On Last Week Tonight last night, John Oliver took the media’s often shoddy coverage of science to task. Like cherry picking the results of single studies that “prove” that chocolate prevents cancer and that sort of thing.
As a somewhat reluctant member of “the media”, I’ve been guilty of this sort of behavior to varying degrees in the past. In the last few years, I’ve been working to improve on this count — by reading studies, declining to post stuff that doesn’t make the grade, reading what other trusted media sources are saying, using softer language like “could” or “may” instead of “does”, distinguishing between correlation and causation — but I still make mistakes.
At a certain point though, you have to rely on the scientific literacy of your readers. I can’t explain the scientific process to everyone every single time. At some point, I need to assume we’re all taking the results of studies with a similarly sized grain of salt.
In the end, I love science and I want you to love it too. That’s why I often write about it, about the history of how we came to know what we know, about the limits of our knowledge, and, especially, about efforts to push beyond the boundaries of the known. There’s always the temptation to gussy science up, to fit the facts to my world view. But deep down, I know that’s unnecessary — science is awesome all by itself! — and harms the goal of increasing scientific literacy and interest. I’m gonna trying reminding myself of that more in the future.