is not a valid proof
-- Yes: Did it pass peer review?
-----In progress: It is probably not a valid proof
-----No: It is not a valid proof
-----Yes: It gets interesting. Did a mathematician find a flaw within 2 years?
--------Yes: It is not a valid proof.
--------No: It is probably a valid proof.
 
Ygggdrasil
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This also happens a lot in biology. For example, Science has a nice news story covering how one small developmental biology paper got overblown by the media, with headlines that were completely wrong:
So, without further ado, the recipe for transforming a modest developmental biology paper into a blockbuster story, as it played out yesterday in the media:

  1. Take one jargon-filled paper title: "Mice produced by mitotic reprogramming of sperm injected into haploid parthenogenotes"
  2. Distill its research into more accessible language. Text of Nature Communications press release: Mouse sperm injected into a modified, inactive embryo can generate healthy offspring, shows a paper in Nature Communications. And add a lively headline: "Mouse sperm generate viable offspring without fertilization in an egg"
  3. Enlist an organization to invite London writers to a press briefing with paper’s authors.
    Headline of Science Media Centre press release: "Making embryos from a non-egg cell"
  4. Have same group distribute a laudatory quote from well-known and respected scientist:
    “[It’s] a technical tour de force.”
  5. Bake for 24 hours and present without additional reporting. Headline in The Telegraph: "Motherless babies possible as scientists create live offspring without need for female egg," and in The Guardian: "Skin cells might be used instead of eggs to make embryos, scientists say."
http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/09/motherless-babies-how-create-tabloid-science-headline-five-easy-steps

The path from research paper to press release to news story is essentially a bad game of telephone that distorts scientific findings at each step.

Also, obligatory XKCD reference:
wikipedian_protester.png

https://xkcd.com/285/
 
jim mcnamara
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My field, Biology, is the worst for 'post-truth' news claims using weak references to journal articles. Nutrition claims and medical breakthroughs constitute an almost daily blitz of poorly informed hype and or blatant advertising claims.

I feel the fake news thing overlaps largely into the 'post-truth' thing:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Post-truth_politics
- with the exception that a lot of fake news is self-serving from the writers point of view.

In the case of bad science reporting, it can well be a writer trying to keep a job by generating interest in his/her column, for example. So called 'slant' on a topic. Call it fake news, post-truth, or 'tribal science' (e.g., anti-vaxxers) . Or maybe religion as @mfb feels this stuff sometimes amounts to....

Name your poison.

Edit oops @Ygggdrasil beat me to it. And did a better job.
 
fresh_42
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You are not the average reader :)
I've never before read so much "quotes" of questionable content than in this year's campaigns. Even if I didn't search for their origin doesn't mean I believed them. Mostly I took it as an entertainment.
IMO weak journalism is the real danger to our modern democracies. I really believe that a democracy depends on educated voters. We've experienced where a "public vote" can get us to. It frightens me to see former confidential magazines deteriorate and mass media making opinions. I'm not sure whether it really got worse the recent two decades or whether I'm simply complaining by "the good old times".

The more I appreciate the lonesome callers for references on PF, although I sometimes think, a negative answer would have been shorter. At least this habit shows future generations of scientists how to do it properly. Too many faked reports have already damaged science: copied thesis, the famous autism-MMR link and probably many more.
 
Choppy
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An excellent article ZapperZ!
 
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This needs to be trending all over the internet. And mandatory literature for any high school student say older than 14.

One thing I wonder is how to remedy especially the second part of
But how many of the members of the general public will (i) do that and (ii) be able to understand the technical details of the paper?
We all know media outlets won't start hiring (possibly on a freelance basis) professionals to create articles suitable for the general public. Simply because its easier to use their full time "journalists" to create some flashy content.
 
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A nice article!

I'm not sure if Wendelstein was the best example:
People will think that the stellerator is now working and they’re moving on to the next phase.
That is true: It is a research reactor designed to test the plasma. It had test plasmas already. Now they are installing a better divertor, with the aim to increase the plasma pressure and pulse duration afterwards. At no point do the articles claim that the reactor would have had fusion reactions or other similar wrong things. Calling Wendelstein 7-X a "fusion reactor" is misleading, but that is done by the scientific community as well.

I have seen far worse news on similar websites.

IMO weak journalism is the real danger to our modern democracies.
Journalism adapts to whatever the target audience wants to read. If many people prefer fake/misleading news over actual news (for whatever reason: sounds better, fits better to their world view, ...), then they get fake/misleading news.
 
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I'd make the case for teaching basic numeracy here, and by that I mean statistics, and not even the hard stuff.

What I mean is, even if you are not versed in a particular subject, it is very easy to see when a study is done badly if you know the basics of sample size, various kinds of bias, correlation does not imply causation, etc. Some of the best insights I got about critical reading were probability and statistics books written for a lay audience.

