Adulterated Science: Why not all Sci Comm is GOOD Sci Comm

By now if you are a human (or cylon, I won’t judge) who has used the internet more than once, I expect you to have stumbled upon IFL Science. You probably come across it “on the regular” on your Facebook page.

IFL Science is great for the lay person. It provides tons of scientific information to millions of people who would otherwise never see it. It is truly one of the great success stories of science communication. However, inherent in its rise are some problems. First off, there is some drama regarding the history of the site, who owns/owned what, citing sources, etc… An article has been written about this subject and it includes responses to the article by Elise Andrew, the founder of IFL Science. Read it for your daily dose of drama. All I will say about all of this is one thing: if you run a website or re-post content from anyone, ever; you should cite your source. We are merely amateurs here at UNdertheC, but I like to think that we at least make every effort to give credit where credit is due. Many amateurs reproduce images and content without consent or citation (especially on Tumblr and Twitter). I’m all for sharing things, but please give proper credit.

The biggest issue with IFL Science and all similar sites, is that they use misleading titles as click-bait (probably because they are revenue based). Embedded within the sites many wonderful articles are those with unfortunate titles aimed at creating controversy or sparking debate, even when such controversy or debate shouldn’t exist. Examples include 4 contradictory titles on the subject of a proposed mini-ice age in 2030 (all published within a few days of one another). Another titles “Is the global warming hiatus over?” is concerning as well, mostly because such an event never happened. In this world of science news and communication, it is very important to keep your facts straight and report accurately. People have a hard enough time trusting scientists as it is (thanks to contrarians, science deniers, etc…). Surely sites that are actually trying to help should not become part of the problem.

Recently, we’ve seen an even more terrible example of adulterated science. Coke has been funding “research”  that claims diet is not the cause of America’s obesity epidemic. While a sedentary lifestyle is also a huge factor for weight gain and obesity, it is just wrong to suggest that diet isn’t really a big part of the puzzle. It is. Ask anyone who is trying to lose weight. Exercise is key, but you can’t really reach your goals without eating smarter. Here’s a simplistic view: We eat food, it contains calories. We either burn those calories for energy or store them for later use (fat, muscle). If we eat consume fewer calories we have fewer calories to store as fat, therefore we can’t really gain weight. Most organisms, including the coral I study, share this basic metabolic pathway. It seems to me that Coke is paying scientists to try to shift the blame away from products like Coca-cola, which have ridiculous amounts of sugar (or high-fructose corn syrup, depending on where you are and where your coke is from).

(source: SugarStacks.com)

(source: SugarStacks.com)

Industry manipulating science is not anything new. The tobacco industry is (in)famous for it. Climate denier and oil companies are also pretty well-known for it. Luckily, there may be some hope for real science. People are responding very negatively towards coke for their stunt (1, 2, 3). Even Fox News thinks it’s a bunch of BS.

In the above video a Fox News anchor, who happens to be one of the only people at Fox to understand that climate change is real, compares coke, the tobacco industry, and climate change deniers much like I did above. They are all groups who benefit directly from something that is bad for people as a whole. When science shows that their product is terrible for you, can lead to obesity, give you cancer and a heavy addiction problem, or cause planet scale changes to earth systems that can have devastating impacts on our civilization, people should have cause for alarm. Slandering scientists or funding your own biased work (looking at you, Heartland Institute) is a great way to keep getting what you want.

It gives me hope that even Fox News, who usually peddles the bad science, is airing segments about how ridiculous coke and climate deniers are. They even suggest that most people go to science and scientists for the facts. While that isn’t necessarily true (123, 4) it isn’t false either. Here’s some recent data:

(source: Pew Research Center)

(source: Pew Research Center)

(source: nature.com)

(source: nature.com)

We can see here that science doesn’t always guide our government decision making (a HUGE problem), but people overall seem to think scientists are pretty reliable relative to other sources when it comes to things live evolution, energy, etc… However, there is a political divide in trust in science:

blog_conservatives_science_0 mother jones

(source: motherjones.com)

The above chart is from 2010, and I certainly have hope that moderate and conservative voters are starting to trust science more. But regardless, we as science communicators must realize what is and what isn’t GOOD science communication.

Misleading titles and creating controversy where there isn’t any are big issues. Popularizing science is very important, it’s a great way to help inform the public of the most current advances and issues inherent in our lives, but spreading misinformation for personal gain is just not the right thing to do. Yet, people still do it. I encourage you as a reader and consumer of media to not believe everything you read on the internet. If you are interested in something, please do your own research. Find as many sources as you can, read primary literature, ask other people, and develop your own informed opinion on the issue.

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