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In science we trust?

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Likes, shares and clicks-the modern world has new currencies. To the average Joe these mount up to little more than a momentary morale boost. For modern news and media outlets it’s what their livelihoods depend on.

Click worthy headlines and shareable articles are increasingly necessary for those looking to turn a profit, but there is a growing criticism towards how mainstream media reports on science. Headlines and articles, knowingly or not, can often present findings to be more conclusive than they really are in the search for shareability, and viral media means that falsehoods can spread like wildfire. As a result, there are fears that the growing distrust of major news outlets is spreading into science.

Headlines and articles, knowingly or not, can often present findings to be more conclusive than they really are in the search for shareability…

In science research the study itself, or how the information was found, is arguably as important as the results. We need to understand where potential inaccuracies and biases may arise and if these may have impacted the outcome. Therefore, when recent findings are reported without how they were found being stated correctly, there can be consequences.

In recent months a survey published by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) in conjunction with the Young Health Movement charity made the rounds. The survey suggested that, compared to other social media outlets, Instagram is “most likely to cause young people to feel depressed and lonely”. Obviously this story was thought to be of interest to readers and listeners, so many outlets (including SciTech!) reported on it and the story was widely shared. However, some articles did not mention that the result was from a survey and some even suggested it was from more stringent scientific research. On the surface, this may not seem like the most important distinction to make. If the findings aren’t as important as the results of a drug trial for example, does it matter if people think they were gained from more scientific methods rather than from a survey?

A survey’s findings are more easily debunked if potential flaws in how the information was gathered are found…

However, this isn’t the case. One obvious issue is that readers can take findings as ‘gospel’, making them misinformed on important issues. At the other end of a spectrum, a survey’s findings are more easily debunked if potential flaws in how the information was gathered are found, and once a flaw is spotted people can turn their backs on the science itself. While here the problem obviously lies with mainstream media reporting findings incorrectly, one danger is that blame will be passed to the source itself, ruining reputations and discrediting a survey that still holds merit as an insight into an area of research. This will undoubtedly raise distrust in a survey’s findings, but in more serious cases could also result in distrust in mainstream science as a whole.

Worryingly, when trust in the mainstream falls people are may also be likely to turn to those seen as outsiders, and credibility is built up for sources which support ‘alternative science’. Outlets that are anti-vaccine, don’t believe in global warming and heavily trust in untested homeopathy could see a rise in traffic, and issues like these are arguably far more serious.

It’s best to read past a headline before sharing an article and to check that the content is accurate too.

This one mistake isn’t going to end trust in science, but as mistakes build up over time the possibility of this could become reality. Not every science journalist is careless, but we all have the potential to be, so it’s best to read past a headline before sharing an article and to check that the content is accurate too. While this won’t entirely stop falsehoods from spreading, it will help to limit their impact and hopefully maintain the necessary trust in science.

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