Bad Science

Written by: Haley Erb

Primary Source: Writing Rhetoric and American Cultures

“Studies suggest that literally everything causes cancer”

“Are bagels killing your kids?”

“Brain scans reveal that tiny demons are to blame for ADHD”

Everyone wants to write a good headline. A catchy headline drives clicks, ad views, and thus revenue and recognition for the writer. And nothing catches the eye like a well placed scare tactic or hyperbolic generalization. But when it comes to science journalism, misleading writing can be more than a faux-pas; it can be downright dangerous. Miscommunications can propagate quickly, and it can be hard to bring people back around once they get an idea stuck in their head.

Journalists face a tough situation. As a non-expert, it can be hard to accurately understand what is happening in a scientific study. On top of that, results that sound promising at first can turn out to be rather unsensational when studied with a fair, rational eye. But writers have a responsibility to convey this information with accuracy and as little bias as possible. For this, compoundchem.com has created an infographic outlining some of the pitfalls commonly seen in science writing. It’s a great resource for both science writers and science readers alike. Some of these pitfalls are already well-known even among laymen, like the correlation/causation trap, but even if everyone knows of the pirates/global warming fable, it is an easy trap to fall into. Others are more obscure, or harder to avoid when reading casually – how can you tell if results are misinterpreted? Where do you look to find information about sample size? Nonetheless, it’s a writers job to find this information and relay it to the best of their ability.

While you can’t change the way we write and read about science single handedly, just changing your own habits can be a great first step. As a reader, try and keep a healthy balance of skepticism and curiosity, and try to check original sources when possible. As a writer, make sure you follow through on research and value accuracy the same way you value every other part of your writing process. Conscientious readers and writers make the world a better, more informed place.

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Haley Erb
Haley Erb is a junior in the Professional Writing program. She also studies creative writing and the digital humanities. She is a pro-oxford comma and an excellent marshmallow roaster. Willing to ramble about typography, writing, design, food, science, books, space, or pretty much anything. She can be bribed with sour candy. Follow Haley on Twitter @haleys_comma.