#2. It's a Poll Disguised as a News Story
Any Time You See a Headline Like ...
You Should Read It As ...
"A Special Interest Group Paid a Polling Firm to Get a Result, Now We're Printing This Self-Congratulatory Circle Jerk to Fill Space."
Adam Gault/Digital Vision/Getty Images
"Thanks for all your hard work, guys. Here's your pirate money."
Keep in mind, I'm not talking about the polls they do around election season to figure out who's winning -- I'm talking about the paid-for bullshit surveys that make up the other 95 percent of stories that have the word "poll" in the title. Why do I call them bullshit? Three reasons:
A. In any poll, the wording of the question completely changes the result.
Most people have a few subjects they're really smart about and are clueless about everything else. It's nothing to be ashamed of; there are only so many hours in the day, and some subjects are boring as shit. The problem is that when asked by a pollster about one of the issues we're clueless about, most people still give an answer, because we'd rather die than admit we're not all-knowing geniuses. That means that in any given survey, many respondents are simply making up their opinion on the spot, and usually they're doing it based on how the poll question is worded.
"Yes or no: Do you agree this child deserves food, and also that the government is doing a flawless job?"
For example, recently the liberal website Daily Kos did a poll asking this question about gun control:
"Would you support or oppose banning assault weapons?"
Pretty simple, right? The result:
Ban them: 63 percent; don't ban: 32 percent
George Doyle/Stockbyte/Getty Images
"Sorry, buddy, but I just bought this suit, and it's nothing without the gun."
So about two-thirds of us want assault weapons banned. But at the same time, Gallup did a poll asking it this way:
"Are you for or against a law which would make it illegal to manufacture, sell, or possess semiautomatic guns known as assault rifles?"
Ban them: 44 percent; don't ban: 51 percent
A freaking 20-point swing, just by adding a bunch of words that really drive home what "ban" means. And you can do that with any issue -- if you poll Americans asking, "Should we cut government spending?" an overwhelming 76 percent say cut, cut, cut, people literally demand cuts "across the board." But if you ask the question another way, by actually listing the programs instead of just calling it "government," then the numbers reverse completely -- support for cutting drops into the teens or 20s.
This brings us to the next problem:
B. Polls are often paid for by special interest groups specifically to get that result.
So knowing how the wording affects the outcome, you can see how the game is played: Republicans who want to make it look like the public is on their side ask the question one way, Democrats ask it another. Now your liberal brother can post a link on Twitter saying, "84 PERCENT WANT GOVERNMENT HEALTH CARE SPENDING INCREASED! SO WHY ARE WE TALKING ABOUT CUTS?!?!?" and at the exact same time your conservative uncle can post the other link on his Wordpress blog with "More than three-quarters of us want government spending cut -- what part of that do you not understand, Obama?"
Pool/Getty Images News/Getty Images
"I give exactly this much of a fuck about what you want."
If you're wondering what the pollsters get out of this, usually the answer is money. For instance, you might run across a poll showing overwhelming public support for legalized marijuana, and maybe you even incorporated that information into your brain (you don't want to be out of step with the overwhelming sentiment, do you?) without reading closely enough to see that the poll was paid for by "The Marijuana Policy Project" and used laughably biased wording to get the desired result. Don't interpret my criticism as being anti-marijuana, either -- I don't care either way. The point is that the poll got that result because the polling firm was paid to get it.
But even when the poll is unbiased ...
C. A large percentage of people are just picking answers at random.
Remember that massive BP oil platform disaster a few years ago, the one that dumped a bunch of oil into the Gulf of Mexico? A poll at the time found that 21 percent of people said the disaster made them like offshore drilling more.
Another poll showed that during the last election, 6 percent of respondents thought Mitt Romney killed Osama bin Laden. Another showed 14 percent thought Obama might be the Antichrist.
Pool/Getty Images News/Getty Images
Another 12 percent thought this was him in drag.
Don't freak out about those numbers -- pollsters also found that they could make up a completely fictional government program and get 25 percent of people to claim they have heard of it and express an opinion about it. In other words, in any poll there is a solid 5 to 25 percent of people who are just saying random things into the phone so they can get back to masturbating.
#1. It's About a Miracle Cure for Obesity, Cancer, or Clean Energy
Any Time You See a Headline Like ...
Duncan Smith/Photodisc/Getty Images
And here's a sciency picture as proof!
You Should Read It As ...
"Scientists Continue to Exist and Study Important Problems, So Let's Use Their Hard Work to Instill False Hope and Get Free Traffic."
I'm not a pessimist, and I think the future will be awesome. But the vast majority of the positive science news that turns up on Reddit or science blogs or tech sites is pure bullshit.
Sometimes the stories are outright false, like the one about that genius 13-year-old who invented a far more efficient way to collect solar energy, or the group of African teenagers who invented a machine to get electricity from urine (in the first case, it turned out the kid did his calculations wrong, and in the second, the reporters misunderstood what the machine did -- the former was retracted a few days later, the latter was debunked by people who have a better idea of what they're talking about).
"Hi, I'm Johnny Sciencecoat, and I'll be fielding your questions so the reporters don't look any stupider than they already do."
Other times the stories are true, but hugely misleading: They're just taking a very small scale, preliminary result and declaring it a potential savior of mankind -- here's one talking about how a new clean energy technology could "end our dependence on fossil fuels within three to five years."
