.@ScienceDaily is science junk food

I’ve been thinking lately about why I dislike Science Daily, and I came to the conclusion that it is because Science Daily is the junk food of science journalism.

But I love junk food. And I hate Science Daily. How can that be?

Let’s unpack this food metaphor first.

Science Daily offers up many many bite-sized pieces of science every day. Science Daily is like a vast supermarket of science, offering hundreds of articles on any topic in science you could want. But first, just like in every grocery store, it is clear that they have sold all the real estate to advertisers. It is a business, after all!   Is it possible to walk through a grocery store and not see a Coke display? Not any grocery stores that I’ve been to.

Science Daily likewise pelts your eyes with ads – some overt and some covert.  Let’s focus on covert ads.  In a grocery store, the big stack of potato chips by the front seems like just food, but it is really an ad for a particular brand of chip.  Science Daily does something similar.  Instead of an eye-catching chip display, Science Daily dresses-up their ads so they appear to be actual science stories.  Ads, science stories – they all look the same.  And where are the undercover ads? Right smack in the middle of the screen, in the same awful red, white and blue color scheme also used for actual science stories.

Screen capture of the Science Daily homepage. I've highlighted the ads for you!

Many of those actual news stories from Science Daily are actually edited press releases from universities where the research was done. Why do I call these junk?  Because it looks like science, and it smells like science, but I am not really sure that it is science. Why not?  The Science Daily effect.

One effect of a super-aggregator like Science Daily is to flatten the credibility and importance of everything they publish.  Imagine standing in front of a wall of cereal trying to decide which cereal is more nutritious.  Is one better than the other?  Who knows!  Each box you read says “Nutritious part of this complete breakfast!

Science Daily is just like that overwhelming cereal aisle. Instead of slogan-packed boxes, Science Daily offers press release, after slightly edited press release.  Are any of these press releases more important, more certain, more packed with evidence than any other?  Who knows!  They are all full of wonderful science-y goodness.  Unlike cereal boxes, where a list of ingredients and nutritional information helps consumers separate the Froot Loops from the All-Bran, no comparable labels are slapped on Science Daily stories.

 

Good science writing doesn’t need such labels.  Good science writing provides context, gives warnings for tentative, exploratory research with major flaws, and provides corroboration and application from other scientists in the field.   Good science writing helps readers distinguish between ads, recycled press releases, pseudoscience, etc. (Froot Loops) and actual science news stories (All-Bran).

On Science Daily, it is difficult to tell whether you are getting Froot Loops or All-Bran.  Image if all cereals came packaged exactly the same way.  Could you pick out the Cheerios from the Oh!s?  Sure, if you’re a cereal expert!  The same goes for Science Daily.  For instance, I can (1) tell when one childhood learning study is probably a bigger deal than another (was that even peer reviewed?), (2) am familiar with the rigorous design of the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, (3) am aware of the stringent review criteria at Child Development, and (4) know that second study hasn’t yet been published.  But what about the non-scientists (and non-science writers) reading Science Daily?   They are stuck with a diet heavy on Froot Loops.

Science Daily wraps up bite-sized pieces of science in splashy, easy-to-open packages for fast public consumption. This junk food approach to science news can result in a mess like this, where a much bigger site (Jezebel) says “according to Science Daily” – as if they are not quoting a press release, but good science writing.  

Screen capture of a Science Daily article. I've highlighted the ads for you!

This is what my family does with Froot Loops.

Worse still, Science Daily doesn’t just dish up junk food science, it repackages and markets its junk food as wholesome, nutritious science. It’s like Kellogg taking Froot Loops, mashing them up, adding some water, powdered milk flavoring, and voilà!  Super vitamin rich Froot Loops Energy Drink!  Leave out the water, add some more corn syrup, and various solidifiers… Froot Loops Healthy Snack Bar!  To be clear, I don’t think that most studies on Science Daily are entirely worthless, just like Froot Loops can make a colorful and delicious necklace. But I’m not feeding my kids Froot Loops for dinner.

I’ll end with extending the food metaphor beyond Science Daily. Why does Science Daily survive, and continue to offer its science-y products (while obscuring how much actual science is contained)?  Fresh-from-the-scientists-lab-science, that you could peel back and read is available.  Unlike Science Daily, it will often cost a pretty penny to access this science, making it inaccessible to most of the public.  I’m sure that there are all sorts of complicated reasons that open access publishing hasn’t caught on yet.  One side effect of making “fresh” science inaccessible is that most people do not learn of a new finding from a paper, they get it from Science Daily or a big blog saying “according to Science Daily“.  

Science Daily is cheap, easy, and it feels like science. There are many great science blogs and science magazines.  But the science writing they provide takes a little more time to find, read, and to write.  I am sure the junk food science Science Daily provides leaves many readers feeling sated, with a feeling of knowingness, as if they are full of science. These readers are like children who have a diet full of things that aren’t really food and grow up to be both malnourished and obese.  This gets us to why I hate Science Daily.  It is a steady diet of junk food science.  

So, to paraphrase Michael Pollan, let’s eat more science, and stay away from scienc-y things.

____________

Dr. Kellogg
Guest Editor
Professor, Institution of Higher Learning
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Editorial Methods & Materialsm Unfortunately, this post was composed without eating a single Froot Loop. I may or may not have had tofu and spinach lasagne with kale salad for dinner, followed by the rest of the cookies. No, I didn’t count.  And no, my real name is not Dr. Kellogg.

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