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English Detective #79 Misleading Science Journalism: 2-28-17
February 28, 2017

There is so much misinformation, as well as useful information, about new scientific research findings (not to mention the controversy over “fake news!”)

Here are several articles on the dangers of journalistic carelessness in investigating research claims, and of potential exaggeration of the claims themselves. (Two articles report on a deliberately misleading study published in order to expose that carelessness and push reporters to do the necessary source-checking.}

They point out ways to recognize well-validated research and separate it from poorly designed or inadequate research, hype, and misleading reporting. These are important skills for scientifically-literate citizens and consumers.

This NPR article talks about the scam research mentioned above—an experiment by a science journalist who wanted to see how many news organizations would report on his badly designed study without checking the size of the study sample (way too small) or the significance of the results.

(He found that far too many newspapers passed on the results he reported without doing even the most basic investigation into their validity.)

This is his own report on the experiment. It’s quite long, but it clearly explains the principles journalists SHOULD use to evaluate research, though many did not use them when they considered his research.

Here is another NPR article, this time about research on leukemia that disappointed the reporter because it did not prove what the researcher claimed it did. The science reporter explains how she investigated the claims, and how she confirmed that the research did NOT justify the claims the researcher had made.

Scientific Journalism Vocabulary

The Language of Research discusses several more articles about avoiding research bias. (Those articles are well worth reading if you missed the June 2016 English Detective.)

It also gives examples of other research reporting and a crossword puzzle (link at the bottom of the page) that practice much of the vocabulary used in this issue’s articles, including benefits, data, demonstrate, flawed, significant, and statistics.

Other words like ethics, journal, journalism and journalists, media, and publications are explained in Understanding the News in English.

Two words that are important in these articles and not explained on those pages are defined below.

To deceive is to deliberately mislead someone (try to get them to believe something that is not true.)

A scam is a trick. It usually involves persuading someone to buy something that they would not want to buy if they knew all the facts.

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