I believe in the value of scientific study. But maybe we shouldn’t reduce science to a slogan. Photo by Vlad Tchompalov on Unsplash

The word “science” as used in popular media doesn’t always mean what we think it should.

It’s gotten to be so commonplace in headlines that a search for the terms “science says” and “according to science” yields more results than you can shake a stick at. But what do these phrases promise readers, and what do the articles they attract us to deliver?

I’ve limited myself to looking at articles published in 2019 in publications that have relatively wide visibility and name-recognition. So let’s start with this article, published in Time Magazine online, February 27: “This Is the Best Time of Day to Work Out, According to Science.” The article interviews a professor of exercise and sport science at UNC-CH, as well as citing a few studies. But the conclusion of the piece?

“There’s really no bad time to exercise […] and the most important thing is finding the time to do so, whenever works for you.”

The article consists of a collection of suppositions about physiology and the effectiveness of exercise that have been drawn from evidence that is, at best, incomplete and inconclusive. What did I learn from reading it? More or less what I already knew. More fool me for wasting my time, Time?

Here’s an article in Women’s Health (UK) from March. It’s titled, “Is the Sun Good for Your Skin? Here’s What the Science Says.” I suppose people who haven’t been conscious during the last forty years might need to know about what sunlight can do to skin. But rather than actually citing what “the science” has to offer regarding whether sunlight is good for skin, the article offers general recommendations by the British National Health Service on Vitamin D supplementation and by British and American dermatologists on using sunscreen and diminishing age-spots. This piece doesn’t even try to cobble together peer-reviewed studies and the opinions of particular experts. It’s about as generic as it can be. Good thing most of us already knew that sunburn is bad, like the burns we get from other hot things, such as fire.

For funsies, here’s one from the “I can’t believe this got published about this study that I can’t believe someone got paid to do in the first place” file: I found it on iheartradio.com dated July 1, 2019, but it actually refers to an article in the Daily Mail (UK) from 2015. It’s titled, “Science Says Smells Like Teen Spirit Is the Most Iconic Song Ever” [sic], and it’s about as important a piece of news as you’d imagine. Turns out, a song that was a huge hit manages, from the view of thirty years later, to “tick all the boxes” of what makes a hit. Huh? The “study” that’s being cited was commissioned by the car company Fiat to help them find — wait for it —a song with the appeal to promote a new model. And the conclusion of the scientist who crunched the numbers?

“Even by applying scientific process, what is considered iconic is ultimately up to the individual.”

Thanks. In this case, “scientific process” seems to mainly mean analyzing songs into parts, like beats and chords, and counting them, which is, I suppose, more scientific than not counting things. Still, the general idea is that they looked at several lists of the top songs from, I guess, the 20th century, then took apart the top songs to see what they had in common, musically speaking. Then, they determined that a few of the top songs — this is where “Smells like Teen Spirit” comes in — were the toppyest. The top-songiest. It seems like Fiat could’ve just looked at the already-existing lists of top songs and chosen, like, one of them, cutting out the paid, scientific middleman. But then, they’d’ve had a harder time laying claim to “science says.”

Okay, that one’s mostly just funny. More troubling, because its subject is a serious one, is this article from CNBC.com, dated March 5: “Want To Raise Mentally Strong Kids? Science Says Stop Telling Them ‘Everything Will Be Okay’ — here are 5 things to do instead.” But there’s no “science” in the article that says any such thing. Rather, the only citations — of one study and one survey — support the assertion that socially and emotionally skilled kindergartners are more likely to go to college than their less-skilled peers, and that many (60%) college freshmen feel emotionally unprepared for college. As support of these claims, the sources are fairly dubious, being limited samples (750 and 1500 subjects, respectively), but the claim in the title gets no support at all. That is, unless you count the author of the article, who, it turns out, is offering “five things to do instead” from a book of her own, mentioned in the text of the article. The author is a licensed clinical social worker, but that doesn’t, I think, entitle her to speak for “science” — does it? The whole thing caves under scrutiny. Yet it leads like a real report.

