“Study Shows Blah-Blah-Blah”

Popular science articles almost always go with this kind of headline. The problem is that it’s almost always inaccurate. The vast majority of the time, when you check on the primary source, you find that the reporter hyped it, misinterpreted it, or is making some other error like citing a tiny study as conclusive. Even worse is when they phrase it as a question.

John Gruber at Daring Fireball has commented that if a tech article asks a question in the headline, you can safely assume that the answer to that question is “no”. “Is [insert ridiculous product name here] an iPad Killer?” Nope. The same applies to pop-sci articles.

I’m being charitable to the researchers by assuming that their research has simply been misinterpreted, but sometimes they’re overstating the case for their own research, as I’ve pointed out in the past. I deliberately phrased my headline in that piece as a question, because I was aping the usual pop-sci junk headline. It was still better than the original Atlantic title, since I removed the inflammatory “fad” and showed that the assertion was just flat wrong.

If you see an article with a headline like this: “Study Shows Foo and Also Bar!” you can safely assume that one of the following is probably true:

  • No it doesn’t.
  • It might, but the connection is tenuous.
  • It might, but needs confirmation.

You should always check the original research — which should be cited in even a semi-crappy article — to see for yourself what was actually published.