Recent Posts

science journalism Tag

Reading: BREAKING: Federal government unmuzzles scientists https://t.co/cTmVgsBjRV via @NatObserver — Jonathan Eisen (@phylogenomics) November 7, 2015 Canadian politics are probably of little interest to the rest of the world, and the recent switch in ruling party most likely went unnoticed by anyone not holding a maple leaf close...

Jason bringing Pelias the Golden Fleece. Marie-Lan Nguyen, 2006 (Public Domain)Science papers—the everyday tales of slaying research dragons and finding buried treasures. Not just for stereotyped nerds in white coats, or wild-haired Einstein lookalikes. You can read them too. With the rise in open access publishing, more are available to lay readers outside academia’s ivory towers. But what are they all about? And why would you want to read one? Firstly, there are two types of science papers: primary research, where excited doctoral students and their senior advisors showcase their latest research and launch it into the international science world, and reviews, which round up current knowledge and up-to-date thinking in one subject area. Although the reviews give a broad overview of the current state of scientific play, the primary research papers are the ones that generate the excitement with their sensational headlines. And this is the reason you might want to take a peek at the primary source material itself—is the headline a fair summary of the paper? Is the press release an accurate representation of the research?

repeat after me: correlation does not imply causation In April, the Journal of Neuroscience published the paper that apparently everybody had been waiting for—definitive proof that even recreational cannabis use messes with your head. As soon as the publication embargo lifted, the headlines screamed into action, suggesting the danger to developing brains from just a few puffs of weed per week. According to the press release from one of the associated research institutions, casual marijuana use was linked to brain abnormalities—“more ‘joints’ equal more damage.” Even the paper’s senior author, Hans Breiter, questioned the safety of pot use in anyone under the age of 30. Cranial MRI. © Flickr user John M, 2003 (CC BY-SA 2.0) But is this really what the paper’s results showed? No. The study, cross-sectional and retrospective in design, used MRI scans to compare brain morphology of 20 self-reported recreational 18- to 25-year-old marijuana users with appropriately matched controls. At a single interview, each subject estimated their cannabis consumption over the previous 90 days and underwent an MRI scan. From the results of the neuroimaging interpretations, the researchers found that there were indeed differences in certain areas of the brains of the marijuana users compared with their matched controls at the time the scans were taken. The intensity of these differences also varied according to the self-reported cannabis intakes in the users—heavier drug use correlated positively with more pronounced changes. Although changes were evident, the authors state at the start of the paper’s discussion that their study group was not large enough and their experimental design was insufficient to determine what caused them. However, this is not what was widely reported. Instead, headlines announced that recreational pot use damaged young people’s brains. Perhaps the focus was on the abstract, the thumbnail of text at the start of a scientific paper that gives readers a sneak peek at what it’s all about, where the authors state, “These data suggest that marijuana exposure, even in young recreational users, is associated with exposure-dependent alterations of the neural matrix …”  Or maybe the writers were swayed by the press release quoting the senior author. … suggests … associated with …

The description for this picture is careful to mention that Mary Alice McWhinnie was the first woman to serve as chief scientist at an Arctic research station. Retrieved from Wikimedia commons, presumed to be public domain. Originally uploaded by the Smithsonian Institution.Christie Aschwanden has an excellent piece up at XX Science, with a simple experiment you can do at home to identify sexism in science journalism! As a long-time fan of the Bechdel Test, I’m easily convinced that science journalism warrants a similar instrument. Finkbeiner’s test is interesting because, unlike the Bechdel Test (which primarily reveals a lack of individuality and agency in fictional women), it has components specifically designed to call attention to “benevolent” sexism. Having applied the test, I believe that science journalism has made great strides forward, and finally achieved routine tokenism. Baby steps.