Crappy Science Reporting With Their Outrageous, Alarming Titles Piss Me Off


A few friends had posted on Facebook a link to a crazy little article from the LA Times titled "Drug May Limit Homosexuality" and the quick overview read "A prenatal pill for congenital adrenal hyperplasia to prevent ambiguous genitalia may reduce the chance that a female with the disorder will be gay." Intriguing? Disturbing? How about misleading? 

The story is about some studies indicating that a drug has been shown (when tested on a few hundred cases worldwide) to limit the genital masculinization of XX (genetically female) fetuses with the condition Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia (CAH). That is the only new facts in this article. Guess how many studies have been done regarding this drug and homosexuality. None. None at all. The article waits to tell you this till the 2nd to last sentence. 

I have a lot of problems with this article. I have done a fair amount of research into studies regarding gender, sexuality and CAH females, and I can tell you that there are some assertions and assumption in both this article and some of the studies it references that are lacking in good logic. However, my main bone of contention for this blog is the outrageous title that exists only because a few scientists thought this drug might also limit homosexuality in CAH females (if someone were actually to study that possibility and if the condition CAH actually has a biological effect that does in fact increase a female's chance of becoming non heterosexual ---- these are my conditional words not these curious scientists' words). 

It sucks. Let me be more specific when I say sucks, though. Too often, a mostly level-headed, peer reviewed scientific study is discovered by the pop media, and we the public get a shock title that either has nothing to do with the content of the actual study or highlights a tiny mention of future goals or related possibilities that the scientists who wrote the study by no means endorse in the study. Generally, the actual text of the articles are more sensible than the shock titles, but still much less sensible than the actual peer-reviewed published studies. 

I mention my hatred of crap science reporting in this blog because it so very often encompasses gender and sex related studies and often times they relate specifically to the issues Science Sex and the Ladies touches. We don't get a lot of wild, out-of-hand reporting when scientists publish a paper describing how a particular enzyme inhibits a particular metabolic pathway in a particular bacteria. It's too hard to pull something humanly relevant out of that, but mention something that will get the ol' battle of the sexes flaring, and the reporters start flocking. When scientific studies are simplified, they are almost always also misrepresented. For instance, take this late 2006 article from the Sunday Times titled, "Housework can help you to beat breast cancer, women are told." 

From the title you may think it means that housework somehow is able to ward off evil boob cancer for the smart women who like dusting and washing base boards. However it is actually about a study that looked at pre and post menopausal women over about 6 years and tracked their physical activity and the incidence of breast cancer. Ton's of similar articles popped up all over the internet based on this study.  In this actual study paper, there are a lot of statistics put together in different ways, but some main points of interest that elicit this title are...physical activity seemed to correlate with reduced incidence of breast cancer. House work was the main source of physical activity for these European women who were studied. Moderate forms of activity like housework may be more correlated to reduced cancer incidence than less frequent but higher intensity work-outs. 

My point is that the title gives an image of this study that is silly and misleading, and it is the way it is because it's agitating. Some will laugh and discuss how women should get their asses in the kitchen and work so they don't get breast cancer. Others will be outraged at the sexist-ness of it all, but many will want to click on the link and only read the first sentence under the headline. I think people should be outraged  that good scientifically researched knowledge is regularly being bastardized. It does not serve us as it should by making out cultural understanding of the world more comprehensive, but instead debases our respect for scientific inquiry by making it a laughing stock in the the popular media - which is the only place that most people are exposed to new scientific studies. 

So, next time you read an outrageous title on the internet about some new study, please go actually read the whole article. After you've picked through the crap in that article, tried to make sense of what the scientific study was actually saying, then decided it was stupid and not as interesting or controversial as the title made it out to be....at that point please tweet or facebook or talk about your displeasure with the bullshit article so you can pass on the fruits of your critical thinking. ( You advanced critiquers might even want to actually find the peer reviewed study that was published and compare that to the article about it...)

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