The dangers of chain-letter science journalism

Science Journalism fails with Black Coffee

How many times does a headline need to be shared over the Internet before it’s accepted as truth? That’s the question I was left pondering after reading the most recent viral health story to set the Internet ablaze, this time by linking a preference for black coffee to psychopathic tendencies. After skimming the news coverage, I quickly realized that the answer to the question is shockingly few. Within a matter of hours, the coffee story had spread from food sites like Eater and Delish to The Huffington Post and then on to news outlets like ABC News.

Should we be watching the orders in line at our local Starbucks a little more closely today? Not if you actually read past the headlines. The coffee “study,” undertaken by the University of Innsbruck in Austria, used a small sample size of under 500 people and collected self-reported data via survey. This is not exactly a reliable data set for such a click-worthy conclusion. In the end, the study is just another example of journalists trying to turn correlation into causation while creating a stir among the public along the way.

The black-coffee-psychopath story is a mild example of the treatment of science reporting as a chain letter. If a headline makes its way around the public sphere enough times, it becomes perceived as true without regard to its actual validity. One only needs to look back at the chocolate-diet hoax to see this in action. Unfortunately, even the most serious scientific stories are now being reduced to an attention-grabbing headline without regard to what the results really mean.

A perfect example of this trend is found in the popular media’s reporting on BPA in plastic baby bottles. Google those words and you’ll find an endless stream of headlines alluding to the idea that the U.S. FDA banned BPA, short for bisphenol A, in plastic baby bottles due to safety concerns.

Despite what you read in the press, safety had nothing to do with the FDA’s decision to remove BPA from these products. The FDA wrote its decision to keep up with a changing marketplace. Manufacturers simply abandoned the use of BPA in the production of baby bottles. Further, the decision was made in response to a petition by the American Chemistry Council — not exactly the vanguard of the anti-chemical movement — to state publicly that manufacturers stopped using BPA and to end confusing regulatory attempts by activists and state legislators. Go to the FDA website, which specifically states the baby-bottle decision had nothing to do with safety.

But try telling that to editors and reporters. A technical correction doesn’t make for a good headline. Instead we get headlines like “Baby bottles contain banned chemicals.” Say it enough and the lie becomes true. Just as people will share stories that perpetuate the idea that drinking black coffee means you’re a psychopath, they will unknowingly reinforce the false narrative that BPA was banned in baby bottles because of safety concerns.

Sloppy science reporting has always been dangerous but, thanks to the immediacy and reach of social media, it has never been a more pressing threat. Savvy news consumers must realize that what they read and share over the Internet cannot be taken at face value. The days of the hard-nosed science reporter are coming to an end and being replaced by Internet writers who value ad dollars and immediacy over accuracy. The pursuit of science is the pursuit of truth. Remember this when you are tempted to post a story with questionable scientific content. Is getting a like more important than getting to the truth? I don’t think so, and I bet you don’t either.

Read more about BPA studies here