Science, Now + Beyond

Clickbait might be a science, but there’s also a pandemic of clickbait science going around

The Internet has allowed scientists to collaborate in ways they never imagined, but it also allows clickbait science to spread

Scrolling through your Facebook feed you’ll see all kinds of articles, all trying to get you to click through. Some of these articles are funny or entertaining. Others try to reel you in by using buzzwords that relate to current news items. Even others entice you to click by suggesting how you can improve your life or change your perspective. Almost all of these articles rely on one thing to get you to click through – a clickbait title.

Unfortunately, articles about scientific research are not exempt. In the age of the Internet, when everything is about spreading information as quickly and as easily as possible, science has received the clickbait treatment.

Media outlets will take an interesting conclusion from a research study, write an article that barely relates to the actual findings of the research study, slap a clickbait title on the article, and share it to all their social media outlets, hoping it goes viral.

Examples like “If Your Ex Wants To Be Friends, They Might Be A Psychopath” or “Scientists prove chocolate ‘better than being in love'” pop up all over social media.

Clickbait science can be compared to the ‘fake news’ that pollutes our social media feeds. It confuses what is fact and what is over-generalization. Scientific research is a complex and nuanced field, which does not lend itself to being mass distributed via an outlet like the Internet. The findings from research studies are hard, if not impossible to distill in to a single article, but that’s exactly what clickbait science attempts to do: give us complex and nuanced information in under 800 words.

This over-generalization can easily lead to misinterpretation and falsehoods, especially if the already simplified articles are not read carefully.

Social sciences, like psychology, sociology, and anthropology, are particularly susceptible to being made into clickbait science because the information gleaned from these studies impacts our lives. The articles we engage with the most are ones that play to our emotions or reflect our experiences. So when we read a headline that says “This Is Scientific Proof That Happiness Is A Choice,” we click through to learn life’s secrets.

But new research finds that a lot of these studies that claim to provide the answers to life’s secrets fail a major test of scientific reliability: they aren’t reproducible. One of the fundamental pieces of the scientific method is that if another scientist tested your hypothesis using the same methods they should get the same results.

A recent meta-analysis of the research behind many of these clickbait science type articles showed that the experiments used to produce the reported results were not reproducible in subsequent studies. This means that the results are not necessarily reliable, but the information is already out and shared millions of times on the Internet.

Another side effect of clickbait science is the dissemination of information that is just plain false. Dr. Ben Goldacre wrote a book about this phenomenon called “Bad Science” and he also authored a column of the same title for The Guardian. The book and the column exposed false information disguised as science that had spread across the Internet. Some of these articles were so widely shared that they began to be accepted offhandedly as fact.

Have you ever said, “No that’s totally true. I read this article about it,” then found out that information was totally false? That’s the bad science Dr. Goldacre seeks to expose on a regular basis. Clickbait science perpetuates bad science.

The worst part is that the nature of scientific publishing perpetuates clickbait science. Scientific research has always been based on publishing results as often as possible. In the time of printed scientific journals this included a rigorous peer review and editing process that ensured the research was reputable. Today, the Internet has made it easier to publish information that has not been so thoroughly reviewed. To add to the problem, scientific articles with clickbait titles get more clicks and shares than articles with more scholarly titles. The push to publish is so ingrained in the scientific community that it becomes easy to fall in to the trap of publishing on the Internet and having your results over-generalized, but widely shared.

Clickbait science is devaluing science on the whole. As an Internet culture we have become used to consuming information quickly and in small chunks. Then we can apply it to our lives as we see fit. But this is not the way scientific information is meant to be consumed or applied.

Clickbait science needs to be stopped so we can appreciate science for real.