The Intersection

Spinning Science On Its Head

i-8bb719898b9189ba983fe62b4ba6c8f3-spin.JPGIt never ceases to amaze me how research may be portrayed through the lens of pop culture. Although I often argue that the right ‘spin’ in a science story allows it to appeal to broader audiences, certain efforts only leave me dizzy. Here’s an example..

The Research:
Dr. Benjamin Hayden at the Centre for Neuroeconomic Studies at Duke’s School of Medicine published an article with his team in this month’s Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Findings were relatively inconsequential, suggesting what we already know: Men place higher value in looking at the opposite sex than the ladies do. [Quick.. someone notify Flint and Hefner!] So why is this work significant? Because the research incorporates a new kind of economic methodology which may be useful with behaviors difficult to quantify like social decisions. Bravo Doc Hayden!

i-e58fd5055eccb04f6edb0a1b186d8a63-Pb1253.jpgMedia Circus ‘Spin:’
“These findings shed light on why men are much greater consumers of pornography than women and why sales of Playboy have always exceeded those of Playgirl.” And with that, the good doctor was inundated with calls, gave a radio interview, and even made the very front page of the UK’s Daily Telegraph! Curiously though, all this publicity, yet little mention of economic methods. Thus, the principle purpose of the Hayden et al. article was missed when the appeal of ‘findings’ seemed a better sell.

You see, ‘spin’ can make or break how we perceive important research and novel ideas. It should be the responsibility of reputable media to foremost get the paramount message across in an engaging way. Besides, the real science story is usually ‘sexy’ enough with the right narrative.

posted by Sheril R. Kirshenbaum


  1. #1 coturnix
    June 1, 2007

    Neurocritic critiqued this study the other day. Heh.

  2. #2 Chris Mooney
    June 1, 2007

    Hey Sheril,
    Nice post and I’m glad you’ve taken up my invitation to keep posting here. Hope there’ll be many more….

  3. #3 Wes
    June 2, 2007

    As a blogger, my subject matter is most often political. It intersects science when we have to deal with the anti-science idiocies of the likes of the rich lobbyist, Richard Pombo or Sen. James Infofe. But, we share your frustration with the media. Too often, I find that they tend to decide what the story is before gathering the facts and to concentrate on the superficialities that catch your attention rather than giving the public information in a form that can be used to make some judgements.

    My latest case in point is the national attention that focused on Delta and Dawn, two lost humpback whales who made their way through the California Delta and up the Sacrament River to the Port of Sacramento. Here was the drama of an injured mother taking care of her injured calf. Here were all the wonderful television shots of whales blowing, fluke slapping, tails pounding the water.

    The story that was ignored is that of the tiny delta smelt has been in the same waters for a long time, but whose population has crashed precipitously since the exports of water from the delta were increased in 2001. Now, rapidly approaching extinction, the plight of the smelt has forced the shutdown of the pumps used to suck the fresh water from the delta because they has eliminated more delta smelt than the scientists could find in their annual survey. This cuts off the water flowing to LA and to some 750,000 acres of California farmland.

    How did the media cover this when the pumps were finally shut down? KPIX, the CBS outlet in San Francisco focused on the view that Efforts to Save Species has High Cost to Consumers, Taxpayers. From the lead in to the questions asked by reporter Simon Perez, you could tell that the story was only on the cost and not the benefits. It was an editorial disguised as reportage and a typical way to handle a politically polarizing issue in the West.

    Little fish in a big pond are just not sexy enough for the news.

  4. #4 coturnix
    June 2, 2007

    Sheril needs her own password and posting privileges. I start reading a post and wonder how come Chris so suddenly developed flowing language and a sense of humor, just to notice at the end it was written by Sheril (just joking, Chris). Anyway, welcome aboard – great to see you here. This blog just got double-better.

  5. #5 Chris Mooney
    June 2, 2007

    We’re workin’ on it….thanks! I agree with you completely that the blog is better with Sheril posting here.

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