Science Reporting vs Actual Science

It seems every other day we’re bombarded with promises of new technology or scientific breakthroughs that can revolutionize the way we work, live and play. Whilst there is a great amount of research being done around the globe which will in turn lead to tangible benefits for all of us it would seem that we’re always told of technology that’s “just around the corner” or “at least a decade away from practical implementation”. It would seem on the surface that scientists are spending most of their time 10 years behind where they should be, rather than working on something that will provide real benefits now.

However it is prudent to note that the media is great at drawing wild conclusions from even small scientific discoveries. The majority of them fell under the umbrella of wild speculation, and I’ve got a couple of examples to show you.

One of the best I’ve seen is Resveratrol. Here’s a quick blurb on what it’s effects are:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b7nuENf5FuI

A quick googling of this term brings up over 3 million sites with 10 or so links for you to buy the product. Even though this is completely unproven we still have people heralding this compound as a cure for many human ailments. The main reason it has taken off so well is probably due to its life extending properties, which has only been proven so far in mice.

Another more recent one was the re-ignition of the cold fusion debate, seen here:

Twenty years to the day that two electrochemists ignited controversy by announcing signs of cold fusion at an infamous press conference in Utah (watch a video of the 1989 event), a separate team has made a similar claim in the same US state. But this time, the evidence is being taken more seriously.

Back in 1989, Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons at the University of Utah announced the tantalising prospect of abundant, almost-free energy, but their claims of fusion reactions in a tabletop experiment were dismissed by nuclear physicists, not least because such reactions normally occur inside stars. The few watts of extra energy they found were widely considered a fluke.

Now Pamela Mosier-Boss and colleagues at Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR) in San Diego, California, are claiming to have made a “significant” discovery – clear evidence of the products of cold fusion.

Most people will read the top half of the article and not see the clarifications that come at the end. Whilst New Scientist usually does a good job of reporting on science discoveries articles like this are so easily picked up by regular journalists and turned into sensationalist dribble that only causes people to think that scientists are promising more then that can deliver.

If you read over the article you’ll discover that they in fact haven’t discovered anything to do with cold fusion, just evidence of energetic neutrons which are unlikely to be created in such a reaction. If it did turn out to be a cold fusion reaction I’d be among the first to congratulate them on freeing us from our energy constrains, but call me skeptical when I see something that doesn’t even actually generate power as being heralded as cold fusion. I would have much preferred to see this article under the heading of “Energetic Neutron Creation in Room Temperature Environments”, although that’s not as sexy or provocative as “Neutron tracks revive hopes for cold fusion”.

So to all those people out there who are wondering where our flying cars are or why we haven’t cured the common cold yet please remember this: The media is not a factual source of scientific information and any breakthrough you hear about has more then likely been sensationalised. There are many great people working on pretty much every aspect of our lives without us knowing about them, and it is they who will bring about real progress to the world.

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