How Science Reporting Works

Today on the webcomic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, a pithy and startlingly accurate summary of the state of science reporting (be sure to click through for the whole thing).

How Science Reporting Works (Thanks, Fipi Lele!)


  1. This is why I stopped reading the Science Times. Anything in a field I knew about was this level of crap, so I figured the stuff in other fields probably wasn’t much better, which meant I was filling my head with bullshit.

  2. It’s a shame science reporting is like this as it leads to all kinds of trouble. The investigative path of science is fascinating and it would make really good news stories, but there’s the large assumption that no-one cares about science unless it makes your junk bigger.

    SLGALT, nice, I like the “dingding”… I think that’s also how the circle of self-fulfilling credibility in reporting works as well…

  3. @SLGALT:

    Aha! When I saw this I knew there was a more complete comic out there a bit ago, but couldn’t remember which one! Good call!

  4. @Antonius
    Not quite. You see, unlike the majority of news subjects like politicians or religious leaders, the scientists actually produced real results that could have been reported on in non-sensational manner.

    Yes, it’s annoying how findings are often overhyped (and it’s naive to think that scientists themselves don’t contribute to this in many cases), but that doesn’t change the issue that unlike most fields, there is more than the blowing of hot-air going on in science.

    1. I was thinking of the way that the media completely ignores substantive political issues in favor of reporting decades-old details of politicians’ personal lives.

  5. There was a cartoon years ago of rats in a cage in a lab who were celebrating, in view was a newspaper with the headline “Cancer cured in Rats”.

  6. #6 SLGALT

    You bet me to it! I was just checking the comments to see if anyone had linked to the PhD comic.

    I love that comic, it truly captures the horror that is PhD research.

  7. maggie @18 – nooo! – your engaging and well-educated science journalism gives us all hope for the future! don’t lose heart!

  8. @15- The first one takes lots of time to report properly– more than TV news is likely to have time for, and possibly more than the average attention span. The second takes about five seconds.

    Hell, consider the amount of background knowledge someone would have to have to make an informed decision on global warming policy…how many thousands of pages of research it’d take to actually understand the economic tradeoffs involved, how much training it’d take to understand those pages, etc. Now do that again with every other science topic…

  9. One of my favorite quotes is from an old Bob Hope comic book: “Dumb people resent smart people. And most people are dumb.”

  10. Haha. That sounds about right, then the same scientists read the article to figure out who cured it.

    pba 2009

  11. Even worse:

    Hypothesis: Does Marijuana cause insanity?

    Conclusion: No, not at all.

    Newspaper Headline: Scientists investigate insanity-causing properties of Marijuana.

    EBSCO Search Results for “Marijuana” + “Insanity”: 1 (more)

  12. Did you noticed that there’s a webzine called ding ding, in the comic linked by SLGALT?!? Has quite the ring, doesn’t it?? I’m off to register that domain right now, byez!

  13. Another pertinent version of this comic would be:

    Scientists: Our data and models indicate that Global average temperatures will likely only rise 2 degrees in the next 100 years, instead of the 6 degrees suggested by previous studies…

    Media: Global Warming averted! SUV sales to pick up again!

  14. Cancer reporting is tricky, and there is a tendency with cancer news for two things to happen:

    a) the primary source overhypes the discovery in a press release and,

    b) the beat reporter for the media outlet does nt have enough scientific background to ask the right questions.

    There is getting to be more awareness that cancer cures in mice don’t mean anything. On the other hand, many science writers have excellent science backgrounds, but then they get flak from scientists who can be very controlling about how their work is reported, even when they are pretty much wrong. Scientists as a rule are really terrible writers and do not understand that you can’t include every detail, proviso, and qualifier in a scientific paper in a single 400 word news brief, and also explain the science for a lay audience. Sometimes the best you can do is a crude analogy.

    In short, while I cringe when I see headlines such as the above, I also tend to think that bashing science writers is a pretty cheap shot. Anyone who thinks they can do it better, go ahead and try.

  15. Apparently no one here has been peer-reviewed for Nature, Science, Cell, PNAS, etc…this is so untrue it IS funny. Yet another cheap shot for those who chose worthless endeavors opposite science that are now sitting in the unemployment line, and need to be cheered up at the the expense of the very people who are the sole reason the average life-span doesn’t end at age 40.

  16. t’s vn fnnr whn prt f th cmc sn’t mssng. Try hrdr nxt tm whn y stl cntnt frm nthr wbst. btw th rst s sppsd t sy *wll w cn cr cncr n th ftr* nd th nwsppr rds*scntst crts tm trvl?* thn th scntst sys F** y! nd th nwsppr rds scntst rps rprtr!

    1. New to the internet? There’s this thing called a “link” that you can click to see the whole comic.

Comments are closed.