Reading science headlines may cause cancer. Not really. But reading headlines alone — particularly misleading or mendacious ones that distort scientific findings — can cause real harm.
“There is definitely fallout from misunderstanding science,” said Dr. Ruth Etzioni, a biostatistician with Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. "Policymakers who have to evaluate the evidence and find the truth in all of this noise may push for the wrong policies." And individuals, she said, may reject beneficial interventions and embrace those that are costly and potentially harmful.
Headlines are not the takeaway, Etzioni said.
“They should only be used to decide whether to read the article or not,” she said. “They’re written to grab eyeballs and they’re often inflammatory and not scientific.”
But headlines — often written to gain clicks, not convey information — have become the takeaway in our TLDR (too long, didn’t read) society.
And it doesn’t stop there.
Faulty headlines, flawed stories and even puffy PR pieces from research institutions are often picked up and repackaged by news aggregators and health and lifestyle blogs, which results in even more overhyped headlines and misinformation crowding our social feeds and confusing the public. That misinformation then gets promoted via social media by the same organizations to grab eyeballs. And groups with a particular agenda will spread the already distorted information with their own, intentional distortions to support their ideas. It’s like the game Telephone, except instead of making your friends giggle, you accidentally hurt them by passing along bad information.
A recent study on hair dye and chemical straighteners spun so far off course that the people most at risk — black women who use these products more than others — weren’t even mentioned in most of the coverage. Instead, headlines warned that “Hair dyes could raise risk of breast cancer” or predicted new trends about fearful women “going gray” or took crazy liberties with the researchers’ findings. Fast Company even provided a few creative descriptors, “A harrowing study of 46,000 women shows hair dyes are heavily associated with cancer.” Associated, yes. Heavily — if that means strongly — not at all.
But it’s not just that science headlines are overblown or inaccurate, it’s that tiny studies with little statistical heft, or “power,” will get huge media attention. Or extremely complicated research that requires nuance and context is reported with neither. Or the constant back and forth of conflicting studies confuses people so much they start to get all their health and medical advice from Dr. Dre.
It doesn’t help that scientists are often unable to explain their research in a 10-second, lay-friendly sound byte. Instead, they talk about statistically positive linear trends, risk associations, multivariable Cox regression analyses, and relative and absolute risk. It’s no surprise that earnest scientists and public servants of the National Institutes of Health fail to draw the same level of attention and glamor to their work when they’re up against some goopy actress / lifestyle entrepreneur.
– Fred Hutch biostatistician Dr. Ruth Etzioni
Epidemiological and clinical research, usually the studies that attract the most attention from the media, are complicated, and the average reader may not have the chops to cut through the jargon and comprehend the statistics-speak. See Susan Keown’s story on understanding statistics, numeracy and risk models.
Health and science journalists can do this for us, turning scientific papers into understandable news stories for the lay reader. But general interest media outlets like newspapers and broadcast news have cut back on their science reporters and reporting. And while many science-focused content providers have sprouted up, they are competing for the same eyeballs and ad dollars as sports and lifestyle outlets — which can lead to shallower dives into the latest science.
Meanwhile, the volume of research papers is exploding, with something like 3 million papers published in 2018 alone.
How can the public tell whether good science has fallen victim to an overblown headline or questionable science has gone viral due to clickbait-y coverage?
“The first thing people should do is read the story, not just the headline,” Etzioni said. “Then you should find the study and read that [editor’s note: if you are able — many have paywalls]. Then you may want to go online and see if you can find studies that disagree with it. You may well see that there are just as many studies that find the opposite results. At that point, you might decide to throw up your hands, but don’t. This is the process of science.”
Etzioni said other important questions to ask include: How big is the study? How long do they follow the people for results? How do they measure the things they’re seeking to measure? And, are there any conflicts of interest?
Readers, particularly patients trying to better understand medical research, can always rely on sites like NIH.gov or the National Cancer Institute’s cancer.gov for good solid information. But readers should also consider the following questions when reading health and science stories (and the studies they’re based on):
Still wondering how you can better sift through the overstatements, the exaggerations, the "spinning science" that we encounter in our daily lives? Read on for some tips and tools to help you separate science fact from science fiction.
Diane Mapes is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. She has written extensively about health issues for NBC News, TODAY, CNN, MSN, Seattle Magazine and other publications. A breast cancer survivor, she blogs at doublewhammied.com and tweets @double_whammied. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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