The media – an assumption too far?

When one develops a research paper that experiences substantial acclaim, it can then be presented in a psychological journal. This allows for other psychologists to read influential pieces of work, and possibly develop upon these ideas through the act of falsification in subsequent research studies of their own. As psychologists we can accept that research should never be taken at face value, and that just because a study suggests causality, or that a result is ‘proven’, does not mean that this is correct.  As Karl Popper suggested, “Our knowledge can only be finite, while our ignorance must necessarily be infinite”, and this idea is what allows psychology to scientifically progress in an accurate way.

However unless one is aware of these frailties of research, research can often be misinterpreted, and subsequently exaggerated. This occurs frequently in interpretations of psychological research presented in the media, where we automatically accept the information the media give us. This is using the method of authority, where we assume that the person who has written the article is knowledgeable about the given topic. It is often forgotten that these journalists are not psychologists, did not find the results themselves and are solely presenting the research in the way they think will make money. They have little understanding of science, yet their ignorance isn’t admitted in their articles. Due to this, the public are quite often misled into believing ‘facts’ developed from a cultivation of assumptions, and because of this the scientific value of psychological research is often left behind.

We cannot deny the importance for psychological research to be presented in the media, as this allows the public to gain insight into substantial findings, and ensure funding is given by the government for psychology to continue to find these interesting discoveries. However it is the way this research is presented that is the problem. An example of this is given in Ben Goldacre’s book Bad Science. Newspapers quite often confuse the hypothesis of an experiment with the evidence, and because of this they inaccurately present the hypothesis instead of the actual results. The Times newspaper covered an experiment that showed that having younger siblings was associated with a lower incidence of multiple sclerosis. This was just an observation, however The Times misinterpreted this into “This is more likely to happen if a child at a key stage of development is not exposed to infections from younger siblings, says the study”. It is unlikely that readers are going to find the original source; therefore they are misled by the media.

Another recent example (which we were shown in our SWAC classes) is the claim produced by newspapers that “Brain chemical lack spurs rioting”. Dr Petroc Summer and his team of psychologists found that the concentration of a neurotransmitter in the brain called GABA is related to a certain type of impulsive personality. The newspapers exaggerated and generalised these claims to the riots, and used causality to infer an inaccurate ‘cause for the riots’. The intrinsic nature of journalists creating causality from psychological results angered Dr Petroc and his team, and through this he produced an article on the problem of newspapers distorting science. The following article can be seen here.

Inevitably the reliability and validity of psychological research presented in the media is questionable. We, even as psychologists, are often too eager to lap up all the ‘latest research’ the media presents us, however it is vital we remember the concepts of falsification still apply beyond the original research paper, and that nothing, not even ‘facts’, should be taken at face value.

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2 responses

  1. Some newspaper headlines are comical and some people are naive, instantly believing it must be true because its there in black and white. Before coming to university even I didn’t stop and question things as much as I should of. Unless we look at the facts and original sources we should not assume it to be true. As you mentioned ” just because a study suggests causality, or that a result is ‘proven’, does not mean that this is correct.” I agree with this statement but wouldn’t have even have thought of it before studying psychology, so how can we expect the public to question what they read? We couldn’t restrict our findings to just those in the field of psychology and keep it away from the public, it needs the attention.
    Recently in the world of physics scientists may have made a breakthrough which will change history. If what they have found is true then they will refute Einstein’s theory of relativity on the speed of light. However, despite the massive attention it has gained from the media and the number of scientists testing it they will not assume it to be true. They have evidence but continue to carry out tests which will take time, money and effort. Where as the media printed the headlines “Faster Than Light Neutrinos And Relativity II – A Million Dollar Bet”,”Faster than light” particles threaten Einstein” and “Faster than light particles found”. As soon as the scientists ran tests again and started to have doubts the media jumped on board writing headlines such as “Professor Einstein, you can relax. E still equals mc2” and “Not so fast: Italian boffins say neutrinos not faster than light”. They write what sells and people trust the newspapers they buy. They expect information to be correct and informative. This is far from the truth as even the scientists themselves are still undecided about the matter.

    http://www.science20.com/third_millennium_physics/faster_light_neutrinos_and_relativity_ii_million_dollar_bet-84340

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2011/sep/22/faster-than-light-particles-neutrinos?INTCMP=ILCNETTXT3487

    http://www.theregister.co.uk/2011/11/21/neutrinos_not_so_fast/

  2. You are right in suggesting that there is no right answer to this dilemma. It seems that either scientists must be misrepresented or the public uninformed on research, and neither of these have a positive influence on Psychology. This constant cycle is a burden on the subject, and a solution was suggested by Dr Summer and his team. This was that journalists should confirm basic facts before publication, and if done so, the article could be marked as “fact checked by source”. However the likelihood of a system like this happening is minimal. Quite simply, journalists do not have time to confirm facts, and more importantly, probably don’t want to. They want a story that sells, regardless of whether it is scientifically accurate (or not in these cases).

    Journalists and scientists are at continuous debate, and only through simple communication could the problem be solved. If this happened, controversy such as the MMR vaccine scare and climate change would not get misunderstood and brought out of proportion by the media. However I believe there is a long way to go before peace is met in the “scientific sandbox” (Disalvo, 2011).

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