These rebukes are only the latest in what has become a torrent of criticism of the way scientific research is carried out and reported. The catalyst arguably was a paper by the epidemiologist John Ioannidis, provocatively titled “Why Most Research Findings are False,” that got a lot of attention from the popular press, including a 2010 cover story in The Atlantic by David Freedman. In a recent piece in the Columbia Journalism Review, Freedman also blamed science journalism for “a failure … to scrutinize the research it covers.”
Where are the readers in this discussion? Yes, scientists should do high-quality work and journalists should report it responsibly, but readers should be discerning and thoughtful information consumers. They can’t expect science writing to provide simple answers to complex questions; in fact, they should be skeptical of any piece that claims to do so. As University of Virginia psychology professor Brian Nosek told me, "Science reporting is not purveying the facts, it's purveying the discovery process, the adventure into the unknown."
Getting the most out of science writing takes work, but it’s vital, and similar to the attention we devote to consuming other products: We check the labels on food packages at the supermarket. We pore over online reviews before making even minor purchases. We should put the same care into the way we absorb scientific information, which has the power to shape the way we live.