50 Shades of Science: Navigating Science in the Media

The big screen is heating up with 50 Shades of Grey this week. I may be a bit unconventional, but it’s got me pondering the shades of gray I encounter every day. As a student of science, I find myself operating in shades of gray more often than not. The more I learn, the less I seem to know, and the more questions I have. As a religious TV watcher and news reader, I find it particularly troubling to deal with “scientific literature” presented in some media outlets.

news-science-reportingWe all strive to have simple answers to complex questions. But the reality is, many things don’t have simple answers. And so we find ourselves lost among 50 shades of gray provided by science in flashy headlines.

One headline may tell us to avoid foods with gluten because they cause GI discomfort. Well, for those with gluten sensitivities or Celiac disease, that is usually the case. Only about 1% of the population suffers from Celiac disease, so how should the rest of us respond to a simplified headline like this?

This is a perfect example of the 50 Shades conundrum we all face. Should we make changes in our life based on scientific information presented by the media? Again, I am left with more questions than answers.

To deal with this issue, I have gathered some tips to navigate scientific information presented by the media. These tips help you read between the lines and determine scientific validity on your own. And hopefully, they’ll help you decide whether to make lifestyle changes based on the “shady” information you receive.


Beware of the Quick Fix

First, it is important to remember science in the news is greatly simplified. Headline writers want to be eye-catching to capture as many readers as possible. Reports give what seems to be a simple answer for a complex question. And I, as the consumer, am led to believe that a simple action can fix my complex problem. This is rarely true.

For example: the term ‘superfood.’ Many foods are vitamin-rich and filled with healthful benefits. (Check out this amazing brief on these functional foods). But there is no standard for a food to qualify as ‘super.’ A ‘superfood’ is the perfect example of a simple answer to a complex question. “What should I eat to be healthy?” is a complex question. A single food can’t makeover a whole diet. Diet quality comes down to balance, variety, and moderation.


Learn the Language

learn-the-languageWhen reading or hearing about scientific studies in the media, listen carefully to the terms they use. Definitive terms that are “black and white” are often misused to simplify the message. Correlations and associations are often mislabeled as causes. More on that here. So what are you looking for?

What is association/correlation? Rates of congestive heart failure are higher in counties that voted for a republican presidential candidate in 2012. But, living in one of these counties does not give you congestive heart failure.

Look for “more likely to,” “higher rates,” and similar phrases. The worst offenders will take these associations a step further. They say something “may cause” something else, when causation isn’t substantiated.

What is causation? Eating more calories than you burn will cause you to gain weight. Having excess calories in your body causes your body to store those calories as fat and this does lead to weight gain.

Always, be wary of the word “proven.” Some writers use buzzwords like “scientifically proven” or “clinically proven” without backup.

Science is constantly evolving, and one study is not enough to prove that you should change your behavior. Evaluating studies in the context of the entire body of scientific literature gives you reliable information to make informed decisions.


Check the Quality

Use the IFIC Evaluating Evidence Toolkit to review studies for yourself. The toolkit has a glossary to help you navigate the vocabulary, from “statistically significant” to “cross-sectional study.” It can also help you review the strength of the study by looking at its methods, design, and publication. You can use the Study Evaluation Checklist to help determine how skeptical you need to be about the study’s results. To see the checklist in action, click here to check out an example.


Remember, Bias is Everywhere

Finally, it is important to remember that everyone has a bias: you, me, scientists, journalists, etc. We all have certain thoughts and beliefs that shape the way we view the world. It’s important to be conscious of our own biases when trying to be objective. Whether you’re an emotional Ana Steele or a stoic Christian Grey, it’s probably having an impact.



Take Away…

Don’t be fooled by the sexy suit and tie that the media places on science. Science is usually gray and messy. We crave simple, clear answers to our complex questions, but that is usually not possible. If news presents information to you in a black and white format, it makes the answers seem simple. Be skeptical and dig deeper. Use all the tools in your toolbox. By following these simple tips, you can learn to spot strengths and weaknesses in science news coverage. 


Stephanie Johnson is a Virginia Tech Dietetic Intern (@torrid_robin)

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