If you’re in the US, you can probably tell by the deluge of unwanted political ads in your mailbox and voicemail that it’s election season. These ads (especially the printed ones) serve the very important function of wasting a resources because few of these ads are printed on 100% recycled paper, even if 100% of these ads (that I receive anyway) go straight into my recycling bin.

I don’t even look at these ads any more because I don’t expect any of them to pass a fact check and they are usually full of false or misleading information. I am NOT disappointed that so many of these ads are misleading, simply because I have really low expectations for information coming out of the political arena.

But I don’t have such low expectations of science journalism, which is why misleading science headlines really irk me!

FAST Co recently published a really great article by Eric Jaffe on some recent findings on how misleading headlines can leave lasting impressions–even if you read the article!

    “A misleading headline can thus do damage despite genuine attempts to accurately comprehend an article,” the researchers, led by psychologist Ullrich K. H. Ecker of the University of Western Australia, conclude in a new paper in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied.

    Ecker and colleagues believe the big problem with misleading headlines is that they’re just that–misleading, as opposed to downright wrong. Correcting misinformation requires a lot of mental work. People are perfectly capable of doing that work once they recognize the need, but in the case of misleading headlines, that need isn’t always clear. After all, the misleading headline about genetically modified food is true in a very strict sense: the foods may possess long-term health risks, in the same way the world may end tomorrow. As the researchers put it, misleading headlines may have served to nudge behavior “without readers noticing their slant.”

    “[C]orrecting the misinformation conveyed by a misleading headline is a difficult task,” they write. “Particularly in cases of nonobvious misdirection, readers may not be aware of an inconsistency, and may thus not initiate any corrective updating.”

Even worse is that highly viewed misleading articles in the news often leads to other news sources giving similarly misleading reports in order to capture more attention. This creates a widespread impression that the misleading headlines are not actually misleading and helps cement the misinformation.

Case in point for the day:

Unfounded fears about Ebola transmission through the air are already making for really strange policy. We don’t need such wonky policies to go with genetic screens.

Now get out there and vote.


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