--Dave K
 
fresh_42
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Journalism adapts to whatever the target audience wants to read. If many people prefer fake/misleading news over actual news (for whatever reason: sounds better, fits better to their world view, ...), then they get fake/misleading news.
Sounds a bit like the hen-egg-paradox. I seriously doubt, that worse journalism leads to better orders.
Spiegel_stern_Langzeit-1.jpg


Source: http://meedia.de/2016/02/12/historische-analyse-spiegel-und-stern-im-66-jahre-auflagentrend-rekorde-mit-kennedy-und-dem-irak-krieg/

And it doesn't look better for the NYT:
http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/03/business/media/new-york-times-co-reports-an-advertising-drop-though-digital-results-grew.html?_r=0
 
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What does that plot show, apart from the general decline of printed newspapers and some different historic development of those two particular newspapers?

I don't say "worse journalism => more copies sold". I say "whatever sells more copies (with reasonable effort), gets done." There is no particular reason why the optimum should be at the best quality. Consider the BILD: They sell a huge amount of newspapers, and they are well-known for poor journalism - even by those buying it.
 
fresh_42
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What does that plot show, apart from the general decline of printed newspapers and some different historic development of those two particular newspapers?
At least for one of the magazines I can tell that quality deteriorated in the last decade. So less quality doesn't imply better order figures. Thus it is at least questionable, that people like to read bad journalism.
 
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Circulation goes down for all newspapers. This is a general trend, in the last years mainly due to the internet. To start a comparison, you would have to normalize the copies sold by the overall number of newspapers sold. But even then there are many things that can influence the success of a newspaper, reducing that to a single number does not work.
 
fresh_42
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But even then there are many things that can influence the success of a newspaper, reducing that to a single number does not work.
But neither does the simple claim that
Journalism adapts to whatever the target audience wants to read.
This might apply to media like FOX news, The Sun or similar with an automatic high demand, but I doubt that this simple rule of economy also applies to markets with lower demands without adjustments in form of restrictions or initial values. Adam Smith isn't the cure for everything.
 
ZapperZ
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A nice article!

I'm not sure if Wendelstein was the best example:
That is true: It is a research reactor designed to test the plasma. It had test plasmas already. Now they are installing a better divertor, with the aim to increase the plasma pressure and pulse duration afterwards. At no point do the articles claim that the reactor would have had fusion reactions or other similar wrong things. Calling Wendelstein 7-X a "fusion reactor" is misleading, but that is done by the scientific community as well.
I disagree, because you are reading it through your own eyes and through your own understanding.

I gave the two web articles to 3 friends who are not scientists, but neither are they uneducated. I asked them what they understood out of it. They ALL had different answers EXCEPT for the most important part, which was the verification of the magnetic field, which was the whole point of the publication that was cited. In other words, these articles are about anything BUT the main story, which was buried deep inside layers and layers of sexier diversions.

You are welcome to try this out for yourself on your unsuspecting friends.

The point here is not what physicists or scientists, or experts can gain out of this. These news summaries were not made for them. They were written in a simple-enough language for the general public to digest. If they missed the actual point that was being reported, then these articles are not doing what they were supposed to.

I have seen far worse news on similar websites.
And so have I. But this was the latest one that got my goat and the one that was finally the impetus for me to write about it.

Zz.
 
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I'm engaged in a long term experiment. About eight years ago I started to stop reading newspapers and watching tv. It was difficult at first, I kept sneaking peeks at headlines in shops and reading things in waiting rooms.

I had become very cynical about 'news' as a result of a long term study of recent history. I began to wonder what it would be like to have lived at a time without instant news.

Finally about a year ago I completely stopped reading any newspaper or watching any tv including any online news article unless it is absolutely un-avoidable.

For example I had no idea who had won the election in the US until a recent topic here in PF. I still have no idea which party rules at home in Australia. (there's a clue for 'all around the world'.) Sooner or later someone will mention it in a conversation.

I expected in joining a science forum I'd be 'safe'. It's very interesting to see that even here there is a real concern about news reporting re science, fact v fiction. I guess I've always had a deep trust in science and scientists.

Anyway, the lack of news has made me fitter, healthier and happier with a greater enthusiasm for life. I don't think ignorance in this way is bliss but it is way more amusing.
 
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Anyway, the lack of news has made me fitter, healthier and happier with a greater enthusiasm for life. I don't think ignorance in this way is bliss but it is way more amusing.
How do you stay informed?
 
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They ALL had different answers EXCEPT for the most important part, which was the verification of the magnetic field, which was the whole point of the publication that was cited.
Wendelstein did more than checking the magnetic field already, and without a scientific education it is hard to follow the details of that. "Wendelstein tests things about fusion, they did some tests of their new machine, the tests were successful" is already something correct to take away.
Much better than people asking about the "new [elementary] particle we found at the LHC last year". No, we did not find a new particle, there was just some statistical fluctuation that sometimes got misreported as new particle. And I don't even want to remember how the OPERA results got misreported.
 

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