The media is always hungry for juicy stories about anything. Topics of interest range from Lindsey Lohan’s latest adventures to the implications of another political ethics violation. The science writers at the New York Times are no exception. Dennis Overbye confessed in an essay yesterday that some writers are so eager to report on sensational findings that they sometimes hype up their stories.
Shocking! Overbye gives an example of one such NYT article, which reported the amazing story that scientists found hints of the elusive and mysterious dark matter in a Minnesota mine. He said the article raised a hysteria, but it eventually left people disappointed when someone cared to report that the amount of dark matter found was not far above amounts found by chance. Dennis Overbye goes on to condemn the internet for spreading rumors, but he fails to note that the original hyped report on dark matter was written by him!
Perhaps our trusted science writers should do a bit more research before they publish their articles. But wait! they need the stories, and they need those stories to be catchy, damnit! Their job isn’t to educate readers on the current state of whatever scientific field; their job is to report the latest findings. They more controversial they are, the better. There’s a new article everyday about how exercise is good for you (or is it bad? I can’t remember anymore) or how prostate or breast exams for cancer have been wrong all these years (don’t worry – they’ll turn out to be right again next week). No wonder Americans are confused about their health.
Individual studies are great, but they have to be taken in context and have to stand the test of time. Most findings in basic science research are small; it’s the knowledge collected over many experiments and years that gives us a big picture of any one field. So the next time you read about “a new study,” take it with a critical grain of salt.