What the Neanderthal Misunderstanding Teaches Us About Reading Science News

Mom always told us, “Believe half of what you see, and none of what you hear.” And she never even surfed the Internet. Last week, many news outlets reported that Harvard Professor George Church was seeking a woman to give birth to a cloned Neanderthal baby. I’m not linking to those articles because I don’t want to spread the misinformation, but it’s all proof positive that in this era of the 24 house news cycle a sensational angle on a story can sometimes trump the truth. The Neanderthal cloning claim arose from a misinterpretation of an interview Professor Church gave to German magazine Der Spiegel in which he discussed the potential scientific benefits and challenges of cloning a Neanderthal, but he was not announcing his intention to actually do it. For some news outlets, the distinction between talking about it and doing it was lost in the excitement of deciding who might be a good surrogate mother for a baby Neanderthal (see Der Spiegel’s follow-up here).

Layout 1While Professor Church says his words were translated accurately, he never expected an eager media to trumpet that he was seeking women to bear a Neanderthal baby. He has no such intention. ”The public should be able to detect cases where things seem implausible,” Church said in an interview at his office at Harvard Medical School in Boston. “Everybody’s fib detector should have been going off.”

Professor Church views this as a teachable moment for both himself and the media about speaking clearly and about getting a story right. It’s a teachable moment for us, too, about checking our sources and making sure we get our news from sites we can trust. In this case, some reputable outlets carried the cloning-is-imminent story, and now that the idea is in the public domain, some people will continue to think it’s in the works (go ahead, Google it).

A study just published by Ohio State University that focused on political misinformation noted that once a story is out in the public domain, some people will continue to believe it even if they read a retraction or correction. The study considers one possible solution to managing the vast amount of misinformation on the web is to develop better software to help people curate what they read and filter out unreliable sources and information. Still, they note that “individuals are influenced by a variety of biases that can lead them to reject carefully documented evidence, and correcting misinformation at its source can actually augment the effects of these biases.”

While putting a spin on a story is rampant in politics, science has established methods for collecting and verifying data. With so much information available instantly we should assure that our children have tools that help them determine not only what is accurate but why it matters. A good rule of thumb for all of us is to look for a link to a primary source in a news story so that you can look at the data yourself. If the links aren’t there, think about why and then check the information with a site or source you trust.

Kids are learning at school and at home that the answer to almost any question can be found on the internet; it’s our responsibility to help them develop critical thinking skills so they can put all that information in the proper context. It’s not enough to send them to the laptop for answers – it’s the conversation that follows that will make the difference.

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Comments (One Response)

  1. It’s been my displeasure during my life time to have witnessed many journalist shift from believing that their primary function is to report the news to the belief that they should make the news. They have lost their sight of their integrity while the rest of us have lost access to sources of unbiased information.