Sensationalising science: sometimes behind the sizzle is just fizzle

By Victoria Metcalf 25/07/2014

If we believe the headlines we might expect to see aliens waving at us via telescopes within 20 years. How much harm does sensationalising do?
If we believe the headlines we might expect to see aliens waving at us via telescopes within 20 years. How much harm does the sensationalism of science do? Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Accompanying the increasing permeation of science news into mainstream media, there’s an explosion of popular science media sites such as IFLScience. Should we expect these dedicated science news sites to adhere to accurate portrayal of the science, rather than falling victim to the widespread sensationalism of science found elsewhere?

I love science. Science I feel most of the time, actually courses through my veins, contributing to my being, inextricably a part of me. Of course I readily admit, that’s probably being a little dramatic and I certainly can’t do a controlled and statistically robust experiment to prove this.

Possibly though, even more than I love science, is my passion for science communication. I feel a social responsibility as a scientist, especially in an era when we face unprecedented global challenges, to communicate science broadly to the wider community. And to do so in a variety of formats (like this blog, for example). This is part of doing my bit to increase scientific literacy and to engage in conversations about science.

I’m committed too to ensuring my communication efforts are based on in depth knowledge of the science story I am telling. Whilst there might be some drama in the storytelling, sensationalism should never have a place. I believe when the story is told well, there’s enough sexiness in the real story without any need for additional titillation.

I love IFLScience too*. It’s one of a growing plethora of dedicated science news websites out there, contributing to the popularisation of science amongst the masses. These websites, like the blogs of scientists and science communicators, may also be facilitating an increased appetite for mainstream media to report science stories.

The problem with science sensationalism

In many ways, sites like IFLScience have made my job of convincing anyone within earshot that the outcomes of science and even the process of science are pretty damn cool just that much easier. However, as anyone who has actually trained as a scientist knows, a lot of the world of science isn’t that glamorous and it’s certainly not snappy.

Sites like IFLScience might help popularise science but they also glamourise it at the same time. Image credit: Cyanide and Happiness
Sites like IFLScience might help popularise science but they also glamourise it at the same time. Image credit: Cyanide and Happiness

And one thing that really irritates scientists, trained to embrace accuracy and detail, is when they see science news reported that isn’t accurate, that overdramatises, that sensationalises and worst of all misleads. Everyone loses in this scenario.

Such reporting may lead to an erosion of trust in science and in scientists, undermining the very relationship many of us are working so hard at developing. For the future of our planet and its inhabitants, including we humans, partly depends on scientists like myself engaging in two-way respectful dialogue with the vast majority of the human population who aren’t scientists.

Science sensationalism is rife in mainstream media, where stories are recycled from outlet to outlet and dedicated science reporters are seemingly as scarce as kakapo.

When dedicated science news websites veer away from the science

We should, in theory, be in far safer territory with dedicated science media sites such as IFLScience, except I’ve noticed recently we aren’t. Sensationalist headlines that don’t accurately portray content are becoming more commonplace at IFLScience. Here are eight case studies.

Case study 1:  An Experimental Stem Cell Treatment Lead To A Woman Accidentally Growing A Nose On Her Spine.

No, a human nose did not grow on a woman's spine! Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, Arnold Reinhold
No, a human nose did not grow on a woman’s spine! Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, Arnold Reinhold

Except it didn’t. The poor woman grew nasal tissue but that’s just a little different to a full blown (excuse the pun) nose. The nasal tissue was producing mucus but let’s be clear, it still wasn’t a nose. The 18 year-old had become a paraplegic after an accident and was part of an experimental approach to see if nasal mucosal tissue, which contains stem-like cells, could be used to repair damage.

Eight years later with chronic back pain, a mass on her spine arising from the transplant was found to be cysts of nasal tissue.

It may not sound as dramatic as a nose growing on a spine but it’s a lot easier to believe. And the real story the scientists published of boldly trying a form of stem cell therapy (which frequently hits the headlines due to its promise for treating all manner of ailments), but discovering that after so many years it could have significant adverse effects and warrants caution in its use, is to me a more important conversation worth having than a freak show.


