#1. It's About a Miracle Cure for Obesity, Cancer, or Clean Energy
Any Time You See a Headline Like ...
"Research Breakthrough Offers Obesity Cure Hope"
"13-Year-Old Makes a Solar Breakthrough"
"A Lifetime Supply of Energy in the Palm of Your Hand"
"A Virus That Kills Cancer"
You Should Read It As ...
"Scientists Continue to Exist and Study Important Problems, So Let's Use Their Hard Work to Instill False Hope and Get Free Traffic."
I'm not a pessimist, and I think the future will be awesome. But the vast majority of the positive science news that turns up on Reddit or science blogs or tech sites is pure bullshit.
Sometimes the stories are outright false, like the one about that genius 13-year-old who invented a far more efficient way to collect solar energy, or the group of African teenagers who invented a machine to get electricity from urine (in the first case, it turned out the kid did his calculations wrong, and in the second, the reporters misunderstood what the machine did -- the former was retracted a few days later, the latter was debunked by people who have a better idea of what they're talking about).
Other times the stories are true, but hugely misleading: They're just taking a very small scale, preliminary result and declaring it a potential savior of mankind -- here's one talking about how a new clean energy technology could "end our dependence on fossil fuels within three to five years."
The problem is that the average person mistakenly thinks science works this way. When we were in school, we heard about how polio and yellow fever were suddenly wiped out overnight thanks to one genius who stumbled across the cure, and movies teach us that massive technical advancements are invented by Doc Brown in his garage or Tony Stark in a cave. So headlines play to this misconception by portraying every minor discovery as a potential magic bullet -- and each time further research debunks it and it just quietly goes away ... only to be replaced by the next miracle cure headline.
So if you actually Google the subject of the clean energy link above (in this case, thorium nuclear reactors) instead of, say, instantly forwarding it to all of your friends, you will be immediately kicked in the balls by Wikipedia's giant wall of text describing the many problems with the technology.
It's not that clean energy will never happen -- it totally will. It's just that it won't come from a wild-haired scientist running out of his basement screaming, "Eureka! I've discovered how to get limitless clean energy from common seawater!" Instead, it will come from thousands of scientists publishing unreadable studies with titles like "Assessing Effectiveness and Costs of Asymmetrical Methods of Beryllium Containment in Gen 4 Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors When Factoring for Cromulence Decay." The world will be saved by a series of boring, incremental advances that chip away at those technical challenges one tedious step at a time.
But nobody wants to read about that in their morning Web browsing. We want to read that while we were sleeping, some unlikely hero saved the world. Or at least cured cancer.
Yeah, cancer is another big one. I don't think I've ever been linked to an article as often as this one that came with the provocative title "Scientists Cure Cancer, But No One Takes Notice." It claims that a drug called dichloroacetate (DCA) cures cancer but that Big Pharma has suppressed the results. I think every six months that story explodes across Facebook and Reddit, and that's just one example -- the Internet is awash in astonishing cancer breakthroughs and cures, all of which, the fine print reveals, work great ... as long as we're talking about tiny, short-term studies and/or mice.
Hey, you know what else scientists are constantly curing in mice? Obesity. Just over the last few months alone I've seen the headline "Obesity Crisis Over? Scientists Discover Way to Turn 'Bad' Fat into 'Good' Fat" (in mice!), "Possible Answer to Obesity Found at Emory University" (a "magical compound" of proteins, they say -- it works great in mice!), and "Obesity Cure Claim by Irish and U.S. Researchers from Trinity and Harvard" (they've found immune cells that do the trick! In mice!).
And on and on. If you were to go back 20 years, you'd see the same goddamn thing (here's one from 1994 -- they found the obesity gene! In mice!). That's because about every five minutes for the last few decades, someone somewhere has successfully cured obesity in a lab mouse. Now, I don't want to disparage anybody's hard work, but if you can't cure obesity in a mouse at this point, you are a shitty scientist. You have total control over the animal's diet, and it doesn't have the million social, psychological, and physiological factors that make humans overeat -- successful mouse diets are not news.
Yet any time a news outlet needs to fill a spot, all they need to do is go grab from the giant pile of "Hey we also cured fat mice!" press releases and slap a "Potential Obesity Cure Found" headline on it. Free traffic. At this point, the biggest struggle seems to be coming up with original headlines. My favorites so far are "New Flab Jab Could Be Cure for Obesity" and "Could Obesity Be Cured by Injecting Our Guts With Fecal Bacteria from Ancient Mummies?" (you'll note the use of the "We know this is bullshit" question mark at the end). But when it comes to drawing clicks, who is ever going to beat "How Marijuana Could Help Cure Obesity-Related Diseases"? Hey, they're not lying. They've gotten great results! In mice! I'm telling you, if your pet mouse struggles with obesity, help is on the way.
But here's the reality: Nothing cures obesity in humans, other than the surgery that just shuts off your goddamn stomach so you can't fit food in there. Even if they give you weight loss drugs, you'll soon be steamrolled by a junk food and beverage industry that has specifically formulated their products to trigger an addiction response, which will blast you with advertisements every waking moment of your life. So you'll keep eating while reading about how it's OK because soon a pill will magically fix your waistline.
And no, there will never be a cure for cancer, either. That's because cancer isn't a disease, it's a word used to describe more than a hundred different diseases that all sort of look the same but have completely different causes and affect completely different areas of the body in completely different ways. Some are more deadly than others, and we're getting a little better at detecting and treating all of them. But it's boring to write a headline pointing out that, for instance, you could save millions of lives with nothing more than improved training for doctors who do colonoscopies.
No, what we want to see is a picture of a scientist holding a glowing green vial that says "CANCER CURE" on the side. We want solutions to be simple and exciting, and most important of all, we want to be the first to tell our friends about them when they happen. So we blindly forward the news along and the whole cycle of bullshit continues.