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Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Three Vested Interests That Can Hype and Exaggerate Scientific Data

In an ideal world, you would only read news accounts that accurately described scientific research, without giving you exaggerations or misinterpretations. But we don't live in such a world. In our world there are three vested interests that may cause the raw data of a scientific experiment to be distorted, twisted or exaggerated.

Vested Interest 1: The Scientific Researcher

Many people think that a scientific researcher is some entirely impartial person who will write a scientific paper describing data with dry objectivity. Many researchers act in such a way, but many others do not.

Consider the following all-too-common type of case. Imagine you are a scientist who has put forth a research proposal asking for funding from some institution such as a university or the federal government. You do the experiments, but nothing very interesting comes up. How do you then describe these results in your scientific paper? You have a problem if you honestly describe the research as a failure to find anything interesting. For one thing, such honesty may decrease your chance of being funded the next time you present a research proposal asking for funding from the same institution. Also, honestly reporting the research as a failure to find anything very interesting may mean that your scientific paper will not get published. That's a problem given the “publish or perish” culture inside universities, in which it's almost as if each researcher is expected to produce a certain number of published papers each year.

So under such conditions a researcher may have a motive to do something like data dredging or correlation fishing, in which the data is diced, spliced, and crunched until some type of semi-interesting correlation coughs up. The problem is that such a correlation will often be coincidental. Or the researcher may have a motive to describe the results in some manner that makes the results seem more interesting or suggestive than the data actually suggests. For example, instead of describing a weak correlation (between, say, TV watching and prostate cancer) as a “borderline correlation,” the scientific paper's title or abstract may describe this as an “intriguing connection.”

Vested Interest 2: The College or University Issuing a Press Release

When you read a news story on some scientific finding, you are typically reading an account that is based on a press release issued by a college or university, typically a press release issued at the same time the scientific paper is published. Some web sites simply publish such university or college press releases word-for-word; others have stories that are based on such press releases. What often happens is that the college or university press release will exaggerate or over-dramatize the scientific research it describes.

Why would such a thing occur? It occurs because the college or university has a motive to present itself as a place where important research is occurring. If a university issues a press release entitled, “We Funded This Research, But It Didn't Find Anything,” then such a story is not one that can be used on the university's web site to help attract student enrollments and donors. But if the same research is described with a press release entitled, “Fascinating New Research Probes the Frontiers of Knowledge,” or something along those lines, then such a press release has some value in helping to uphold or build the university's reputation or prestige.

So clearly a university or college can have a vested interest in hyping or exaggerating somewhat the announcement of scientific research it has funded.

So by now we see the chain of exaggeration can be:

Unimportant Research Results→ Researcher Exaggeration → University Press Release Exaggeration

Vested Interest 3: A Web Site Hyping the Press Release

The biggest inflation in the chain of exaggeration can occur when some popular web site writes a story based on the press release issued at the same time as the scientific paper. Here shameless hyping and unbridled exaggeration are very common, and simple lying is not very uncommon. Some research suggesting a possibility only very weakly may be trumpeted as dramatic proof of such a possibility, or the research may be described with some claim completely at odds with what the research actually found. It's pretty much an “anything goes” type of situation.

Why does this happen? It all boils down to money. The way large modern web sites work financially is that the more people access a particular page, the more money the web site gets from its online ads. So large web sites have a financial motive to produce “click bait” stories.

Here's an imaginary example. A scientific study asking lots of health questions of respondents may “data dredge” its way to reach a very modest, borderline correlation between Alzheimer's disease and, say, brushing with toothbrushes older than two months. Let's say it finds that you are 2% more likely to get Alzheimer's if you brush with old toothbrushes. This borderline result (probably due to just coincidence) may be hyped up a bit by some university press release with a headline such as “An Intriguing Link Between Alzheimer's and Toothbrushes?” But then when you go to your favorite news site, you may see a "runaway hype" link such as “PROOF YOUR TOOTHBRUSH IS MELTING YOUR BRAIN.” That link is click bait.

When you follow the link, you may either find a story honestly mentioning how borderline the results were, or you may find a story exaggerating the results and terrifying you. For the web site, it really doesn't matter. The people running the site were merely interested in getting you to click on the link, so that they could make money from the display of the online ads.

So by now we see the chain of exaggeration can be:

Unimportant Research Results → Researcher Exaggeration $$$$University Press Release Exaggeration $$$$→ Popular Web Site Exaggeration $$$$

And at each of these $$$$ points we should hear the ka-ching of the cash register, the sound of a vested interest profiting directly or indirectly. 

For some tips on how to spot overblown hype in a science-related news story, see this post.