Watch out for clickbait in science journalism

    I am all for the sharing of science news to the masses, but like any good scientist, you cannot accept results and conclusions unequivocally.

    Research and technology are advancing at incredible speeds, with one paper citing that scientific research citations increase at around ten percent per year, and Moore’s Law doubling the number of transistors, and thus computing power, every 18 months. It is a regular occurrence for major breakthroughs and discoveries to be reported. Nonetheless, there is a dark side to the coverage of these events in the less-than-reputable or exaggerated reports that often come out. In more extreme forms, it can simply be considered clickbait, which are titles that make online readers click on the news page despite the fact that the coverage is all flash and no substance.

    The main problem with such reporting is that it provides misinformation to the public about scientific advance. On a more serious note, inaccurate or exaggerated coverage can lead to distrust in the scientific community, which can have real-life consequences, such as in the case of vaccination. As the Science and Technology section has worked throughout this quarter to provide coverage on the latest and coolest advancements, we have had to analyze and evaluate science news to ensure accuracy and quality.

    Handling the most flashy of science journalism first, let us consider the recent article presenting that cephalopods, such as octopuses and squid, are evidence of alien life coming to Earth. As much as this type of article attracts readers and thus generates ad revenue, a closer inspection of the content, as science warrants us to do , makes it clear that while this paper was published in the scientific journal Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology, the author of this clickbait admits later in the article that “actually proving that this was the case is next to impossible.” So, by the end of this short article, the only knowledge gained is that a paper was published about octopuses potentially coming from the cosmos, but there is no way to prove it. And we all know that good science is based on wild speculation. Despite the intrigue that this article attracts at first glance, it was not published in the Science and Tech section for the reasons above.

    On a more general note, many articles, even if they are not along the lines of clickbait, report ideas and breakthroughs that have to be peer-reviewed and replicated. Peer review and replication are essential for good science, and this explains why so many major innovations are never referenced again. This is especially true for medical breakthroughs. For example, a gel used on rats with strokes successfully regrows brain cells. This is a potentially revolutionary medical breakthrough, but the problem is that the research has only been conducted on young rats while most strokes occur in older animals. Because of this, the gel that worked so well with young brains may not translate to success in older brains. If the news source does not state this key detail, the reader might think that the medical advancement is just around the corner when really, it will require years of replication studies and decades of trials before such progress becomes available in the medical repertoire.

    So, next time you are reading about the “next great breakthrough in science,” take the information with a grain of salt. Science takes time, and even in an age of accelerated progress, the practices of peer review and replication are still vital for science to remain in a positive state.


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