Journalists Aren’t Scientists, and Sometimes That’s a Problem

“We found chocolate is the healthiest type of food!” — study funded by Big Chocolate.

I’m a rare breed: a writer with a very strong scientific background. My stories are always backed up with peer-reviewed studies, articles, or quotes from experts. One of my favorite things is reading scientific papers and pull out interesting findings to share with people. I also love reading articles where the journalists cite scientific, peer-reviewed studies. A lot of my articles on here are inspired by scientific studies.

There’s something really fascinating about taking the latest study published in a big scientific journal, and interpreting it in a new way for other people to read. I truly believe that science communication is vital in a happy, healthy, democratic community, and anything that fosters that relationship is a good thing in my book.

That being said, there’s a dirty secret not many people seem to be talking about: some scientific studies are funded by industry, and those facts are not always reported on.

What does that mean? It means that someone working in the chocolate industry, or the beer industry, or the sugar industry, thought it would be a good idea to get some scientists to prove their product was healthy, or that a competitor’s was unhealthy.

So they fund these studies to find out if their product really is the new superfood.

Nothing wrong with that in theory, of course.

There are plenty of reasons why you need to be wary of these types of articles.

People only like new, sexy, interesting scientific results.

Here’s the thing: academia should be completely unbiased and rational. It’s a science, with no room for anything by pure logic. In theory, there’s no room for prejudice, bias, or subjectivity in pure science.

But academia is run by humans, and humans are flawed. And that can have some pretty serious ramifications.

Take this for example — when scientists perform an experiment and get a boring result, it doesn’t tend to get published and distributed.

For example, if someone runs a study to prove if having lasers pointing at your eyeballs helps you retain information, but gets the (boring) result that, surprise surprise, that doesn’t help, it probably won’t be published because the headline “Lasers in your eyeballs don’t help you study” isn’t going to excite anyone. That’s old news. We already knew that.

But that means the next person to come up with that idea will do a quick Google, believe they’re the first ones to think of it, and waste a lot of time and money testing the idea out because the boring results weren’t distributed.

Logic dictates that publishing negative results is a good thing, because it will help people avoid the same mistakes. But the illogical humans doing the science think it’s a bad thing.

Negative results are dull. They don’t show us anything new. So if there’s a study that shows chocolate is bad for you, nobody will be interested in publishing that finding because people don’t care.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Journals don’t want to showcase dull, old news; they want fresh, exciting takes. So they generally refuse to publish things that aren’t “cool.”

Instead, these results sit in a drawer, unread, indefinitely. This is known as the File Drawer Effect.

It’s not so bad on its own — it can just mean people repeat failed experiments over and over again, because the earlier failures weren’t published. It’s a waste of resources and time, but no real harm is done.

As long as you bear in mind that for every “chocolate is the new superfood!” study you read, there are probably five that show it isn’t the new superfood, that just never got published.

And it doesn’t end there.

Researchers unconsciously favor the people paying them.

Let’s have a thought experiment. Let’s say you’re a food scientist. You were just funded by Big Chocolate to find out if eating a piece of chocolate per day has long-term, positive implications on health.

It’s a lot of money. And you love your job.

So, you do the experiment and, wow, you find out that chocolate is healthy and good for you!

A healthy snack. Photo by Monique Carrati on Unsplash

That’s great — big chocolate is more likely to fund you in the future since they’re happy with these results. You’re likely to get published, because this is new and exciting information.

It’s possible that no “bad science” was done here. But it’s unlikely. One study (one not funded by any large industries) found that nutritional studies funded by industry were 4–8 times more likely to find positive impacts than those which were unfunded.

Results get published. You’re thrilled with another publication. The public rejoices as they eat more chocolate without feeling like they’re being unhealthy. Big Chocolate gets a bit richer. You go about your life without feeling like you’ve done anything wrong.

Pointing these findings out to scientists won’t do much good, because we like to think of ourselves as rational and logical. You tell anyone that number, they might not disagree with it, but they’ll think to themselves: that doesn’t apply to me.

But the numbers don’t lie. For whatever reason, whether intentional or not, when an industry funds a study, the results are likely to favor that industry. And that’s not good science.

But there’s one last link in the chain.

Journalists who report on these findings aren’t always scientists themselves.

How did you most recently find out something scientifically new and interesting? Chances are, it was not in a peer-reviewed study, which can be dense and not fun for non-scientists to read. It’s likely you read a journalist’s interpretation of a study. Maybe not even the whole article — just the headline on Twitter.

And journalists aren’t always focused on clearly communicating the facts. In some cases, they’re mostly targeting clicks.

That’s how, even when a study passes the two common failings above, you can still get people believing that better-equipped ambulances lead to more deaths, even though what really happens is better-equipped ambulances are primarily dispatched to more at-risk folks. You get people believing that coconut oil is just as bad as beef fat or butter when in reality the original study simply reported on saturated versus unsaturated fats in general.

Finally, journalists rarely if ever report on who funded the study, leaving out what to me seems like a huge chunk of vital info to the public. So many nutritional studies especially are funded by the industry, and so many draw big conclusions from only a few data points, that I believe it’s really remiss to leave that info out.

This is what happens when people expect science to be unbiased, infallible. As a practice, science is free of prejudice. But scientists are human, and so too are journalists. Like most people, they like money, interesting results, influencing others.

Researchers don’t think they’re being influenced. Companies don’t outright pay for good results. Bad results aren’t purposefully buried.

But the numbers don’t lie, and the trend is impossible to reject. When industries pay for studies to be done, the outcome is far more likely to be positive. And there aren’t likely to be any negative results published, because they’re not very interesting to readers. And journalists are being pressured to produce clicks rather than facts.

Photo by Isaac Smith on Unsplash

This can be as big as actually skewing numbers, or it can just mean publishing certain positive results and withholding other negative ones, because they’re not “significant enough to warrant publication.”

Next time you read an article in the paper that alcohol increases longevity, do yourself a favor and dig up the study it was published in before you start downing the beer.

Check: were the results accurately represented in the article you read? Were the possibilities of mistakes downplayed? And most importantly, who were they funded by?

Science is a pure form of research. But scientists are human and fallible. We can all work towards better science — researchers by performing more unbiased experiments, or by insisting on publishing all results, journalists but doing their due diligence and not skewing results reporting, and finally, us readers, by digging into the why’s behind the science.

Biology MSc. Psychology nerd. She/her. Get my FREE 5-day Medium Starter Kit to make money writing about what you love:

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