Sunday, 6 September 2009

Oversimplified Science Reporting

An interesting example of how science reporting in the news can oversimplify an issue: here's a paper in Evolution and Human Behaviour. The paper is about some research carried out on babies (around 11 months old) to test some hypotheses about fear of snakes and spiders.

Here are the various reports of this paper in the news:

  • BBC News: "A new study in the US suggests that women have a genetic aversion to dangerous animals, such as spiders."
  • Daily Telegraph: Girls appear to be born with a natural fear of spiders, scientists have discovered.

The actual research didn't show this. What it showed was that, at the age of 11 months, if told that spiders are dangerous (by pairing spider images with unhappy faces), girls are significantly more likely than boys to remember this and exhibit confusion if shown a spider paired with a happy face. Female babies learn more readily that spiders are dangerous (also works with snakes) but this really doesn't go so far as a "genetic aversion". The New Scientist article provides a concise but accurate summary of the paper: "[...] a study suggests that females are genetically predisposed to develop fears for potentially dangerous animals."

From some other news sources, it's also possible to detect a definite "reprinting the press release" pattern.

  • The Metro: While women would be more weary of dangerous animals because they were the primary carer for children and could only have a relatively small amount of offspring compared to a man, the male of the species had less to lose and would take more risks in life with behaviour such as hunting.
  • Daily Mail: [Dr Rakison] said that because a woman can have only a relatively small number of offspring compared to a man – and is often the primary carer for children during the first years of life – it made evolutionary sense to be more weary about venomous snakes and spiders.

Both, despite rewording the containing sentence, keep the same mis-spelling of "wary". (BBC News substitutes 'cautious', Sky News spells it 'wary', and the Telegraph doesn't include a similar sentence).

Edit: The badly-written BBC article got picked up for criticism elsewhere. It's interesting to see how many of the complaints are ones that the original paper anticipated and controlled for, but the news articles didn't see as worth reporting. (The complaints about the evolutionary conclusions being drawn, yes, they're still valid - there are at least a few good alternative explanations - and again, the actual paper is far more cautious about drawing evolutionary conclusions about the reasons)