THE BLOG
04/14/2014 04:10 pm ET | Updated Jun 14, 2014

You Won't Click Past The Headline -- But You Should

The past two weeks, I have argued that the headlines of mainstream media stories on science are misleading the public and doing science a disservice. In my critique, I have often wondered if people are only reading the headlines, reading the headline and the content or are trying to find meaningful information beyond the content presented.

NPR, on April Fool's Day, provided a glimpse at the answer. They designed a beautiful experiment that inadvertently tested what people read and how. The article headline was "Why Doesn't America Read Anymore?" and as soon as it hit Facebook and Twitter, comments exploded. "We DO read, we are reading right now!" and other such defenses quickly piled up.

The article was far from an attack.

Congratulations, genuine readers, and happy April Fools' Day! We sometimes get the sense that some people are commenting on NPR stories that they haven't actually read. If you are reading this, please like this post and do not comment on it. Then let's see what people have to say about this "story." Best wishes and have an enjoyable day, Your friends at NPR.

While commentators soon spoiled the surprise element of the story, the genuine reaction from the public was to jump at the headline and react accordingly.

Here's a scattering of a few science headlines I have seen recently, and what they actually were behind the headline.

"Running More May Not Help You Live Longer":

No, this isn't an excuse to put down your running shoes. Unless, of course, you're already running more than 20 miles a week. Research presented this week at the annual American College of Cardiology Scientific Sessions in Washington shows runners who average more than 20 miles a week don't live as long as those who run less than 20 miles a week. In fact, they live, on average, about as long as people who don't run much at all. In other words, like most things in life, moderation may be key.

For the majority of people, the take away from this article is the exact opposite of what is suggested by the headline.


"Electroconvulsive Therapy Can Ease Aggression in Autistic Kids"
:

As awareness increases, however, the ethical debate over the use of ECT in this population is likely to intensify -- even if for us, the parents of children whose lives have been transformed, there is nothing to debate.

This was not a scientific study, as the headline may suggest, but rather an opinion piece citing several research articles and highlighting the controversial nature of ECT.

"Scientists Move Closer to Inventing Artificial Life":

This is 'a major step towards being able to design completely novel organisms,' says Todd Kuiken of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. 'The research team has created what some might call the first synthetic cell that was designed, built and reproduced without a host cell present,' he says, by email. 'This is significant as an example of synthetic genomics aimed well beyond making mere copies of chromosomes -- the new trend being the making of significant functional changes -- ideally changes useful for biotech productivity and safety,' says Harvard biologist George Church, who was not part of the study. Still awaiting scientists is the assembly of a complete artificial genome: man-made versions of all the chromosomes in a plant or animal, Church adds.

The headline suggests science fiction, but the article itself is rich in scientific fact and realistic about the actual potential of this work.

"Scientists engineer mouse muscles that can survive cobra venom":

That humans can engineer muscle tissue in petri dishes is extraordinary, but it isn't enough to heal serious bodily injuries. To do that, you also need tissue that has the ability to grow strong, heal itself and respond to commands after being implanted in a living animal. Scientists simply aren't there yet. But a new study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences today brings us one step closer to orthopedic surgery bliss, because scientists were able to engineer mouse muscle that was just as strong as native muscle -- and that could heal itself after injury.

The significance in this last article has absolutely nothing to do with cobra venom, and everything to do with the ability of the muscle to heal itself after injury.

These are life science headlines. Life science and health care impacts each one of us in ways we can't possibly anticipate or presume. Every single one of us will have to put our headline skimming down someday because of a medical condition -- no matter who we are or what we do. It may not matter to us deeply and personally if we think the wrong thing about an actor or actress with a click bait, scandalous headline, or fall into a clever trap like NPR's April Fool's. In health care though? Do we really want to encourage and propagate the tabloid version of the science that may just save our lives someday? Or do we want to know as much as we can, so we can be empowered advocates for our health and the health of those we love?