Headlines have to be catchy. Especially when they want you to read a tedious article about the stunningly mundane flossing habits of a celebrity, or an uninspiring piffle of a politician, shoddy statistics and research that is not yet ground-breaking. There are key words that make an article sell, generate better website traffic and make résumés more attractive. There are sites and books on how to do that. There is a thin line between dishonesty and a sales pitch. A friend and I were discussing an article in Daily Mail (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2350797/Want-better-social-life-Move-Denmark-Luxembourg-Brits-fun-Europe.html). A few years ago, I would not have paid much attention to an article like this. It says, “Want a better social life? Move to Denmark or Luxembourg…” But having lived in foreign countries for a few years, I know that such articles really do influence many people to leave behind their good life, go to a country in search of a better life, and find that it is not what it was hyped up to be. It is one thing to present the statistics of a study, however dubious they might be, and another thing to write that you should move to XYZ country for a better social life. It is inherently flawed, like suggesting you move to Japan to have a better life expectancy. Of course the local people of a place may say they have a good social life, but that does not mean you can fly in there, insinuate yourself in, and be a part of that life of “theirs”.
Scientists, doctors, sociologists, psychologists, schools and textbooks are expected to be rational, responsible and honest in their writing and publications. But what about newspapers and media that report on sociological, scientific and medical findings? When you write “coffee benefits you”, and the next day, “coffee is bad”, and again, “coffee may be bad, but only when more than 10 cups a day”, you are essentially exploiting the layperson’s lack of knowledge to sell your media. By lack of knowledge, I mean not knowing how to read scientific reports and interpret them, what do medical statistics mean and how slow the pace of scientific research can be at times. Even the “ground breaking” inventions and discoveries we know of, like penicillin, or DNA, or HIV, were actually achieved in years, sometimes by several separate groups from different countries contributing slowly to a growing knowledge base that eventually reaches a definitive “new discovery” stage. By “new discovery”, I don’t mean a catchy headline in a newspaper, but a paper (usually peer reviewed) in a respectable scientific journal, and a vast majority of the researchers of that field agreeing that the study presents convincing evidence or arguments to support what the authors are claiming. Then it is YAY! However, nowadays we do see many groups seeking press releases for tenuous findings, to generate publicity and grants.
Some years ago, a friend was attending a conference on nanotechnology and nanoscience in India. One day a reporter sat next to him, and told him that he is from a certain popular Hindi newspaper and is going to report on the ongoing conference. The reporter stayed there for half and hour or so, and asked this friend some questions to understand what was being presented. The friend tried to explain to him in laymen terms the gist of the talks. Implications of nanotechnology, like nanoweapons, were also mentioned by the Asian speaker. Next day, the friend eagerly thumbed through the said newspaper to find what had been reported. The headline of the article said, “चीन ने बनाई नेनो हेलीकाप्टर, अमरीका की उड़ी नींद”. [ US loses sleep as China makes nano-helicopters]