In the UK we have a running joke about one of our national tabloid newspapers (that shall remain nameless, at least on this site). This particular newspaper has a fetish for classifying inanimate objects into those that cause cancer, and those that don’t. And ironically, some objects have fallen into both categories, sometimes within months of each other.

While many of us simply shake our heads and laugh at the inconsistency and flawed science of our leading newspapers, this state of play highlights a fundamental problem with science journalism: the media is not very good at handling scientific uncertainty. It’s a point that comedian John Oliver makes astonishingly well in a twenty minute segment for Last Week Tonight, demonstrating how the most straightforward of scientific studies can be turned into “Scientist Say Smelling Farts Might Prevent Cancer“.

Scientists themselves are also guilty of sexing up their work to catch the public eye, and Oliver points to a particularly cringe-worthy TED talk from 2011 given by Paul Zack. In his presentation on oxytocin, Zack prescribes ‘eight hugs a day’ in the guise of ‘Doctor Love’. Oh boy.

“Science is by its nature imperfect,” says Oliver, “but it is hugely important, and it deserves better than to be twisted out of proportion and turned into morning show gossip. If they [the news media] are going to keep saying “a study says”, they should have to provide sourcing and context, or not mention it at all.”

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