Preposterous Universe

Monday, May 17, 2004
Studies link black to white, up to down

You wonder why people get confused by science stories in the press? Two studies on the efficacy of Atkins-like low-carb/high-protein diets were recently reported in the Annals of Internal Medicine. If you visited the Google News page devoted to coverage of these stories (here is the page itself, although the content may shift with time), these are the first six headlines you would have seen, without any editing on my part: Remember, these are reports on the same two studies. Scorecard: two positive headlines, two negative, one noncommittal, one ambiguous ("...in short term").

Sometimes, if the medium is not actually the message, it nevertheless garbles the message so much as to be counterproductive. In particular, the need for a short and punchy headline forces distortion, not just oversimplification, of the story being reported. (Let's face it, would you click first on the story from the Minneapolis Star Tribune?)

You can't blame science reporters, who have a tough job and don't write headlines anyway. A daily newspaper is just not an effective way to teach science. The news cycle demands that results be packaged in both catchy and timely ways, whereas the actual way that science is done is more often characterized by a gradual emergence of consensus. Not that I know what the proper remedy is, other than to teach students to be more aware and science-literate by the time they finish high school, so can they take simple headlines with a grain of salt.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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