There's a major problem in health journalism: It's wildly unreliable. As David H. Freedman points out in an excellent critique in the January/ February issue of Columbia Journalism Review, the rate of "overall wrongness" in top medical journals is as much as two thirds--something even the most seasoned science reporters don't point out. The resulting information conveyed to lay readers, is, at best, confusing and, at worst, dead wrong.
But one of those articles has to be the "right" article, doesn't it? One of them has to have the best information. Well, sure, but good luck trying to suss out which one it is in your newspaper or blog of choice when it's not even remotely clear in the medical journals.
And that's only part of the problem, Freedman argues. Science journalists can report flawlessly on a study, painting an accurate picture with multiple, credentialed sources, and still end up transmitting to readers an incomplete message--maybe even a flat-out wrong message--by not letting them in on a fundamental fact: that there is no one tidy answer.
With so much wrong information, scientists and journalists pick whichever wrong study helps them the most, Freedman says. Scientists want their studies to be published and picked up by the media, while journalists want a story that's clear and digestible. But science is messy, and a clear, digestible finding is often (to borrow from another kind of reporting that Freedman mentions) saying about as much as a politician at a press conference.
So there's the upshot: pull a personal health study out of a hat, and it's more likely than not to have major problems. But journalists aren't picking random studies--they're picking the clearest, most engaging, and thus the worst, studies. The system is broken, and this is Freedman's explanation on how to fix it:
A tall order, maybe, but good advice for readers: stay skeptical, and reconsider any life-changing decisions you're making based on studies, whether you read them in a respected journal or a newspaper or, sure, here at Popular Science.
But one last note on all of this. Freedman readily cites where he got his information on the wrongness of studies. He got it from studies. Even if health journalists and readers become more skeptical, there's an old piece of wisdom you can check out the published science on: change is hard.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.