Scientific Representations in the Mainstream Media

–          Science Daily’s article was titled as “Health risks posed by ‘third hand’ tobacco smoke.” The research presented claimed to estimate the cancer risk by age group from exposure to third hand tobacco smoke which is defined as dust in the home containing traces of tobacco and tobacco specific nitrosamines (TSNAs). Children are the most heavily affected age group by third hand smoke as they have the highest increase in cancer incidents.

–          They used a variety of quotes from the scientists involved in the study including one from Dr. Ramirez from York’s Wolfson Atmospheric Chemistry Laboratories. She, far from stating any substantial effects of third hand smoke, said, “While TSNAs have been suspected to form part of third hand smoke as a result of laboratory studies, we have demonstrated for the first time the presence of carcinogenic tobacco-specific compounds, such as TSNAs, in settled house dust found in a panel of smokers’ and non-smokers’ homes. The TSNAs concentrations found in smoke-free homes would suggest that TSNAs formed in smoking environments can persist for extended periods, possibly due to partitioning to ambient particles, and subsequently be transported into non-smokers’ homes from outside.”

–          The actual study had some slightly different things to say.

–          The study stated that third hand smoke had an adverse effect on children that did lead to cancer, but was only slightly above the threshold that the EPA had established. Additionally, third hand smoke, at most, led to one more cancer occurrence per thousand exposures.

–          The study’s conclusion was something slightly less troubling and far more helpful. The researchers concluded that the risk of exposure to third hand smoke should not be neglected, and the effect of third hand smoke on non-smokers and children, especially, should be added to future programs about the effects of smoking.

I would not say that the popular journal is completely misguided, however, it does misrepresent some of the findings by bloating the effects to make the journal more newsworthy. The title of the popular journal illustrates this effect perfectly. “Health risks posed by ‘third hand’ tobacco smoke” does not accurately describe the findings of the study. However, anything less would not be eye catching enough for readers of to even click on. This, I feel, is the crux of the misrepresentation problem that has certainly plagued readers for decades, if not centuries. Scientific findings are often misrepresented for the best interest of the popular publisher. These publishers know quite well that most readers are not going to read the firsthand study and essentially have a free pass to bloat the findings of a study in order to attract readers.

The main differences between the popular journal and the actual study are the differences in the representation of the findings of the study. The popular journal claims that the study has found health risks associated with third hand smoke while the study takes a more modest and truthful route stating that they have found possible, not extremely substantial, effects of third hand smoke on cancer and this information should be considered in future education programs.

The exaggerated parts of the article were its claim that the study had found health risks. This gave me an impression of immediate and imminent danger to my wellbeing whereas the truth was much less dangerous, albeit still an additional, considerable effect of smoking.

To improve the second hand journal, one would first and foremost have to change the article name to a something more representative of the actual data such as “Possible effects of third hand smoke” rather than the aforementioned name of the article. Then, one would have to include more data about the effects of third hand smoke found in the study rather than simply stating that third hand smoke has a negative effect on children. One of the biggest areas of improvement would need to be the inclusion of quantitative data.

2 responses to “Scientific Representations in the Mainstream Media”

  1. Madiha Shafquat says:

    I had similar suggestions to improve the popular media piece. By using less aggressive diction and including more quantitative data, the reader is less likely to be misled.

  2. Aliya Saffran says:

    I found this article and study really interesting. For my pieces, I also thought that the secondary literature piece should have included more quantitative data to support the author’s points. This would have been much more informative and a better representation of the study.

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