John Oliver Takes on Sloppy State of Science Coverage

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"A new study shows that drinking a glass of red wine is just as good as spending an hour at the gym."

If you're thinking, "HUH?" then you'll want to watch the latest from Last Week Tonight host John Oliver. His show Sunday night was devoted to science -- and how scientific studies are poorly reported by the mainstream press.

You'll recognize plenty of the headlines he cites. Does coffee cure everything or kill you? Numerous studies have either trumpeted its benefits or gravely warns of its risks.

"Coffee today is like God in the Old Testament," Oliver says. "It will either save you or kill you depending in how much you believe in its magical powers."

Oliver expounds on the dual problems of scientists under pressure to publish something new ("There is no reward for being the second person to discover something; no Nobel Prize for fact checking") and  news programs/websites' desire to feed the public shareable headlines.


Remember this one: "Scientists say smelling farts might prevent cancer"?

It was based on a group of papers, one of which was titled this way:

AP39, a novel mitochondria-targeted hydrogen sulfide donor, stimulates cellular bioenergetics, exerts cytoprotective effects and protects against the loss of mitochondrial DNA integrity in oxidatively stressed endothelial cells in vitro.

Hmmmm, that's not so eye-catching any more.

Gary Schwitzer publishes the nonprofit HealthNewsReview, which is exactly what it sounds like -- a site where knowledgeable people analyze claims both about health care interventions and the accuracy and completeness of health news stories. (Like many of my health/science reporter colleagues, I worry about stories I write showing up on the site.)

The massive attention these "smelling farts" studies received appear to have been sparked by a university press release, Schwitzer says, "which used the word flatulence (five) words in."

Not so surprisingly, the word "flatulence" caught reporters' eyes. The day after the study was published, Schwitzer did a Google search  and got 330,000 returns. That's a lot of coverage.

The press release ultimately "increased click rates," Schwitzer said, "and that's the coin of the realm."

It's worth noting that the scientists have added a disclaimer at the end of the "flatulence" press release saying that the studies do not "make any reference at all to cancer or to any health benefits from inhaling (sniffing) hydrogen sulfide." It was simply an early stage drug development project, they said.

Oliver clearly explains that science is "hugely important," but needs to be accurately reported, not "twisted out of proportion and turned into morning show gossip."