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The trouble with “truthy” headlines and science

Valerie Thompson
Nov 7, 2013

Coined by American humorist Stephen Colbert, "truthy" science headlines that sacrifice accuracy for sensationalism don't serve science or the public
A press release, issued this week by the University of Leuven in Belgium, set off a flurry of reports about a “newly discovered” ligament in the human knee.
There’s only one problem. This “discovery” was made in 1879.
What orthopedic surgeon Johan Belleman and his colleagues actually did was name and describe the function of the “pearly, resistant, fibrous band” discovered by French surgeon Paul Segond over one hundred years ago.
As science journalist Ed Yong pointed out on Twitter, “[the] new knee ligament is new like the lightbulb is new”.
As someone who recently made the leap from scientist to science communicator, I know how important it is to craft a good headline that will pull readers into my stories.
So what’s the problem with leading with a statement that has more to do with what we want the facts to be than what they actually are, or as Stephen Colbert might call it, a “truthy” headline?
First, a sensational, but inaccurate, headline doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do: tell the reader something about what’s happening. As the internet would say, “You had one job”.
I don’t tell people I meet at dinner parties that I am an astronaut or that I once climbed Mt. Everest, because that isn’t true.
Besides, once I was forced to reveal the truth: that I am a neuroscientist and once climbed Mt. Katahdin, my audience would likely be disappointed, in spite of the fact that both of the true things are, in my humble opinion, pretty neat.
My point, is that a “truthy” headline also devalues the amazing work that’s actually being done by over-hyping it.
The result?
Before too long, none of us will recognize truly sensational science when it bites us in the previously discovered but recently characterized body part.

Image: taken from Pixabay.

Valerie Thompson

Valerie Thompson is a neuroscientist by training, with research expertise in early brain development, movement disorders, and drugs of abuse. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Cincinnati, and subsequently completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. A desire to promote more meaningful engagement between scientists and the public lead her to her current position in the Engineering Directorate at the National Science Foundation, where she is serving as an AAAS-sponsored Science and Technology Policy Fellow.

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