One couldn’t help wondering if the real science reporters were already on holiday when just before Christmas, newspapers all around the world carried the bogus headlines “Santa more naughty than nice, says expert“, and “Santa’s image is a big ho ho no“. Under these headlines were serious stories reporting on a study that apparently found that Santa was a public health menace causing young people to become fat, drink and drive (or fly) and recklessly jump between roof-tops. Santa’s contact with hoards of children meant that “the potential for Santa in his asymptomatic phase to propagate an infectious disease is clear”, quoted newspapers.
Of course, there was no study. In fact, the report in the British Medical Journal was a clever satire of the sort of study they often publish. However, their press release didn’t make clear that it was a joke and when journalists around the world found out that they had been punked, they went into defensive mode, publishing stories labelling the satirist a “grinch”.
From bogus reporting to bad science: Maybe the science reporters weren’t on holiday, maybe they were just a bit tipsy. That would explain their uncritical reporting of the Evolutionary Psychologist’s “study” that found that men and women’s shopping behaviour reflected their roles in hunter-gatherer societies. Apparently women do their shopping early and men do it at the last-minute and this is due to our innate roles evolved in hunter-gatherer societies.
Such studies pop up every month or so and are, of course, highly contested not just by lefty-commie-hippies but by hard-nosed scientists. According to them, such theories lack the virtues of good scientific hypotheses since they are nearly impossible to test and seem only as explanatory as many alternative hypotheses. Many scientists dismissively refer to such theories as “just-so stories”. But this was christmas, and why should controversy get in the way of banal science reporting?
Of course, between the bogus reporting and the bad science, there was some quality science news that was well reported on. It turns out that our galaxy’s dark matter is shaped like a beach ball, (whatever that means) and scientists found what they think are the footprints of our fishy ancestors. Meanwhile, one study came out apparently showing that Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) was caused by a virus, followed by another study that said that it wasn’t. The controversy inspired some thoughtful blogging by active researchers and some emotive responses.