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John Oliver’s rant on science journalists

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At Ars Technica, John Timmer says what we all know about science journalism: Riffing off a John Oliver rant.

On Monday, all these science journalism problems were driven home yet again. The University of Gothenburg issued a press release suggesting that hunger influences our decision-making processes. This finding shouldn’t be a huge surprise; anything that distracts us seems to influence our ability to make decisions. But the release itself is a perfect example of many of the problems Oliver pointed out.

To begin with, the study was done with rats, not humans. But the very first line of the release—”Never make a decision when you are hungry”—implies that the results clearly apply to us. The other problem is that the results were generated using a grand total of only nine or 10 rats (depending on the experiment). The results weren’t very dramatic, making the conclusions extremely tenuous; there’s a good chance they were statistical flukes. More.

Indeed. Brings back memories of The Population Bomb. Humans, we were told, become violent with overcrowding. The studies were done on rats.

Anyone who has lived in a densely populated but low-threat urban environment will quickly realize that the claim was poorly founded. Humans have a much more sophisticated sense of space than rats. See Man is ever a wolf to man! – or maybe sometimes just another slowly moving barrier against the wind?

Timmer’s article ends by affirming popular pieties about “evolution” (Darwinism) and “climate change” (global warming) but apart from that, raises many interesting issues.

I (O’Leary for News) would note that science journalism differs from most types in that the journalists tend to be mere cheerleaders, not intelligent critics.

One point often missed: Anyone can read science press releases online. What’s changed is that the science journalist is no longer a gatekeeper.

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