Article headlines are crafted to grab our attention. While this one isn’t flashy, it does the job:
Opening paragraphs generally give a topic/finding overview and why the the subject is important.
Parents looking to get their kid’s attention — or keeping them focused at home and in the classroom — should try to limit their television viewing and video game play. That’s because a new study led by three Iowa State University psychologists has found that both viewing television and playing video games are associated with increased attention problems in youths. [emphases mine]
If you stopped reading there, however, you wouldn’t get the whole story. Just the advertisement and sales pitch, so to speak. It’s further down, into the body of the article, that you really learn the essential elements. Such as this:
The research, which included both elementary school-age and college-age participants, found that children who exceeded the two hours per day of screen time recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics were 1.5 to 2 times more likely to be above average in attention problems.
Details like these are important to know. Better science writing includes them. Worse science writing leaves them out entirely. And when they are left out we lose the opportunity to question. As for the above, a couple questions come to mind:
1. Does the “found that children” include the college-age participants?
2. Was the finding a statistical correlation? Seems so, as the use of the word “associated” in the lead paragraph strongly suggests. Because this is likely the case, how can we be sure that the media viewing is actually contributing to the attention problems, and not the other way around? Is it not possible that another factor or number of factors influence both media viewing and attention problems?
Way down at the foot of an article is where you will read the cautionary items. That most people don’t read that far is a bit of a problem when it comes to educated the public about science. In my opinion.
Consider these cautionary points:
[Co-author Edward] Swing points out that the associations between attention problems and TV and video game exposure are significant, but small.
“It is important to note that television or video game time cannot solely explain the development of attention problems,” he said. “Clearly other factors are involved.”
It’s rather odd that in terms of science, the better science, the more detailed and critical elements, get relatively buried in articles.
Chris Mooney, author of Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future, has tirelessly argued that scientists need to get better at communicating science to the public. I would argue that science writers need to get better at presenting science more scientifically. We additionally need better educated “consumers” of science.
Rather than dumming down the material for the lay consumers into tasty, bite-sized morsels, why not present science as it really is: an ongoing search for answers? Emphasize upfront the nature of the ongoing inquiry and the current data collected. Then offer the possible meanings and conclusions. Rather than portraying science as the producer of facts and truths, why not portray it as the exciting, ongoing search for answers?
Of course, the education of the public to better understand and appreciate science would likely be most effective if started early in life. And maybe it ought to be presented in the form of video games. Among other things.