Recently, news from outer space shocked the world. A mysterious radio signal from over 95 light years away had scientists in a frenzy. The Russian Academy of Science detected the signal which originated from a 6.3-billion-year old star with a single, Neptune-sized planet. Scientists from the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) indicate that the signal, if artificial, suggests the presence of an alien civilization far superior, yet very close, to ours!

Sensationalized news like this is far too common. The radio signal is nothing special, no more than a small drop of water in a monotonous sea of noise. Curious chance signals have happened in the past, will continue to happen in the future, and leave us no closer to discovering intelligent life. But you wouldn’t get that impression from reading popular news articles about the recent finding. The Observer wrote that the “implications are extraordinary.” CNN discussed advanced Kardashev Type II civilizations with Dyson spheres that harness energy from stars, all of which are purely science fiction ideas. In reality, the signal is likely to be naturally occurring, or even human-generated. Astronomer David Vakoch from SETI stated that “a putative signal from extraterrestrials doesn’t have a lot of credibility.”

Such fanfare for this rare finding isn’t evidence of our enthusiasm for aliens, but rather indicates a larger issue of how science is reported in popular media. Too frequently I hear tentative scientific discoveries being reported as facts and taken to absurd ends whose “implications are extraordinary.” Media outlets often misconstrue studies to report headlines like cell phones give you cancer or the dangers of gluten, when in reality such ideas are at best scantily supported and often refuted by scientific studies. But you don’t need to tune in to Dr. Oz to find such flagrant abuse of science. I go no further than my Facebook feed to be blasted by articles with profound implications only loosely based on science.

I wish I could say that this type of reporting is always as benign as overzealous claims of alien discovery. But this practice of using isolated scientific studies to promote faulty claims is at the heart of many impactful issues. Former President Obama recognizes how easy it is to spread misinformation on social media, and the dangers it presents with respect to climate change. He elaborates in an interview with The New Yorker, “an explanation of climate change from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist looks exactly the same on your Facebook page as the denial of climate change by somebody on the Koch brothers’ payroll.” Such misinformation impedes progress dealing with a matter in which there is a clear scientific consensus, and that poses a significant threat to humans and global ecosystems in the future. But people still debate the human impact on global warming and what actions should be taken due to cherry-picked data that undermines its significance.

The same goes for anti-vaxxers and autism. A single 1998 study, which has since been deemed fraudulent, is still being used to spur fear and opposition in people uninformed on the research. Healthy people that refuse vaccinations present a major health concern for those with compromised immune systems, such as patients with AIDS, cancer, or autoimmune disorders. Simply using phrases of anonymous authority, such as “studies show” or “scientists say,” seems to be license enough to promote one’s own agenda or ideology, whether scientifically founded or not.

The frequency of such headlines is unsurprising since they are effective in generating viewership. We are naturally drawn to flashy headlines and bold claims. I admit I clicked on the link “Not a drill: SETI is investigating a possible extraterrestrial signal from deep space.” Would I have clicked on a link titled “Scientists not intrigued by miniscule, fleeting radio wave from star HD164595”? Probably not. But a quick read revealed that the news was likely insignificant, and I moved on. Other findings are not as clear cut, however. Studies can be very technical, confusing, and nuanced, even to those familiar with the field. Entire careers are spent sharpening the skills needed to effectively read scientific publications, so it would be unfair to ask the same of the general public.

Additionally, not all studies are created equal. Competitive tenure, funding, and publishing opportunities for researchers promote p-hacking and de-incentivize replication studies. Altogether, science is a slow process in which a single isolated study is likely trivial. Readers have limited options and few tools to find reliable science news, navigate the information presented, and parse fact from fiction in science journalism.

So how can we reduce the frequency and impact of misleading headlines, and increase general scientific literacy? Well, not all scientific reporting is bad. Take, for instance, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, which often runs segments featuring Dr. Brian Greene to explain recent findings in the realm of physics. I saw a segment earlier this year where he explained the discovery of gravitational waves, not too long after news of the finding made a splash in popular media. As a professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University, Dr. Greene is a proven source of reliable information on those subjects. He uses simple analogies, graphic displays, and model experiments to explain otherwise unintelligibly complicated concepts. This skill of effective communication is something that many scientists strive for but rarely perfect. Encouraging scientists to hone those skills as part of basic research training could lead to better and more direct communication from scientists to the public, improving the public’s scientific literacy.

Other examples of popular shows conveying scientific ideas are Neil deGrasse Tyson’s revamping of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, or even John Oliver’s segment on this exact topic. These social platforms and likeable TV personalities interest and engage the public. Combining engaging media journalism with effective scientific communication helps reduce the mystery of, and perhaps opposition to, the scientific process.

The same media that makes faulty scientific reporting so prevalent can also make reliable scientific reporting more accessible and entertaining. If scientists and media alike made it a priority to communicate effectively with the public, science itself would not be as much of an enigma and there would be less room for fantastical interpretation. Additionally, scientists could use social media and popular news outlets to guide discussion and move forward in areas where there is a clear scientific consensus. This would lead to a more scientifically informed public, less vulnerable to the economic motives of climate change opposition or the unfounded fears of anti-vaxxers. Not only that, but a scientifically literate community is 50% less likely to fall for online clickbait and flashy headlines…or so “studies” show.

Article by: Aaron Williams

Aaron earned his B.A. in Human Biology from Stanford University. He then moved to Philadelphia to earn his combined MD-PhD degree from the University of Pennsylvania, where he is interested in neuroscience. In his research, Aaron is curious about how the connectivity of neurons can be related to network function and behavior, and clinically he is interested in either neurology or neurosurgery. Aaron joined Neuwrite Philly because he believes science writing and communication are important aspects of any scientist’s career, and hopes to develop his own skills and those of others. Outside of science, Aaron enjoys playing basketball, reading, and watching movies.