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All Public Science is Headline Science

We scorn “headline science” because of what it says on its tin: The headline comes before the science. That’s just wrong, we think — but not just wrong: It’s venal, anti-science, and sometimes even fraudulent.

Sometimes, it’s true, headline science is all those things. I’m thinking — we’re all thinking — about the most noxious example in many a day, the new meta-analysis touting a strong gas stove-childhood asthma link. Published in a peer-reviewed epidemiological journal, covered breathlessly by both The New York Times and Washington Post and seized on by climate activists looking for another wedge to drive between people and their fossil fuels, the study is finally receiving its backlash — mostly through the efforts not of epidemiologists or health journalists (most of whom still haven’t bothered to look at the meta-analysis’ underlying studies) but public experts from a variety of non-epidemiological fields.

For instance, unlike either Dani Blum at the Times or Maxine Joselow at the Post, data scientist and biomedical research consultant Sarah Constantin actually looked at 23 studies that popped up in a Google Scholar search for “gas stove risks” and found that fewer than half actually demonstrated “any kind of significant association between gas stove use and any medical condition.” None of those studies controlled for confounding variables that did not come from gas stoves — while the ones that did include environmental controls “found no effect of gas stoves on any disease,” Constantin writes. Economist Emily Oster found much the same for papers underlying a similar 2013 meta-analysis and declares that, based on the literature, gas stoves “are likely a very small part of the picture” for asthma. The Breakthrough Institute’s Alex Trembath reminded us that factors such as lack of ventilation and smoke temperature of your cooking oil have been shown by some studies to be even bigger contributors to indoor pollution than the form of energy you cook with. And Trembath and Vox’s Kelsey Piper both pointed out the obvious motivation for the study wasn’t improving childhood health but using parental fears about that threat as a “‘gateway’ to then further educated the public about methane in general,” as Piper puts it, even though gas stoves (per Trembath) amount to 0.4 percent of US natural gas consumption. (The first two authors of the meta-analysis were employed by the environmental NGO RMI at the time of the study and its lead author now works for Rewiring America, whose tag is “The leading electrification nonprofit.”)

So we have a) shaky science promoted to b) scare people into c) abandoning an appliance for at best limited gains that d) are about symbolic decarbonization and roping people on the sidelines into the climate culture wars, not about the study’s original subject of reducing childhood asthma. Oh, and it all was covered by mainstream media with an incuriosity about the underlying science and mixed motives of the authors that bordered on stenography. This combo is the coverall bingo card of bad science communications, of the science-media industrial complex. Only public experts outside of the complex seem to have had the independence and motivation to correct it.

Let’s be careful not to congratulate ourselves too much, though, to paraphrase Winston Wolf. Because while moralizing about the dangers of headline science in the wake of the gas stove conflagration feels good, it also blinds us to the obvious: All science that makes it into a headline — all public science, in other words — has already been reduced to an idea, a piece of advocacy or advice, a sense of urgency if not agency…in other words, a headline of sorts. Public science is almost never about a null result; it has become public to elicit the public’s response, which means it has in some sense already been distilled into a stimulus. Why otherwise would the media be bothering to cover it? Why otherwise would a non-scientist public be paying attention to it?

Focusing on the undeclared conflicts of the authors lets us slip too easily past the idea that, whenever we promote our science through the media, we have to do headline science, too — or, more fully, science+story. Science+story is public science today, the only science that’s normally visible to those not scientists unless (like Constantin) they dive into it on our own. Communicating public science — whether your science is sound or questionable, whether your motives are pure or motivated — is about the ways out of the problem you map, the empathy you display, the priors you invoke and the idea you leave them with. The moral of the gas stove meta-analysis isn’t that bad science and science communications lose — it’s that the headline idea “gas stoves could kill your child” has already raced around the world countless times, scaring many and inspiring many others to turn their gas ranges into resistance totems. That’s a hell of a story, and — despite the best efforts of the public experts — it’s far from over.

Your science is invisible without a story.