Baited: Why clickbait science is just the worst

Anyone browsing the Web without the protective shield that is Adblock will know what clickbait is. There might even be some examples lurking around the borders of this blog. GYNAECOLOGISTS HATE HER! CLICK HERE FOR THIS ONE WEIRD TRICK TO SCARY AMERICAN TEETH! and the like. I especially enjoy the accompanying image choices (what’s with that one with the lady peeling off her own skin?) which are inevitably uncredited content rip-offs or still have the iStockPhoto logo stamped across the middle.

The reason for these abominations is pretty straightforward – these tasty nuggets whet your appetite for the secrets that lie within. Hell, tabloids and celebrity magazines have been working this angle for years by splashing pixelated vaginas across their front pages, alongside photographs of bikini-clad bodies with the dimpled thighs hyper-inflated. For just a dew pence you can find out exactly which overpaid footballer was caught in flagrante this week. Hyperlinks that promise secrets just a click away work on the same principle. The HuffPo, Cracked.com and Buzzfeed have built whole media empires (in the loosest possible term) around this strategy, but its influence has spread much further.

It’s no secret that print media is dying. While the optimistic The New Day paper might have opened this week, in the last few years whole publication houses have folded. This has coincided with an explosion of junk journalism desperately hoping to catch the public’s attention for just long enough to keep them reading the expected two-thirds of an article.

Unfortunately information nuggets might be tasty but they are nutritionally void and can leave you bloated and sick. Rapid regurgitation of half-cooked factoids has largely replaced any kind of responsible or investigative journalism.* Why, after all, would a media company hire a roving reporter (and pay the corresponding expenses) when a desk-jockey can pump out four times as many ‘articles’ in half the time? Never mind that what they report is a half-true spin on a press release.

This is especially a problem in science journalism. (Un)surprisingly, to be a science or tech journalist you don’t have to have any particular knowledge of science or technology. If you can string a sentence together and read a journal paper abstract (or even an academic blog) you, too, can tell the world about the magic of science. Not the actual practice, of course, that’s just looking at things happening and sometimes counting them. Who wants to hear about that?

Proper investigative journalists have highlighted this problem, but it continues and spreads deep into ‘proper’ print media which for a long time held out against the rising tide of trash. I was prompted to write this blog post by a particularly egregious example printed by The Independent and posted to Facebook by a friend:

gah3

The red flags have never waved quite as frantically as they did here. ‘Scientists’ is a classic junk journalism trick, as it cunningly avoids having to say which scientists or what their field is. ‘Scientists’ are just a highly-trained homogenous mass who are always right and always in agreement ‘Scientists’ include statisticians, graduate researchers, and professors in utterly unrelated fields weighing in with their opinions.

The next red flag is ‘have found evidence.’ This phrase is meaningless as it doesn’t say how much evidence. I could say that there’s evidence that vaccines cause autism because at least one autistic child has been vaccinated but no one would be stupid enough to believe that, would they?**

Finally, the lower case ‘god.’ The sentence reads as ‘believe in God’ because that’s how sentence syntax works, but the lower case effectively adds an ‘a’. This omission is reasonable in a print headline because there’s a danger of running out of space online this danger is utterly removed. It’s just our old friend laziness and clickbait coming out to play.

Either way, the headline implies something spectacular. A god? Like, a monkey god? What would it look like!? Have we been committing blasphemy all these milennia by eating its bananas? I simply must find out!  If you click through (bait achieved) the headline becomes Mysterious chimpanzee behaviour could be ‘sacred rituals’ and show that chimps believe in god.’

Well, that’s not really the same thing but it’s still definitely still pretty bizarre. Have chimps been observed building idols of their monkey god? Praying? Building bonfires and dancing around them by the light of the moon? Nope. According to this article they’ve been observed making piles of rocks.

Now making piles of rocks is still a pretty big deal for chimps. Chimps use rocks as foraging tools and sometimes to show off their strength and manliness chimpliness but they don’t normally build things with them. They don’t even use them as weapons, choosing instead to kill other chimps and animals with their own dextrous monkey-hands. Piles of rocks are pretty strange and exciting.

They are not, however, evidence of chimp religion. If you dig deeper and find the source articles (which are, of course, mentioned nowhere in the article) you find a piece in The Conversation written by a researcher called Laura Kehoe, which is quoted (but unattributed) in our terrible Independent article. Ms Kehoe is the eighth author on the actual research report published in the prestigious journal Nature. The report details chimpanzees habitually a) making piles of rocks and b) banging rocks against trees. This is strange and exciting but most importantly the report does not definitively say why the chimps are doing this. It’s a Nature report, so all it conclusively says is that chimps are doing something with rocks.

It certainly could be ritual behaviour. But it could also be a threat display, a marking of territory, a marker for a food site. All of these explanations are cool and interesting if you actually care about either ape behaviour or human archeo-anthropology. They are less interesting if you’re a journalist trying to come up with a catchy headline.

Enter Andrew Griffin. Andrew Griffin is a tech writer for the Independent. Andrew Griffin wrote the article that spawned this increasingly vitriolic blog post by willingly ignoring facts in favour of spewing up a half-digested truth nugget. Andrew Griffin isn’t a bad man (he’s not even a bad tech writer), he just knows sod all about science. I contacted him on Twitter to find out what was going on.

gah gah2

Andrew, I’m sorry, but no. Putting ‘chimps believe in god’ is not ‘a nice way’ to understand some research, because it does not fulfil that function even slightly. It is a leap in logic parallel to the following examples provided by pissed-off friends and colleagues.

All animals have distinct mating rituals. I have therefore concluded from this information that animals have nightclubs, pickup artists, and Tinder.
Birds of paradise look fancy and do dances in order to mate. I thus conclude that there are  bird exotic dancers who dance at bird strip clubs. Hence the term 'birds' for women.
Humans drink fermented grapes in the form of wine as part of religious ceremonies. Elephants sometimes drink fermented fruit. Therefore some elephants believe in Jesus.
Cheese looks sweaty in hot. Humans looks sweaty in hot. Therefore, cheese is humans.

Perhaps I’m being naive in thinking that journalistic integrity should even exist. Does a newspaper have any obligation to print the truth, or a journalist to write what’s real instead of what’s fantasy? Our world is chaotic capitalism, so if nonsense click-bait is what keeps the Indy in circulation and Andrew Griffin in a job then maybe it’s inevitable, but I retain my right to complain about it.


 

*Not entirely of course. Excellent journalism is a rare and beautiful bird but well-worth hunting. Try this piece by the NYT on homelessness in New York, or this fantastic Mother Jones article on working conditions in meat-packing factories.

**Oh.

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