Koh: Clickbait obscures scientific truths


Alex Koh, Columnist

During the ongoing presidential race, candidates have frequently made dubious scientific claims to support their platforms. Donald Trump recently cited that it was “really cold outside” as evidence against global warming, demonstrating a total lack of understanding about how both seasons and statistical trends work.

However, as much as Trump is generally derided on this campus, he is hardly alone in misunderstanding science. We have broad issues in the communication of scientific principles between scientists and the public in this country.

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), are a scientific advancement that have been at the heart of much recent controversy. Most commonly used in food products, GMOs are genetically altered to attain any number of superior qualities, from virus resistance to improved nutritional content.

The concept of modifying an organism’s genome sounds scary. But the process of genetic modification is precise, and the organisms that are produced are well-regulated by the FDA before they reach the public. Despite safety measures in place and scientific consensus that GMOs are “no more or less dangerous than conventional crops,” the controversy is ongoing due to a disconnect between what the public thinks and what scientists know.

Only 37 percent of the U.S. population thinks GMOs are safe to eat, compared to 88 percent of scientists. This discrepancy manifests itself in meaningful ways. Chipotle proudly announced this year that they would be the first national chain to produce 100 percent GMO-free food. Such continued fearmongering against GMOs will continue to generate public misconceptions and hamper both research and production for years to come.

This issue is not just about people misunderstanding GMOs. There is a more fundamental issue of scientific communication at play. In an effort to draw readers in, news outlets frequently resort to blasting the catchiest headline they can come up with and cherry-picking aspects of scientific advancements.

A recent study found that a compound found in red wine improves elements of health such as heart function and muscle strength in mice. A Huffington Post article reported the findings differently in its headline: “A glass of red wine is the equivalent to an hour at the gym, says new study.” The article has more than 20,000 shares on Facebook, and it’s likely the author’s erroneous conclusions, presented in the title, will ultimately stick in the public consciousness, not the substance of the research. In the search for a catchy headline, news outlets often spread irresponsible health messages.

As a member of Peer Health Exchange, I teach lessons on health at public schools in Chicago that don’t have health education. As the primary source of health information for teens, it’s crucial that I have a full understanding of the topics I’m teaching as opposed to superficial knowledge derived from trendy headlines. Many Northwestern students will be in similarly influential positions when they graduate. It’s crucial they try to deeply understand scientific principles and convey them as fully as possible. Even in fields as distant from each other as journalism and consulting, readers and clients alike need to make decisions based on accurate information. Therefore, it’s important students learn how to effectively read and communicate science as they prepare for their careers. So, as winter approaches, remember that snow does not disprove global warming, and slapping the bag does not constitute a day’s workout.

Alex Koh is a Weinberg senior. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.