Did you know you’re stressing your dog out if you try to hug it? That you should definitely eat chocolate if you’re pregnant to help both you and the baby? And, best of all, that if you drink a glass of wine, it’s equivalent to spending an hour at the gym?
All of these are previous news story and video headlines about scientific studies, which have begun frequently making their way onto the pages of Facebook, Twitter, and Buzzfeed. The unfortunate outcome of this new fad is that now everyone from high school kids to grandparents are reading the headlines, perhaps skimming some of the news article itself and acting like they can speak with authority about research. In their minds, they probably actually believe they’re talking about research intelligently, but they’re not. And I’ve had my fill of it.
As “Last Week Tonight” host John Oliver put it in one of his epic rants this summer, the reporting of these studies is problematic at best. When press releases get sent to newspapers and news shows, most journalists reading them aren’t equipped to realize that what they are reading is a bastardized version of what the study actually involved. If it has an eye-catching headline, the journalists are going to be sold and generally will parrot the press release instead of asking more questions, since all the necessary information seems to be there. They then write up the news stories or make the videos people see online, taking them as full truths without question.
I know this because I used to be a journalist. Despite all the education required for the career path, at no point are journalists trained to be research methodologists. Thus, even if journalists took the time to ask researchers about the studies, it’s unlikely they would be able to properly critique the legitimacy of the findings. The press releases about studies, however, are written in layman’s terms and perfect for passing right onto the audience.
And yet, as much as it seems people like to blame media for everything, it is the professors who are to blame for the manipulation to findings and significance of the poorly written news stories we are seeing on social media. Although it is not an excuse, this clearly comes in a large part due to the intense university pressure for professors to publish. If you want tenure, and of course you do, you need at least one study published a year, though at research-focused universities it could be upwards of 4–5 annually. However, completing just one study can take a year or more to go from conceptualization to the final product, and that’s only if the first journal you send it to accepts it with minor revisions. If you get rejected, it could take much longer, especially since you’re not allowed to shop it around to more than one journal at a time.
Professors are also expected to try to get their research to the masses, hence why these studies are now being passed onto and quoted in popular culture. However, many of these studies are about things that are so minute they wouldn’t seem interesting to anyone outside that discipline, so the headlines have to sell outcomes that might not really be there. Making major discoveries is actually a glacial process in the sciences, so if you want people to read your study and remember it, you’ve got to make it look far more groundbreaking than it is.
So, what’s a regular consumer of social media to do if they don’t have 2–6 years to head to graduate school and study research methodology?
First, don’t assume that if something is published it’s properly done or has produced revolutionary findings. The journal itself might have a poor editorial board of peer reviewers. It could take a large number of submissions, which generally equates to being a subpar publication. Decent journals tend to take around 10 percent or fewer of submissions they receive.
Other things to consider are how the implications of the study are discussed. Are they stretched far beyond who they should apply to? For instance, if the study was done on rats, are claims being made that the findings are also true for humans? Was a hypothesis only partially supported but is being discussed as though it was completely valid?
So, the next time you read about or see something in the news regarding a study you find interesting, actually do some background research. What did the actual study say? How might that be different than how the news summary framed it?
If there’s information in the study you don’t understand or you don’t feel like even searching for the original document, simply don’t speak about the findings with authority. Admonishing others every time you see someone hugging an animal because you read something you only kind of understand doesn’t make you sound smart. It just kind of makes you an asshole who is desperate to seem superior.