Don’t Trust the Headlines

Source: @DoUBelieveInDog

Source: @DoUBelieveInDog

Too often, it is difficult to know what is reliable information and what’s junk.

If you read this blog with any regularity then you know I strongly emphasize the importance of going to the primary source because there is a lot of bad, bad, bad stuff out there. While it’s easy to dismiss a one-off crank selling dog mysticism to the gullible, it becomes much harder when the misinformation comes from a seemingly reputable newspaper reporting on a research paper.

Can you trust a newspaper? The official press release? Maybe not. A study appearing in BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal)  found official press releases were unreliable, often making exaggerated claims; this in turn led to misleading newspaper articles and reports.

You may have been lucky enough to come across Julie Hecht‘s excellent summary of Norman’s paper titled “Down but not out: Supine postures as facilitators of play in domestic dogs.”  If you haven’t, I invite you to read them both. The journal is not paywalled so anyone can access it; you can even download the PDF for future reference.

Not only am I a regular reader of Hecht’s SciAm blog (and the collaborative effort with Mia Cobb) but also a Twitter follower. That’s how I found out about this horrible piece of reporting from the DailyMail. Cobb was so struck by the article’s inaccuracy she posted a picture of it with the word “WRONG” emblazoned across it.

About the only good thing you can say about the article, is that they link back to Hecht’s original piece so you can see how wrong they are.It also points to something I keep saying; if you haven’t read the original research paper then you have no business writing about the study.

We shouldn’t be too surprised DailyMail got it wrong; they have an abysmal track record when it comes to science, there is even a website dedicated to documenting their outrageous stories. Unfortunately they are not alone; a GoogleNews search led to several other news articles with questionable headlines and faulty content.

There must be a lot of misinformed people out there.

Science bloggers: there is a lot of work ahead of you and most of it is uphill.

So how do you know who to trust? One good meter of a writer is how many other writers follow. Science bloggers and writers like to read the work of other science writers; if no other science writer is following your favorite blogger, you should ask yourself why? It’s not perfect but it’s a good start. Always be skeptical (that’s different from being a cynic) and if you can – of course – go to the primary source.

Anyone have other ideas about how one can avoid being taken in by quacks or lousy reporting? I’d like to hear your recommendations.

 

REFERENCES

Sumner P, Vivian-Griffiths S, Boivin J, Williams A, Venetis CA, Davies A, Ogden J, Whelan L, Hughes B, Dalton B, Boy F, & Chambers CD (2014). The association between exaggeration in health related science news and academic press releases: retrospective observational study. BMJ (Clinical research ed.), 349 PMID: 25498121

Norman K, Pellis S, Barrett L, & Peter Henzi S (2015). Down but not out: Supine postures as facilitators of play in domestic dogs. Behavioural processes, 110, 88-95 PMID: 25217866

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