x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Scary science

Science journalism can be tricky business; sometimes stories can be oversimplified or imprecisely reported; reader caution is advised.

Science is complicated. Journalism is - among other things - a process of simplifying. In science news, journalists are often expected to distil complex findings into stories lively enough to deserve big headlines. Sometimes those headlines essentially just say "Boo!", because scaring the readers is a time-tested way of keeping them interested.

At Forbes.com, columnist Trevor Butterworth sets out this week a startling case in which a New York Times reporter seems to have over-stated the risks - which may in fact be very low indeed - of your body absorbing a particular chemical from the plastic lining of food tins.

All reputable media strive to present science news in a balanced and precise way. But from the New York Times to the most fly-by-night websites, unbalanced and hysterical coverage can happen.

Medical advances, toxic products, looming planetoids, climate science - such topics interest everyone, but readers should recall that the scientific method demands rigorous testing, careful review, replication of results and prudent analysis. Any one story about a new scare or miracle cure really needs to be taken with the proverbial grain of salt.

But not iodised salt! That stuff's dangerous! Or not.