Science and journalism: studies have findings, not facts.

As a science blogger, I am of course always happy to see more science news making it into the mainstream reports on a daily basis. But there are downsides for those of us who have taken up the task of reporting on scientific discovery, which are the over interpretation and rash judgement that come with a poor understanding of either the material before us or the basics of science. Rather than sticking to what a given study or announcement means, it is easy – even desirable – to take that information to what we believe is its logical next step.

The trouble is: science is inherently esoteric. You’ve never heard what you’re about to read in my blog about Science Topic A because Science Topic A may not have even existed before the study concluded. It makes sense to make science news accessible to the audience by tying it to our daily lives, otherwise much of your audience may have not frame of reference. To do that sometimes requires a bit of imagination. And a few liberties.

After two years or more of science blogging, I have continually discovered that threading the needle between good, imaginative writing and fidelity to the truth is an ongoing process. You don’t win them all, either. So it is easy both for me to criticize other media outlets for failing to meet the benchmark, and for anyone else to find a good example of me failing as badly. But if there is one thing any writer with any interest in factual reporting must absolutely, positively and unequivocally follow, it is this:

Studies have findings, but those findings are not automatically facts.

One recent example of good science reported poorly is the recent University of Illinois study that came to the conclusion that talking to your kids about your own past drug use might actually encourage a view of drugs as being more socially acceptable . But let me not put words in the researchers’ mouths:

“Parents may want to reconsider whether they should talk to their kids about times when they used substances in the past and not volunteer such information, Kam said. “Of course, it is important to remember this study is one of the first to examine the associations between parents’ references to their own past substance use and their adolescent children’s subsequent perceptions and behaviors.”

Its that second sentence that’s the killer, here. Because most of the mainstream media seems to have completely discounted it.

After thirty plus years and billions of dollars spent encouraging parents to talk to their kids about drugs, this new study seems to completely smack an axiom across the face. And it does. But these are findings from a single study, not facts to be reported as such and acted upon by your audience. The study cries out for further investigation, and it is sure to prompt a lot of debate and future research. It just isn’t quite as reliable as, say, our understanding of the boiling point of water.

Digging into the study itself is difficult – once again, this particular wing of the scientific community opts to publish its reports on paywalled scientific journals, rather than publicly – but the scope of the study seems to have been intentionally very limited. They sought to answer a simple question: does the fact that a parent has discussed their past drug use with their children automatically mean that those children will not support the use of drugs? The finding was “no.”

But what does “talking” mean, exactly? What else do the parents discuss besides drugs? With whom are they discussing drugs, besides their children? And if parents do not discuss drug use with their kids, how does this study determine whether those parents ever did drugs in the first place?

It is neither helpful to simply discount the findings nor report them as fact. But using language a bit more clearly, for example saying “new study suggests..” rather than “researchers discover..” would be a good first step. Headlines that tag “study finds” at the end of the sentence, as in “Don’t talk to your kids about drugs, study finds,” are also rather weak on the veracity. And it is hard not to imagine that our current climate of report-first cable news is incapable of such subtlety.

The differences have consequences. Take for example a recent TED talk by neuroscientist Molly Crockett on the crazy reinterpretation of her work that she has experienced, as a good conclusion to this article: