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When I happened upon the article a few days ago, it was first the title that bothered me.  Please, go read it…I’ll wait! (if you have time, I also recommend reading the actual paper for comparison)

My problem was mainly that the title seemed very disproportionate to the overall topic of the article (though I realize this is a convention of  journalistic writing), but also because…well, the article just seemed…off, for lack of a better term.

And so, I felt compelled to vet a story by a major news outlet.  Which, of course, was then picked up by other news outlets (Faux News strikes again!).  10 minutes on Google, and I can tell you that this is not only a ridiculously misrepresented piece of fluff, but like most misrepresented news stories, dangerously so.

So…here’s the part of the story that The Guardian–and every other news outlet left out (and probably won’t bother to report).

This is not some government report written by government scientists on the possibilities of alien visitation and what responses should be taken.

From the blog of one of authors:

A while ago, a couple good friends of mine (Seth Baum and Jacob Haqq-Misra) approached me about a paper they were writing, and asked if I wanted to join them on it. The paper was a review of all the different proposed situations for contact with an alien civilization. I didn’t think this was particularly important. After all, I consider the likelihood of contact with an alien civilization to be low. It certainly wasn’t urgent, as I don’t expect this to happen anytime soon. But… it sounded like fun and I decided to join in on it. So we wrote the paper, but I have to admit that Seth and Jacob put in the vast majority of the work on it. One of the scenarios we considered in the review was the possibility that an alien civilization would contact us because they were concerned about the exponential growth of our civilization, as evidenced by climate change. This isn’t an entirely new idea; remember, this was a review effort. Indeed, Keanu Reaves recently played a similar alien in the movie “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” There were lots of other ideas we reviewed, but this was probably the most provocative.

Its actually a scientific paper written by three  guys who had gone to grad school together for a scientific journal, whose goal is to publish:

original contributions in all fields of basic, engineering, life and social space sciences and of space technology related to: the peaceful scientific exploration of space, its exploitation for human welfare and progress and the conception, design, development and operation of space-borne and Earth-based systems. (source)

Somehow, this hypothetical exercise by a couple of college buddies got picked up by a major news outlet and turned into a major news story (pending deadline? slow news day?)…a news story written in such a way that the average reader assumes this is NASA report, and a news story (particularly by the outlets that picked it up later) that paints scientists (and therefor science) as *out there* and even becomes partisan fodder for all that is wrong with the federal government (all because the convention of scientific journal authorship calls for one’s academic affiliation, and one of the authors happened to work for NASA).

So here’s the deal, folks. Yes, I work at NASA. It’s also true that I work at NASA Headquarters. But I am not a civil servant… just a lowly postdoc. More importantly, this paper has nothing to do with my work there. (source)

“When data are distorted, there are real world consequences.”

Many researchers have seen their results distorted beyond recognition as they filtered through mass media. A decade ago, three medical researchers (Ian J. Deary, Martha C. Whiteman, and F.G.R. Fowkes) published a study about the link between personality and heart disease, finding that “men and women with more submissiveness were less likely to have a myocardial infarction.”

The first few stories, in major newspapers, were fairly accurate. But the researchers watched in horror as their results were recast as an anti-feminist message, with headlines such as, “Do what hubby says and you’ll live longer; Professors’ shock advice to women,” and “Put down that rolling pin, darling, it’s bad for your heart.”

The British medical journal The Lancet reported on the media’s distortion of this research, quoting one newspaper editor who lauded the “rolling pin” phrase: “How many readers, I wonder, were able to pass that headline without the flicker of a smile?” he said. “For this is what the game is about: stopping readers in their tracks long enough to read the story.” (source)

Unfortunately this seems to be the media’s modus operandi for many stories–flashy headline, selective reporting of “facts” and misrepresentation of conclusions.  Combine shoddy journalism with the low rate of scientific literacy in this country, and its no surprise that so many people have taken this news story at face value, not even realizing that something was “off” about it.  Hopefully the author that is doing post-doc research at NASA won’t be in too much trouble for all of this…but what about when its someone’s health on the line, or when someone’s life decisions are influenced by a false or misleading report or when public policy (or lack of public policy) that influences our health and welfare is decided ?

(Linda) Schwartz and colleague Steven Woloshin analyzed U.S. newspaper, TV and radio reports on research from five major scientific meetings. Their findings:

  • Only 2 of 175 stories about unpublished studies noted that the study was unpublished.
  • One-third of the articles failed to mention how many participants were in a study [studies with only a few test subjects are sometimes later refuted by larger studies].
  • 40 percent of the reports did not quantify the main result of the research.
  • Just one out of 17 news reports on animal studies noted that results might not apply to humans.

“Unless journalists are careful to provide basic study facts and highlight limitations, the public may be misled about the meaning, importance and validity of the research,” Woloshin said. (source)

Don’t get me wrong, its not all mean ole journalists kicking poor little science like a beat up soccer ball, just trying to score with the big story.  If you read the article from The Guardian, you may have checked out the comments.  How many readers took that story at face value?  How many blew it out of proportion as an opportunity to knock NASA (whom they wrongly thought was responsible for the story), to complain about science and scientists, and even to use it as a way to promote a political ideology?  It took me all of 10 minutes on Google to find and read through the blogs and personal websites of the three authors for the pertinent information.  We too are responsible when we stop in our tracks and read an article because of the flashy headline without questioning it, and without demanding better journalism from our news sources when it is seen to be false.

For the rest of us media consumers, we have to remember that new, surprising, or scary reports are designed to attract (and often get) our increasingly fragmented attention. We have to weigh these reports, and put them into context, through a combination of scientific and media literacy: Who conducted the study, why, and with what funding? How many people were studied, for how long, and who and where were they? If the research posits dangers in your coffee or toothpaste, how big are these risks compared to other health risks, or compared to potential benefits of that habit or product? (source)

The moral of this story?  Don’t get your science from the media, and don’t let the media frame your ideology.