The bullshit detector: Tracking down pseudoscience in the news

The concept of the bullshit detector is one that I really enjoy, not only because it’s funny and because I got it while interviewing Cara Santa Maria when she was doing science things at HuffPost but also because it captures the essence of proper science journalism. Her premise was that science journalists (though it could be applied to anyone in science or journalism) need to have a heightened awareness of what is and isn’t science in order to properly report and disseminate information.

One would think that this is a no-brainer, but considering how much false information I see going around, this is a skill that needs to be utilized more often. I risk making relatives on Facebook really mad by correcting them when they post something that’s biased, misleading, or flat-out wrong, but it’s a dirty job that someone needs to do (the Mike Rowes of the fact-checking world, if you will). I find that science in particular is victim to carelessness because civilian readers aren’t always equipped with the vocab or background, so if something “looks” legit, it’ll be passed on.

While traditional science reporting seeks to inform, I’ve found that niche bloggers take on the dirtier part of the job by debunking misinformation. I Fucking Love Science, as I’ve raved about before, does a good job of this. Another site that I like but haven’t mentioned is Skeptical Raptor, a blog that specifically debunks healthcare-related myths, such as the anti-vaccine movement. As a veteran of the healthcare industry, Michael Simpson (who I also interviewed but for a different class) uses very passionate wording, but what I like about his posts is that he cites everything he writes with legitimate studies. In a recent post debunking a myth that vaccines cause type 1 diabetes (a flawed statement in itself considering the exact type is never mentioned), he cited not one but seven publications. Similarly, Discover Magazine blogger Keith Kloor tackles issues pertaining to the environment and GMOs; like Simpson, he links to several external sources in his posts.

In an age where uneducated people are selecting against crucial services like medicine and food because of misinformation, do we have a choice not to use our bullshit detectors?


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