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Junk science driving public misperceptions

Have you heard about the latest study? Coffee fights cancer. Pizza and French fries are addictive like crack. Midnight snacks hamper our ability to retain memories.

Actually, what’s really bad for our brains is all the junk science being reported as gospel.

According to Pew Research, “79 percent of scientists believe it is a major problem for science that news reports don’t distinguish between well-founded and non-well-founded scientific findings.” The comedian John Oliver recently took to the airwaves to blast the media for dividing public opinion and scientific knowledge. He and scientists are right to be critical.

Despite endless reports on the “latest study,” most reporters aren’t trained to evaluate research. Journalists report things that seem bizarre or scary because they grab viewers and draw website clicks. They rely on releases distributed by university press offices that are designed to attract attention and often overstate the conclusions of the actual research.

All of this effort to generate attention often comes at the expense of the study’s context and limitations.

This system helps the scientist’s career and the university’s prestige. The reporter gets a good scoop. But it often confuses public understanding of the relative risks people take on a daily basis. Science requires large sample sizes to confirm or disprove previous findings. A single study is not statistically significant enough to declare a new fact.

Further, any researcher will tell you that some studies are better, whether it’s due to their methodology or weight of evidence. Unfortunately for science, media attention imparts a sheen of importance or authority which creates the illusion that all studies are equal.

This leads to another problem. By reporting “non-well-founded” findings, the media construct public skepticism toward things that scientists have agreed are “well-founded.” In the world of cable news, a poorly done new study might be debated by two people — a supporter and a detractor — but the format itself implies that each side is equally right.

At best, the media break two beakers with one stone by promoting scientific illiteracy and restraining empirically supported laws and policies. At worst, it destroys public trust in science.

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are a great example of public skepticism skirting empirical evidence. The World Health Organization says GMOs “are not likely to present risks for human health.” There are nearly 2,000 studies affirming the safety of GMOs. And every major global health and scientific institution agrees: GMOs are safe.

American scientists are no exception, as Pew Research shows 89 percent of them think that GMOs are safe to eat. But with popular figures such as Dr. Oz running a GMO segment titled, “The Global Conspiracy to Keep You From Knowing the Truth About Your Food” it’s no wonder only 37 percent of Americans agree GMOs are safe to eat.

Public passion also outweighs evidence regarding Bisphenol A (BPA), an industrial chemical used to make certain plastics and resins. Both the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) and the FDA have reviewed hundreds of studies on BPA. The EFSA found that “BPA poses no health risk to consumers because current exposure to the chemical is too low to cause harm” and the FDA stated that “BPA is safe at the current levels occurring in foods.”

Despite the science, headlines like “Another sign of BPA’s dangers” cause Americans to remain afraid.

In reality, you’d have to eat about 30 pounds of canned food every day to experience a problem from BPA. At that point, the risk of your stomach exploding is a much bigger concern!

Too often, the media don’t mention it’s the dose that makes the poison. Even water and Vitamin D will kill you if you consume too much of them.

The threat of science losing sway in the public square is a serious one in our time, which is why we need to renew our respect for it. A good start is to forget the sensationalism. Fortunately, that advice isn’t rocket science.

Dr. Joseph Perrone is chief science officer for the Center for Accountability in Science.

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