Don’t trust the pop media on science

Last week, an atheist acquaintance of mine showed me this article, to which she added the triumphant notation “BAM!” as though science had finally pulled the plug on God.

express_headline

However, as I proceeded to explain to her, the article merely shows: a) she doesn’t understand how science and logic work; b) pop media reporters don’t understand how science and logic work; and c) you can’t trust the pop media to report scientific news accurately.

In a follow-up article, I’ll explain why the reporter’s claim is wrong. For now, I’ll talk about how you can tell right away that this article is not trustworthy.

In parsing this turkey of an article, a few things immediately jumped out. First of all, the headline is ludicrous. No respectable scientist would ever say anything like that. You can’t prove God didn’t create the universe unless you prove that something else did. Second, the ridiculous Daily Express article doesn’t really support that claim. Third, if you read the actual scientific paper, it makes no such claim whatsoever. In fact, I contacted one of the paper’s authors, a scientist at the University of Waterloo who was interviewed by the Express reporter, and he was surprised and dismayed by the way his work was misrepresented. He said he was expecting an article on inflation and relativity, not God.

This is part of a pattern I’ve noticed developing in the pop media. Prior to this, we had another declaration that the universe didn’t have a beginning (implication: Genesis 1:1 is irrelevant). I’m pretty sure what reporters are doing is combing through the arXiv eprint service for theoretical cosmology papers that have something to do with the origin of the universe, calling the authors for a quickie interview, and then shoe-horning the information into a narrative that the universe has no beginning, God is irrelevant, etc.

I keep telling you, my dear readers, atheists hate the big bang. They know exactly what it means — someone or something created the universe, and they cannot rule out God.

Does this mean you can’t trust anything the media say about science? No. There are good science reporters out there, you just have to be judicious in deciding what’s trustworthy and what’s not. I had a good experience being interviewed by a reporter from Discovery News about black holes a few years ago; it was clear she knew her stuff, and she wrote a good article. But then, unlike the Daily Express, which is a tabloid, Discovery News is a respectable science-oriented publication. But even then you have to be careful.

So, how do you know when to be skeptical? It can be hard to know, especially if you’re not a scientist who knows what to look for. I sometimes get duped by misleading articles when it’s about something outside of my area of expertise. But there are a few reliable tells. You should be skeptical any time you’re reading a science article that includes:

  • An outrageous headline. If the headline claims something impossible (“Science has finally disproved God!”), you can immediately dismiss the claim. Read the article with extreme skepticism.
  • An agenda. Does the scientific discovery require you to change your behavior or your worldview? If so, view it with skepticism. Look at who is making the claim and what they stand to gain from it. Read the actual scientific papers if you can. Read through legitimate criticisms of the discovery.
  • Controversy. Is the scientific discovery shocking or revolutionary? If so, view it with skepticism.

Keep in mind that editors have the final say over headlines and even the content of the article. There’s a good chance the reporter of the Express article did not choose that insanely provocative headline. A newspaper makes money through advertising, which means it needs to generate a lot of clicks from readers. The more grabby the headline, the more likely it will generate clicks. Once you click, it doesn’t matter to the bottom-line people at the newspaper if the article doesn’t entirely square with the outrageous headline.

Also, not everything that has an agenda or is shocking or revolutionary is necessarily going to be untrue. After two millennia of believing the universe was eternal, the news that the universe had a beginning was shocking and revolutionary, and required a lot of people to rethink their worldviews. Einstein’s relativity was pretty revolutionary. Quantum mechanics was revolutionary and just downright weird. But here’s the kicker — they were all supported by an abundance of very good evidence that continues to mount to this day. Also, two of these discoveries (quantum mechanics and relativity) have led to practical technological breakthroughs that have improved everyday life, like modern electronics and GPS.

In my next post, I’ll discuss the specifics of why the Express article was wrong, and how you can spot similar bad reporting in the future.

7 thoughts on “Don’t trust the pop media on science

  1. That seems to be the heuristic for a lot of people, given how frequently and egregiously reporters bungle the facts, spin, or just flat-out lie.

  2. I’m a bit less cynical than Russell, but it’s getting harder and harder to find “real” or “serious” journalists who are able to get their un-hyped stuff past their editors. Caution is in order at all times.

  3. I used to be less cynical. GamerGate cured me of that.

    Having been involved shortly after the tag was created on Twitter, and having followed major pro-GG accounts, the media consistently and aggressively lied about nearly every aspect of GG.

    As my personal understanding of the world has grown, every article where I know something about the topic is a mess.

  4. …every article where I know something about the topic is a mess.

    That’s mostly been my experience, as well.

    It’s funny how some people with expertise in a topic will pick apart articles about that topic, but will assume everything else the media report is accurate.

  5. It’s the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect, as described by Crichton.

    “Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the ‘wet streets cause rain’ stories. Paper’s full of them.
    In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.”

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