Media spread pseudoscience and baseless fear

Media spread pseudoscience and baseless fear
A message from the Science and Security Board of the "Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists"

“Pseudoscience is on the rise – and the media is completely hooked,” notes Matt Ridley in The Spectator. If a study makes an alarming claim at odds with basic science, the media will parrot the claim. If a report cites past studies in support of an alarming claim, but those studies actually debunked the claim, reporters fail to catch the contradiction, and treat the inaccurate study as proof of the false claim. If a study’s executive summary makes a claim that the study’s own data debunks, the press will quote the unsupported claim from the executive summary, not the contrary data found deep in the study itself. Ridley’s focus is on false medical and environmental claims, but the media are even more likely to peddle false claims of racism and sexism. It gullibly accepts and repeats a false claim even when the claim is contradicted by a large number of studies or the claim is made in a study that contains obvious mistakes or internal inconsistencies.

As Ridley notes:

More and more headlines about medical or environmental panics are based on published scientific papers, but ones that are little more than lies laundered into respectability…The notion that chemicals such as bisphenol A, found in plastics, are acting as ‘endocrine disruptors’, interfering with human hormones even at very low doses, started with an outright fraudulent study that has since been retracted. Many low-quality studies on BPA have pushed this theory, but they have been torpedoed by high-quality analyses including a recent US government study called Clarity. Yet this is of course being largely ignored by the media and the activists.

So the habit of laundering lies is catching on. Three times in the past month, pseudo-science flew around the world before the scientific truth had got its boots on…in stories about insect extinction, weedkiller causing cancer, and increased flooding. Even if a story of impending doom is thoroughly debunked, the correction comes too late. The gullible media will have relayed the headline without checking, so the activists have made their fake-news hit, perhaps even raised funds on the back of it, and won.

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Take the story on February 10 that ‘insects could vanish within a century’, as the Guardian’s Damian Carrington put it, echoed by the BBC. The claim is, as even several science journalists and conservationists have now reported, bunk…[It] even misinterpreted source papers to blame declines on pesticides, when the original paper was non-committal or found contradictory results….

‘Predatort’ lawyers have been chasing glyphosate in the hope of tobacco-style payouts. Unluckily for them, however, study after study [by the EPA and international health and food-safety agencies] keeps finding that glyphosate does not cause cancer….The only exception is the [IARC, a] rogue agency that has been taken over by environmental activists, which claimed that neat glyphosate was capable of causing cancer in animals if ingested. By the same criteria, IARC admits, coffee, tea and wine…are also carcinogenic; in fact, out of 1,000 substances and other risks tested, IARC has found only one to be non-carcinogenic…Nobody outside the predatort industry takes the IARC finding seriously…Last year, citing the IARC study but not its debunking, a jury in California awarded a $289 million jackpot to the family of a school groundskeeper who died…. Meanwhile, an investigation by Reuters found that the conclusion of the IARC study had been altered shortly before the report’s release….[But more] than 9,300 people with various cancers have filed similar cases.

Talking of payouts, the third inexactitude to fly around the world two days later was the claim by the left-leaning political thinktank the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) that, ‘Since 2005, the number of floods across the world has increased by 15 times’, which was directly quoted by the BBC’s Roger Harrabin, in the usual headline-grabbing story about how we are all doomed. This was…nonsense. There has been no increase in floods since 2005, let alone a 15-fold one…The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change regularly reviews data on floods and says it can find no trend.

The media have swallowed many other bogus studies whole, especially studies purporting to find unconscious racism and sexism. As psychology professor Steve Stewart-Williams writes:

Remember that study showing that gender-blind orchestra auditions increased the number of women selected? Looks like it didn’t show that at all. If anything, gender-blinding slightly increased the number of men; probably, though, it had no effect.

But hundreds of newspapers and TV stations have cited the study as proving the opposite of what its data in fact showed. A study can make a false claim in its executive summary that is not supported by the study’s own data, and yet the media will gullibly swallow the false claim, and turn it into a myth widely believed by the American public, as well as judges and juries.

The media, including the New York Times, sometimes peddle false claims from entirely imaginary and obviously fake studies claiming the existence of widespread sexism and racism. As Jonatan Pallesen pointed out at Medium, a February 13, 2019 New York Times article falsely claimed “that there is extreme gender discrimination in tech,” citing a non-existent “‘2016 experiment conducted by the tech recruiting firm Speak With a Geek,'” in which “‘5,000 résumés with identical information were submitted to firms. When identifying details were removed from the résumés, 54% of the women received interview offers; when gendered names and other biographical information were given, only 5% of them did.'” As Pallesen observed:

This turned out to be fake. (Twitter thread with details). The study doesn’t actually exist. It was also ridiculous. If you know anything about plausible effect sizes, or interview processes, or the real world, you would immediately see that a disparity of this magnitude was fully implausible.

Hans Bader

Hans Bader

Hans Bader practices law in Washington, D.C. After studying economics and history at the University of Virginia and law at Harvard, he practiced civil-rights, international-trade, and constitutional law. He also once worked in the Education Department. Hans writes for and has appeared on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal.”