Interpreting Science in a Social Media World

The examples can be found on the internet almost daily: “Is Salt Deadly?” or “Do Pomegranates Prevent Breast Cancer?,” or “Super Shot, Can It Cut Weight by 25%?,” headlines that misinterpret or sometimes completely misrepresent scientific studies, and those are from major outlets.  As news sources become more varied with more and more journalists freelancing, bloggers becoming mainstream and even Twitter being used as a source, the need to understand how to interpret scientific research becomes more important than ever.

News sources aren’t the only thing becoming more varied; people are also turning to more sources for their daily news.  According to new research from the Pew Research Center, 92 percent of Americans use multiple platforms including national and local TV and newspapers, radio and the internet to get their news on a typical day.  The internet is now the second most popular source of news, and while online, most people report using two to five different sites for their news.  While people are turning to more sources for their news, they also desire more science.  Scientific news and discoveries is the top subject that people would like to hear more about.  Unfortunately with so many different “news voices” speaking to consumers, good science reporting can sometimes get lost in the mix.

The International Food Information Council Foundation recognized this challenge more than a decade ago when it teamed with the Harvard School of Public Health to put together Improving Public Understanding: Guidelines for Communicating Emerging Science on Nutrition, Food Safety and Health.  While times have changed when it comes to who is reporting on scientific studies, the guidelines remain as true today as they were when they were originally designed, but now instead of focusing on journalists, researchers and journal editors, an even broader audience has emerged.  

One of the key groups is bloggers.  Not only are bloggers becoming a “go-to” source for health information on the internet, but they’re also a perfect example of how “social” news has become.  One blogger may share news with their audience while another links back to it for theirs.  And bloggers are even getting together off-line to strengthen their communities.  In March the International Food Information Council Foundation was invited to speak at “Fitbloggin,” a conference for health, fitness and nutrition bloggers looking to connect on a variety of topics including how to interpret and communicate scientific studies.

Mainstream journalists, bloggers, researchers and journal editors may take a different approach to science, but there are some basic guidelines that one should consider when communicating new research:

  • Will your communication enhance understanding of diet and health?
  • Have you put the study findings into context?
  • Have the study findings been peer reviewed?
  • Have you disclosed important facts about the study?
  • Have you disclosed all key information about the study’s funding?

Beyond those basic questions, the Harvard-IFIC Foundation Guidelines provide each group more specific questions to ask when interpreting scientific research.  

Considering the Totality of Research
In the end, when evaluating science, it’s important to remember that one study is never enough. The scientific process is a road of discovery as researchers explore various hypotheses that contribute to the body of literature.  Frequently, original research on nutrition or food safety is modified or even refuted by later research (an example is the original evaluation of the sweetener saccharin as carcinogenic that was refuted several decades later by more careful, more technologically sophisticated research).  In evaluating health consequences of an ingredient, substance, or whole food, it is important to consider the most current scientific information.  Unfortunately, some news sources, including major outlets, can continue to rely on and disseminate outdated information.   Internet information sites especially can fall prey to this shortcoming, either inadvertently through a failure to update and revise their content, or deliberately through a desire to promote a product or point of view.  It is both a challenge and an opportunity for communicators as we continue to move into a new digital age where science is of great interest, but still so easily misunderstood.