On Navigating the Realm of Science and Fake News

If you’re interested in science, you’re interested in the truth. Why else do we adhere to the rigorous standards of the scientific methods — those steps of making an observation, hypothesizing about the problem at hand, testing the hypothesis with sets of experiments, and making conclusions based on your results. Sometimes, this requires totally revising your original hypothesis. But, this is how we learn — both what works, and often just as important, what doesn’t. Negative results, while often shunned by the media and left unpublished by scientific journals, lead us to conclude things about our research that can be just as informative. For instance — if we implement an exercise training study aimed at improving blood glucose profiles or cardiovascular fitness of diabetic subjects, and after 8 weeks observe no significant difference (for this we use the decisive p-value .05) in our experimental group, then we can conclude that this training regimen fails to work for this cohort. While we haven’t found something that may be beneficial, we’ve found something that isn’t, and can revise our experiments accordingly.

Unfortunately, negative results often fly outside the radar of media outlets, and even scientists are hesitant to publish or report results because, let’s face it, they aren’t as interesting as a bold and sexy new finding. We want to see the magical “10-minute workout” that drastically improves fitness, the gene editing technique that promises to be the future of disease prevention. It’s bold findings like these that aspiring scientists dream of. At heart, I don’t think most scientists are driven by the need for confirmation or fame (although it’s nice when it comes). However, the reason we do science, is to disseminate our results and hopefully make a positive impact on the scientific community. Our discovery of truth can be seen as a service to society — providing them with information they may not have gotten otherwise; information they can implement. This truth can also help other scientists who can build upon our research and design new experiments, discover even more information, and move the scientific agenda forward.

However, to properly drive science forward and ensure that the public is receiving quality, robust, and valuable knowledge, we must hold truth in the highest esteem.

But what is “truth.” As I see it, truth in science means that the results we have observed in an experiment are really what occurs, and will reliably occur, should we repeat the experiment again. Replicable results are one indication of truth — it shows us that the results we have seen occurred because of our intervention, not some source of error or variability in the design. Truth also mandates that our results are free of bias — which may occur due to the experiment or due to researchers’ expectations and analysis used.

When we read research, we take it as an article of faith that what is reported is “true.” The limitations section, properly constructed, will let us in on what the researchers think may be a source of experimental error or bias — basically a description of the experiments imperfections (of which there are usually many). It is our job as scientists to ensure that we both read with scrutiny and publish with just as much skepticism. No experiment is perfect, and no result is “law”.

This is where recently, “journalism” has failed in science. The concept of “fake news” is hardly new, but the ubiquitous use of the phrase is, and the use of the actual news is increasingly relevant. While often political, used to describe the spread of fake stories that appear to be news to influence political agenda or alter public opinion, fake news is not limited to goings on at Capitol Hill. Science receives its fair share of coverage that, in one way or another, doesn’t qualify as clean journalism.

The term “fake” here may be too harsh — most scientific journalism or headlines aren’t inherently fake in the sense that the results are fabricated out of thin air. This has happened, but it is rare. The problem with science journalism (think click-bait headline in the Huffington Post) is that there is a gap between the “truth” discovered by research labs and the “truth” reported in the media. Often this presents itself as a grand headline; “Meat Causes Cancer” or “Weight Lifting Leads to a Longer Life.” These titles grasp reader’s attention, doing their job for the media outlet by gaining clicks and shares. For a public not properly educated in science, however, these headlines are misleading at best, and at worst, unfounded. Information from a respectable news source, expected to be true, may cause behavior change in individuals and even influence public policy. If this change is based on lackadaisical reporting– then we have a serious issue at hand.

Why does “fake” news in science occur? The first source may be a case of “telephone” — that the truth is lost in translation from scientist to journalist. In this instance, the journalist may be unaware that the information being reported is not quite as it was found to be. While sympathy in this case is warranted, it remains the job of journalists to check, and re-check, their work. A second and more heinous source of fake news occurs because of a blatant exaggeration of science; for the sake of gaining reads at the expense of scientific truth. In this case, the journalist, the scientist, or both are involved in taking one primary finding and blowing it up into a grand generalization of scientific truth. This, we cannot accept. While this may not be “lying” in strictest sense, it surely isn’t telling the truth as it is.

As undergraduate and graduate students in training, what can we do about this? Unfortunately, the mis-reporting at the popular media level is out of our control for the most part. What we can do is ensure that our research is communicated as clearly as possible to those responsible for putting out headlines. Ideally, we can communicate our own research at the public level (outside scholarly journals) as a primary source. Who better to educate the public on experimental findings than the one doing the experiment? From us, this requires knowing what, how, and why we are doing the research, and knowingly how to disseminate our results in an understandable way.

For this, we must hold the truth in the highest regard. Having seen numerous headlines lately that grossly overstate findings from a study, I have made it my goal to never do the same of my own and other’s research. Sometimes, this may come at the cost of saying “I don’t know” if presented with a question about a topic I know nothing about. Better uninformed that ill-informed, in my opinion. As students, we are taught how to properly conduct science — let’s use this for the greater good. I promise, you will be prouder of the research you do if you know that, firstly, it is conducted in a controlled and rigorous manner and secondly, if you explain your results in a way that will be of benefit to the public. Isn’t that what science is all about?

Originally published at physio3.wordpress.com on January 24, 2018.

PhD candidate at the University of Florida — Science writing with a particular focus on exercise and nutrition interventions, aging, health, and disease.