Case Study 2: Great White Shark Bites Off More Than It Can Chew.

Although, the website post itself isn’t that sensationalist the Facebook site which has 17 million Likes, said this:

Image Credit: IFLScience Facebook Page
Image Credit: IFLScience Facebook Page

The problem here is that sharks can’t choke in the way we think of choking.

Sure the sea lion may have got stuck in the shark’s mouth and stomach, causing trauma contributing to its death.

Or as it was trying to dislodge the sea lion, the shark may have got stranded and then died. Many of the millions of Facebook readers may have only viewed the Facebook post without clicking on the link to the more accurate website post, leaving sharks and shark biology still misunderstood.

Great white sharks can't choke. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, Brocken Inaglory
Great white sharks can’t choke. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, Brocken Inaglory

Case study 3: Whilst we are on great whites it seems as if they are prime sensationalist fodder because Massive Sea Creature Attacks, Kills And Eats A 3 Meter Long Great White Shark. Wow, that sounds super exciting. How did we not know about a sea creature bigger than a great white shark that eats great white sharks?

IFLScience starts the post off with “According to Australian scientists, a tagged 3-meter-long (9 foot) great white shark was killed and eaten by an even bigger predator, most likely a “colossal cannibal great white shark” Gizmodo reports.”

It’s not some crazily scary, newly identified, colossal great white shark guzzling regular great whites with an as yet unknown penchant for humans, though. The simplest explanation is a bigger great white ate a smaller great white shark. Given that great whites can grown up to 8 metres (26 feet), it’s not that surprising that a 3 metre tiddler was possibly lunch for a fully grown shark.

Case Study 4: Staying on the fish theme, a self-sustaining ecosystem in an abandoned shopping mall sounds really interesting, right?: Self-Sustaining Urban Ecosystem Discovered In Abandoned Building In Thailand.

Basically though, someone introduced a whole lot of koi and catfish to a flooded basement in an abandoned, burnt down shopping mall and they still live there. Wow? Not really.

Case Study 5: NASA Believes Newest Telescopes Could Spot Extraterrestrial Life Within 20 Years.

Many exoplanets are being discovered but making contact with extraterrestrial life is another giant step for mankind. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, NASA and G. Bacon
Many exoplanets are being discovered but making contact with extraterrestrial life is another giant step for mankind. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, NASA and G. Bacon

IFLScience suggests that we will be able to spot ET life within 20 years. However, I’m pretty sure that within 20 years we won’t have telescopes so powerful that we can see alien life forms waving to us (if they have arms and know that a wave means hello) from many, many light years away.

The actual IFLScience article quotes NASA scientists as saying: “Future missions will search for chemical indicators of life on exoplanets, including water and carbon dioxide”- now chemical indicators of life is an entirely different thing isn’t it? The NASA press release itself contains none of the same sensationalism.

Like many of these stories, the research the scientists are doing and the discoveries they are making are incredible without overblowing it. What damage will it do to public perception of science if we don’t make alien contact soon following this headline? Scientists get treated with the same skepticism as politicians and their pre-election promises, perhaps?

Case Study 6: Did you know that Packrats Dine on Poison After Fecal Transplant?

A misleading headline evokes images of rats chomping on rodent poison and surviving following faecal transplants. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, AlexK100.
A misleading headline evokes images of rats chomping on rodent poison and surviving following faecal transplants. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, AlexK100.

This headline is somewhat misleading: the average reader would think of an image of rats feasting on poison pellets (in celebration?) after the joy of a faecal transplant.

In reality, the research, which the IFLScience article does summarise, was on rats that have evolved to eat plants that contain toxins. Many plants contain compounds to deter being eaten and although microbes were thought to be a key part of herbivores overcoming these plant defenses, firm evidence of this was lacking.

The researchers found rats who normally reside where the plant lives can digest the plant, partly due to the actions of particular gut bacteria. These bacteria assist in detoxifying the plant material and reducing the load on the rat liver. When rats who don’t have these bacterial helpers are fed food containing fecal material from rats that do, they can deal with the toxins too.