The problem is that the average person mistakenly thinks science works this way. When we were in school, we heard about how polio and yellow fever were suddenly wiped out overnight thanks to one genius who stumbled across the cure, and movies teach us that massive technical advancements are invented by Doc Brown in his garage or Tony Stark in a cave. So headlines play to this misconception by portraying every minor discovery as a potential magic bullet -- and each time further research debunks it and it just quietly goes away ... only to be replaced by the next miracle cure headline.
So if you actually Google the subject of the clean energy link above (in this case, thorium nuclear reactors) instead of, say, instantly forwarding it to all of your friends, you will be immediately kicked in the balls by Wikipedia's giant wall of text describing the many problems with the technology.
"I'm seeing a 14 percent increase in my scrotum being on fire."
It's not that clean energy will never happen -- it totally will. It's just that it won't come from a wild-haired scientist running out of his basement screaming, "Eureka! I've discovered how to get limitless clean energy from common seawater!" Instead, it will come from thousands of scientists publishing unreadable studies with titles like "Assessing Effectiveness and Costs of Asymmetrical Methods of Beryllium Containment in Gen 4 Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors When Factoring for Cromulence Decay." The world will be saved by a series of boring, incremental advances that chip away at those technical challenges one tedious step at a time.
But nobody wants to read about that in their morning Web browsing. We want to read that while we were sleeping, some unlikely hero saved the world. Or at least cured cancer.
Yeah, cancer is another big one. I don't think I've ever been linked to an article as often as this one that came with the provocative title "Scientists Cure Cancer, But No One Takes Notice." It claims that a drug called dichloroacetate (DCA) cures cancer but that Big Pharma has suppressed the results. I think every six months that story explodes across Facebook and Reddit, and that's just one example -- the Internet is awash in astonishing cancer breakthroughs and cures, all of which, the fine print reveals, work great ... as long as we're talking about tiny, short-term studies and/or mice.
"Just leave him in there. If this cure doesn't work, he'll be liquid in a few minutes anyway."
Hey, you know what else scientists are constantly curing in mice? Obesity. Just over the last few months alone I've seen the headline "Obesity Crisis Over? Scientists Discover Way to Turn 'Bad' Fat into 'Good' Fat" (in mice!), "Possible Answer to Obesity Found at Emory University" (a "magical compound" of proteins, they say -- it works great in mice!), and "Obesity Cure Claim by Irish and U.S. Researchers from Trinity and Harvard" (they've found immune cells that do the trick! In mice!).
And on and on. If you were to go back 20 years, you'd see the same goddamn thing (here's one from 1994 -- they found the obesity gene! In mice!). That's because about every five minutes for the last few decades, someone somewhere has successfully cured obesity in a lab mouse. Now, I don't want to disparage anybody's hard work, but if you can't cure obesity in a mouse at this point, you are a shitty scientist. You have total control over the animal's diet, and it doesn't have the million social, psychological, and physiological factors that make humans overeat -- successful mouse diets are not news.
David De Lossy/Photodisc/Getty Images
"Hey, buddy, how about you go fuck yourself with your stereotypes, huh?"
Yet any time a news outlet needs to fill a spot, all they need to do is go grab from the giant pile of "Hey we also cured fat mice!" press releases and slap a "Potential Obesity Cure Found" headline on it. Free traffic. At this point, the biggest struggle seems to be coming up with original headlines. My favorites so far are "New Flab Jab Could Be Cure for Obesity" and "Could Obesity Be Cured by Injecting Our Guts With Fecal Bacteria from Ancient Mummies?" (you'll note the use of the "We know this is bullshit" question mark at the end). But when it comes to drawing clicks, who is ever going to beat "How Marijuana Could Help Cure Obesity-Related Diseases"? Hey, they're not lying. They've gotten great results! In mice! I'm telling you, if your pet mouse struggles with obesity, help is on the way.
But here's the reality: Nothing cures obesity in humans, other than the surgery that just shuts off your goddamn stomach so you can't fit food in there. Even if they give you weight loss drugs, you'll soon be steamrolled by a junk food and beverage industry that has specifically formulated their products to trigger an addiction response, which will blast you with advertisements every waking moment of your life. So you'll keep eating while reading about how it's OK because soon a pill will magically fix your waistline.
And no, there will never be a cure for cancer, either. That's because cancer isn't a disease, it's a word used to describe more than a hundred different diseases that all sort of look the same but have completely different causes and affect completely different areas of the body in completely different ways. Some are more deadly than others, and we're getting a little better at detecting and treating all of them. But it's boring to write a headline pointing out that, for instance, you could save millions of lives with nothing more than improved training for doctors who do colonoscopies.
"I think we're just going to skip the butt part today. You're pretty old anyway. You've lived a full life."
No, what we want to see is a picture of a scientist holding a glowing green vial that says "CANCER CURE" on the side. We want solutions to be simple and exciting, and most important of all, we want to be the first to tell our friends about them when they happen. So we blindly forward the news along and the whole cycle of bullshit continues.
David Wong has written a New York Times best-seller that is also one of the all time best-reviewed books on Amazon. Also, his movie about dong monsters starring Paul Giamatti IS AVAILABLE FOR DOWNLOAD NOW ON iTUNES, AMAZON INSTANT VIDEO, YouTube, and any other streaming service you can think of.
For more from David Wong, check out 5 Reasons The Future Will Be Ruled By B.S. and 6 Brainwashing Techniques They're Using On You Right Now.
If you're pressed for time and just looking for a quick fix, then check out The 4 Least Anticipated Movies of March 2013.
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