STATS at George Mason University how to evaluate health risks
12. Science v journalism


Finally, it’s important to keep in mind that journalists and scientists tend to have very different perspectives on research. The news media constantly searching for the new, the exciting and the exceptional; science looks for patterns and commonalities and moves back and forth on findings until a consensus is reached. Sometimes, scientific enquiry can take a very long time to reach a definitive conclusion, while the media are easily bored, and tend to gloss over nuance and complexity for fear of their readers and viewers becoming bored too.

“New health data is something you should pay attention to, but is almost never something you should build your life around,” says Steven Sander Ross, who taught statistics at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism for years. “The problem is that the very nature of science is to inquire, look into different associations, replicate the research to see if the connection holds. Science is more like peeling layers off an onion, sooner or later, you get down to the core of the truth — or at least we hope so.”

Journalism, on the other hand, wants certainties and quick answers — what’s in, what’s out, what’s up, what’s down. Unfortunately, this means that the media will pick up early reports of effects which appear sensational, and then cover only in the back pages (if at all) the duller reality that emerges from later efforts. Watch out for this bias in all health coverage and keep it in mind when you see the next headline that seems to call for an immediate change in your behavior.



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