Case Study 7: HIV is a feared disease, for good reason. We are yet to find a cure or a vaccine. So when we see headlines like HIV-killing condom approved in Australia, it’s easy to get excited.

Like so many of these headlines, IFLScience isn’t the only media outlet saying similar, but it’s just not accurate. Viruses aren’t technically classified as a living thing- because they lack the ability to reproduce on their own and rely on host cell machinery to help instead. They’re really an infectious agent.

As such you can’t technically kill a virus. You can destroy a cell that the virus has infected and hence disable it or even inactivate the virus from replicating within the cell (inactivation) and you can also inhibit or prevent the virus from gaining entry into the cells (inhibition).

VivaGel®, the antimicrobial agent on the condoms, therefore doesn’t kill HIV, but does seem to have good antiviral activity (mainly in terms of preventing infection (but note it isn’t absolute in its prevention of HIV virus particles entering cells)). If you want to know more about VivaGel® and how it works read this post here by Paige Brown or science articles about the active compound. e.g.  here and here.

An amoeba ate my eyeball. Well not really- the amoeba ate the bacteria that entered the eye. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, GreenBlueRed.
An amoeba ate my eyeball. Well not really- the amoeba tend to restrict themselves to the cornea which only makes up the front of the eye, leaving a whole lot of eyeball uneaten. These are amoeba under a microscope. Amoeba image credit: Wikimedia Commons, GreenBlueRed.

Case Study 8: And finally beware contact lens wearers, A Girl Left Her Contacts In For 6 Months And Amoebas Ate Her Eyeballs. Horrific headline- if only it was accurate.

The amoeba involved, Acanthamoeba, rarely causes infection but many infections are associated with contact lens use and incidence of disease is on the rise.  For contact lens wears who don’t remove their lenses daily, it can take up residence behind the contact lens and is frequently found associated with bacterial films.

The amoeba will rarely move into the eye itself (only as far as the cornea typically) through a variety of clever techniques: e.g. a protein that ‘sticks’ to human cells to allow the amoeba to get a grip on the host; as well as sending out special proteins (proteases) that dissolve host proteins, including those in the wall of cells, to kill host cells.

The infection can potentially blind the person. However, this typically only occurs after some trauma has occurred to the cornea. There is a European consortium ODAK focused on finding a treatment for the infection. But the cornea sits at the very front of the eye and there’s an awful lot of ‘uneaten’ eyeball behind, even with a severe infection. Although it’s not a nice disease, it’s not exactly the stuff of horror movies after all.

Dedicated science news websites need to portray accurate science

Whilst many stories IFLScience releases are accurate in terms of their science content, the selection above from just the last few weeks shows that in some cases catchy headlines are more sensational than scientific. Although I’ve specifically discussed IFLScience here, the same could be said of a number of other dedicated science/medical news websites.

Scientists have long moaned about mainstream media taking science out of context and portraying what research shows in an accurate, misleading and sensationalist fashion. Perhaps scientists all breathed a worldwide sigh of relief when dedicated science media appeared, thinking this would lead to the reality of science without the hype.

It’s a tough, touch screen-based electronic world out there for news. Trying to find ways to grab people’s attention long enough to stop and read beyond the headline is challenging. However, I think science specific news websites should be promoting accurate science communication. After all, the relationship between scientists and the public and potentially our future to an extent depends on it.

I urge science news sites such as IFLScience to ensure their headlines balance catchiness with accuracy.  Focus on what the real story is and when it is told in the right way, it should be even more captivating than sensationalism in a media world already saturated with overblown headlines. We’re all much better off when this happens. Do you think so too? I really welcome your comments on this post. Final word goes to @dawnbazely:


*[I don’t love IFLScience’s full name “I F***ing Love Science” however, and I wish its shadow Facebook site “Science is Awesome” still existed for potentially offended relatives, friends and international students whenever I share an IFLScience post. Miss4, a savvy iPhone user pretty much daily scrolls through my Facebook feed to look at the latest IFLScience offerings and I worry about the conversation we’ll be having when she learns to read.]


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