Why science must combat sensationalism

Sci Ani

I remember once whilst flicking through a certain popular newspaper, I noticed a headline claiming that ‘one glass of red wine a day prevents breast cancer’.

Naturally, like anyone, I became intrigued, and delved right into the content.

Now, I guess I’m different to most other readers, as I already have an academic background in science, so I more-or-less know how to smell rubbish when it is staring me in the face.

Reading the article in front of me, the first half carried on with the sensationalised theme of red wine as the miracle cure for breast cancer. Fantastic news if true, but highly doubtful – especially when included on page 36.

It wasn’t until the very last paragraph that anything of any scientific merit was included, finally mentioning the actual research the claim had been based on. And boy, did the rubbish smell fresh.

The research was actually conducted on the cells within the skin of a type of grape used to make a particular type of red wine. Nowhere in the actual research paper itself (yes, I checked) did it say anything about red wine or the influence drinking one glass a day would make. Nor did it specifically mention breast cancer.

Research actually shows that drinking one glass per day can be bad for health, and can actually be a causative effect towards breast cancer – but that’s beside the point.

To the average viewer reading this extensively exaggerated, fabricated claim, they may not think to question the scientific validity behind it and will take it as fact. Research even shows that people lose their attention as quickly as eight seconds now, so a lot of readers wouldn’t have even reached the paragraph discussing the actual research itself.
There are so many other examples of this – you only need to ask the person sitting next to you to hear some of the scientific claims that people have heard.

This is why you as a researcher need to ensure that your work is represented in a way that is accurate, true and accessible to the general public. With the growth of modern-day media streams – whether it be Facebook, Twitter, TV, radio, whatever – information is everywhere, and it is vital that people know what to believe.

Together, scientists can stop sensationalism.

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