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Science journalism at its worst?


Well, maybe not, but this stuff is certainly bad.

In “Dodgy tales of ‘research’ swirling the globe” (New Scientist, 31 May 2012), Daniel Engber gives us the lowdown on shoddy science journalism:

Also in the past few weeks, the UK press fawned over a comely chip-shop girl from Kent who was found by a national television network to have a scientifically validated, perfect face. The British version of The Huffington Post reported on a mathematical formula for the “perfect sandwich” – produced by a University of Warwick physicist in collaboration with a major bread manufacturer.

Spurious mathematical formulae concocted at the behest of PR firms compose their own journalism beat in England: In recent years, we’ve seen the perfect boiled egg, the perfect day, the perfect breasts, and many more examples of scientists getting paid to turn life into algebra.

As a naive magazine intern, I once took an assignment to write up one of these characteristically English equations – a means of calculating the perfect horror movie. The team of mathematicians behind the research turned out to be a couple of recent grads from King’s College London, who had watched some movies and gotten drunk on vodka on behalf of Sky Broadcasting. “We only spent a couple of hours doing it,” one of them told me, “and didn’t put all that much thought into whether it works or how accurate it is.”  😆

More, and all well worth reading.

All which said, Engber’s careful analysis only scratches the surface. Another huge problem is failure to question established story patterns. Almost anything, no matter how foolish or indifferently sourced, can be said about certain topics. Cosmology, origin of life, and human evolution come readily to mind, but readers can doubtless supply other examples. No one either cares to or dares to start asking some blunt questions about why certain assumptions are made and others are not.

The results of trying to cover the stories differently might be interesting, but perhaps too controversial.

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