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The way science is reported…

Many are the times when I’ve complained about how the press reports on science and medicine. I love it when science is reported well, but sadly such examples are far fewer than I’d like to see. In fact, there are times when I feel as though I’m living this in an alternate universe where it’s not beyond the ken to see sports reported the way science seems to be reported.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

13 replies on “The way science is reported…”

I’d be happy if they just switched the amount of time devoted to reporting each topic. Then, every time my husband walked into the living room he could be annoyed that Science Center is on again, instead of it me being annoyed that Sport Center is on again.

Then again, maybe that wouldn’t be good. He’s still bitching about Pluto being demoted.

In fairness, sports coverage was pretty dumbed down too until just a few decades ago. Taking American football as an example (the only sport I really follow), until John Madden came on the scene, football commentary was along the lines of “Local team throw ball. Local team catch. Awesome! Go local team!! Oh no, other team get ball. It bad! Other team suck! Go local team!!!” To the modern fan, Madden’s commentary seems like (and often is) nothing more than empty truisms (“If they want to score some points, they’ll have to move the ball towards the goal line!”) but that just shows how far it has come.

Dare we hope that some brilliant young science commentator can come along and excite the field the way Madden did for football commentary?

I’m not holding my breath. But we can dream!

“Or, maybe she’s just testing the reception of her new iphone and seeing how many bars she gets. Or, maybe it’s an experiment testing whether radiation from cell phones causes . . . ”

What, you’ve never seen a woman use her top as a purse before? Cell phones, cigarettes, money, ID’s – I’ve seen all of those (and probably more) carried around in a woman’s shirt/bra before LOL

I was at an event a few months ago and met a nice woman who kept her business cards and holder in her bustier. I had the privilege of watching her attempt to fish it out (I guess it slipped a bit as it required a good deal of work and swearing to get it back out)

James: The creators of the “Tank McNamara” comic strip have a feature called “great moments in sports analysis” where they do an illustration of a reader-contributed tautology from a commentator.

Of course the problem with sports commentary, as opposed to sports reporting, is that the commentator is frequently in a position of having to say something even when there’s nothing important to say. When this involves attributions, the results get pretty embarrassing; it’s been repeatedly observed that if you wante to predict whether a commentator will attribute a player’s performance to skills/intelligence/whatever vs. strength/size/”natural ability”/whatever, your best strategy is to count the number of photons bouncing off said player. Yet most commentators would be genuinely unaware that they were doing this.

Actual sports reporting, though, is remarkably immune to BS, primarily because a) it deals mostly with matters that can easily be verified objectively and b) the sports reporter’s audience, on average, knows at least as much about the subject, and cares as much about it, as the reporter. This is quite different from the situation with political or science reporting.

When I was in high school I dated Lois, whose father was the boxing writer for the NY Herald Tribune. He liked me, and took me to matches as his “assistant”. He would quote me in his articles, but use different names. I hated boxing, but Lois…

A few weeks back there was the New York Science Festival. Great Stuff! No coverage in the media. Full size mock-up of the James Webb Space telescope. Here’s a hint…if you get to one of these festivals and someone is there from the Space Telescope science Institute, mention you read Bad Astronomy or RI. I found several loyal fans, and they become a hell of a lot more interesting..

I thought this was going in a different direction when I read the headline.

Something like,

Knicks free up cap room to sign Lebron James, win championships for next 6 years.

Or

Will a rare rule violation remove Babe Ruth from the hall of fame?

Instant replay to destroy baseball as we know it?

Giants beat ravens by a touchdown in 10-0 win.

Uh, blue team win, orange team sad. /Mongo

Really though, shouldn’t we be teaching the controversy?
I mean.. there’s science and then there “Something somebody made up”
and then there’s always:
Science vs My Wishful Thinking

Interestingly, you see that kind of reporting for lesser known sports. I grew up with curling, and the writing that comes around every four years for the Olympics can be positively painful. In addition to the ignorance, you get the jock’s contempt of anything they really don’t understand. Besides, it’s all so simple. Who can’t understand, “With the hammer, he threw the outurn through the port for a double-raise triple takeout.”?

justawriter, that is clear to me. Then again, I curled for many years. I know what you mean though, whenever I see curling on a US network I just die inside a little bit. There always seems to be one totally clueless comentator.

I am posting this under what isn’t my real name, because the place I work at wouldn’t appreciate what I am about to say:

I work on a news website, one of my duties being half-compiling five health stories for the newspaper each Monday.

This Monday I noticed two stories which I didn’t add and quite frankly piss me off royally because there is a reason I wouldn’t have added them. IE: They’re crap.

One was on magnet therapy benefiting Alzheimers sufferers. The reason I hadn’t included it was the study involved a grand total of ten people and didn’t actually have much in the way of control (Two weeks on, two weeks off for five of them, and four weeks on for the “test” group.) Both groups improved in verbal recognition, the former to 75.6% and the latter to 77%, from a base line of 66%.

Which could have just been from recieving any therapy at all.

Conclusion? They put sodding magnet therapy in my briefs.

The second was a study on botox and emotion. The reason I hadn’t included this is because the week earlier the subs had excluded me writing up what a load of bollocks the Telegraph’s coverage of that research was.

Basically there was no real shift in the strength of emotional response reported by the botox group before and after they got treated, though the control group had a stronger than expected negative response to certain imagery.

The story? Botox can dull your emotions, which mutated into smiling makes you happier, and WTF people? If you are going to insert crap in my reporting at least check that the study doesn’t actually say the sodding opposite.

/frustrated reporter rant.

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