There are many more such articles —

from one asserting that “Science Says You Only Need to Work Out for 13 Minutes to Make a Difference,” in Parents.com, to this one claiming that “Science Says Bathing before Bed Could Be the Key to Great Sleep — As Long as You Time It Right,” from Real Simple via Yahoo Lifestyle, to this, from Business Insider, “12 Things Science Says Predict Divorce.” The assertions in the titles range from completely misleading to generally accurate (emphasis on generally) to reasonably well-supported, respectively, though only the article from BI offers enough discussion of the evidence and its limitations to be what I would call a reliable source of information. But you certainly wouldn’t know that from the titles of these articles, since they all rely on the trendy buzz-phrase, “science says.”

Citing “the science” is nothing new.

References to science and scientists, to research and theories, to empiricism and logic, have long been employed in argumentation as a way to appeal to an audience’s demand for authoritative sources and concrete support of a position. In many cases, writers and speakers of opinion pieces and editorials do this relevantly, with care and attention to accuracy, and with ethical intent. And still, there’s the understanding that the audience, upon examining the evidence, is entitled — is even obligated — to draw their own conclusions.

In objective journalism, wherein journalistic ethics require as objective a stance from the reporter as possible, the audience should be able to expect that sources are accurately represented, that generalizations are not too broad, and that claims are tied directly to the evidence that supports them. When articles that ostensibly report on research lead with language like “science says,” they’re telegraphing the notion that the information they contain is certain. Not all of them do the legwork to back that up. It’s becoming harder to tell the difference between legitimate reporting and careless, casual, fill-the-news-cycle dreck, because everyone’s playing “Science says.”

Thus, the word “science,” when unqualified and unspecified, has become a buzzword.

It does have an actual meaning — a fairly generic one, indicating a methodology that can be applied to activities in fields as diverse as psychology and astrophysics. As such, however, it shouldn’t be an argument in itself — “science says” — because, used in that way, it just doesn’t mean anything. Used in that way — “according to science” — it collapses the people performing the method, the processes involved in testing and confirming the data that research produces, and the institutions supporting and funding the research into a single word that says to some readers, “you can trust me.” To others, people whose skepticism rests on a political affiliation or on a history of having felt disillusioned by the promises of “science says” or on a growing awareness of the use of “science says” in marketing dubious products, that same word signals “proceed with caution,” or even “run away.”

Buzzwords allow us to know who belongs to us.

They arise quickly, spread in popular usage rapidly, and thus easily and strikingly signify that someone is (or is not) “on top of things” or “in the loop.” The jargon associated with professional fields — education, literary criticism, the corporate world — tends to support at any given time a frosting of buzzwords. Some of them find their way into popular media, too.

Just as how we speak or write can mark us without our realizing it, what we read or hear can also push us away or pull us in without our full recognition of what we’re agreeing to or rejecting. Now that the word “science” permeates online content as an instrument of rhetorical purposes that are not faithful to the stricter definition of the word, I’ve become more alert to what “scientific” claim I’m being asked to take on faith. I’ve come to hear the word “science” with quotes around it (you’re welcome), because if I don’t, I’m afraid I’ll too easily be drawn in by another careless, misleading, or deliberately manipulative piece of fluff-journalism.

When a single word has power over us without our awareness of it, we’re in trouble.

Those of us who think of ourselves as science-minded, as rationalists who demand empirical evidence, are susceptible to making unsupported assumptions about the trustworthiness and accuracy of information when it’s offered enthusiastically to us in the name of science. But anyone can be vulnerable to the potentially manipulative uses of a word that has been loosened from its main meaning. Once a buzzword has proliferated, it can easily become politicized, too. Thus, a single word — like “science” — can stand as a banner of entire political platforms, or as a Jolly Roger warning of attack. In this milieu, whether you trust the information that “science” is supposedly providing may come down to the specific context in which it’s used and your connection to others who embrace it, rather than your certainty that the information is trustworthy because of the method by which it was obtained.

Fortunately, buzzwords die out quickly, too. “Science says” may already be running its course, and the word “science” may be on its way back home, to its useful definition. We’ll see. But in the meantime, it wouldn’t hurt if we all refrained from clicking on every “science says” and “according to science” title that comes up in the feed— and better yet, if we refrained from writing those titles ourselves.

We owe it to ourselves to read warily and to write responsibly.

Words are slippery enough as it is, shape-changing through usage and time and space as they do, growing new meanings and shearing off old ones like split-ends. Healthy communication is only possible when we pay attention to words, who’s using them, and how. When we take them only at face-value, they can fool and impoverish us, like so much counterfeit change.

Copyright © 2019 Jennifer Brown. All rights reserved.