Science in the Mass Media

Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

Learn about the importance of the mass media to communicate scientific discoveries and the many issues with how that communication happens. See how well you understand by taking a quiz.

Science in the Mass Media

Science is extremely important to our everyday lives. Besides all the technology it's provided us, science is also integral to the decisions we make. The politicians we vote for, the food we eat, how much we exercise, our response to climate change, or our opinions on stem cell research all rely in part to scientific findings.

So it's equally important that we know when science makes a major breakthrough, and understand how to make sense of the things that scientists tell us. For most people, that's through the mass media like television, radio, and internet news outlets.

Scientists collect data and make conclusions about how the world works
Scientists collect data and make conclusions about how the world works

Unfortunately, there is a lot of tension between science and the media for a number of reasons. Most media outlets' goal is making money, and this tends to encourage simplifying scientific findings and sensationalizing them to make an exciting story. Scientific findings can also be misunderstood, misquoted, or exaggerated. It's therefore important that people learn how to interpret and critically think about science themselves.

However, the mass media is extremely important to science for communication, increasing funding, excitement and engagement in science. Let's go over these all these effects in more detail.

Sensationalism and Popularizing Ideas

Even when journalists have the best intentions, they can still make mistakes. They might quote one part of a scientific paper while ignoring the scientist's caution on how to interpret the results. Often scientists will say, 'We should be careful not to conclude such-and-such from the data.' Yet the media will conclude that very thing.

Though sometimes it's an accident, the modern 24 hour news cycle that television news has created is an impatient one. News agencies don't like to wait to figure out the details - by then the competitors will have beaten them to the punch.

Probably the biggest criticism that scientists make about the mass media is sensationalism. The media have a tendency to exaggerate and simplify everything, like declaring that we found water on Mars, when the water we found was decidedly un-watery (containing toxic perchlorate salts rather than the kind of liquid water found commonly on Earth).

A more damaging example was when a paper was published that found a link between vaccines and autism in 1998. The media jumped on it, and in no time the fear that there might be a link between the two was ingrained in the public consciousness.

The paper was partially retracted in 2004 and fully retracted in 2010. It was discovered that the author had conflicts of interest, had faked the evidence, and was involved in other ethical breaches. These kinds of issues are usually caught by the scientific community sooner or later thanks to the scientific process.

But the damage had already been done. Unlike a scientist, who would approach any new finding with skepticism until it is confirmed, the media's popularizing of the idea was irreversible. As a result, tens of millions of people have refused to vaccinate their children, and it's likely that thousands of children have died of preventable diseases as a result.

Vaccines do not cause autism, but when an idea is pushed by the media, it can be hard to take it back
Vaccines do not cause autism, but an idea is pushed by the media, it can be hard to take it back

When a shocking scientific paper comes out, the media's response probably isn't surprising and certainly gets them ratings. But it's important to understand that from a scientific perspective, a single scientific paper usually doesn't tell you very much. Everything needs to be checked and double-checked, and so it's important that the media reflects this in their reports.

Scientific Literacy and Misunderstandings

Another problem is the lack of scientific literacy among both the public and journalists alike. Few people understand that scientific conclusions are always open to more data. The facts are only what the evidence currently seems to show.

A scientist can even find a trend between two measurements, but conclude that the trend is not statistically significant and not try to make a conclusion. Depending on the exact confidence interval, a scientist might be really sure about the findings, or see it is only the first step that needs to be verified in future research. But this is very rarely talked about in the mass media.

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