Of Mice, Men and Media

90 - "M-O-U-S-E"

Sometimes, knowing about stuff can get in the way of having fun. Thursday night wasn’t the first time that I’ve found myself grouching at Have I Got News For You, complaining about the inaccuracy of a medical news headline, instead of laughing at the absurdity.

The headline this time was ‘Men with sisters are less sexually attractive’. But the study was carried out in mice. Mice, I pointed out to my long suffering husband, are not men. The story was actually that male mice from a litter of predominantly female mice are less likely to procreate.  Although I can see that my version is a less snappy headline.

It’s a trivial example. But the mice/men confusion happens a lot. Personally, I’d like to see all research based on mice appear alongside a logo of a pair of Mickey Mouse ears, so we know not to take it too seriously.

One of the questions I always advise people to ask when they see an alarming medical story is, how relevant is it to you? Are the subjects in the study like you? Unless you’re a literate mouse, studies on mice have very limited relevance.

Sacrificing the science for the sake of a snappy headline is a long-established media tradition, however, alongside the ‘caveat in paragraph 19‘, where a scientist explains that the first 18 paragraphs of the story are probably rubbish – if you’ve managed to read that far.

As a journalist with a keen interest in science, this state of affairs depresses me. So, as the pundits ask, what can be done? Educating journalists is worthwhile (even if the reporter doesn’t write the headline), but so is educating scientists about the media. So three cheers for the latest Wellcome Trust project, offering Wellcome Fellows a placement at the BBC to work on science programmes.

Let’s have more scientists working in the media. Journalists and scientists tend to share a boundless curiosity about the world, a keen desire to find things out and explain them to others. Scientists bring an intellectual rigour and background that we journalists too often lack. Good luck to the Wellcome Fellows, and I look forward to the resulting BBC programmes.

Image: M-O-U-S-E from Minxlj’s photostream on Flickr.com, with CCL.

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