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I can’t stand it. I just can’t stand it. It keeps happening and I just can’t stand it.
Yesterday there was this absurd short news piece posted on the website of the so-called journal Science, “Apollo astronauts much more likely to die from heart disease”. describing a research paper published by one of Nature’s side journals, Scientific Reports. Before I even looked at the story I said to myself, “How can they possibly come to that conclusion considering the tiny number of humans who have ever traveled beyond Earth orbit? The sample will simply be too small to allow for any such finding.”
Yes, the result is based on a total of three (3) cases of heart disease deaths of out seven (7) Apollo astronauts. Past the vanishingly small sample size and even smaller number of cases, heart disease is a natural disease of aging and the Apollo lunar astronauts were 10 years older than the other comparison groups.
To put it more bluntly, this was a garbage piece of very bad science. While it was somewhat embarrassing for a Nature journal to publish it, it was far more disgraceful for the journal Science to highlight it. I, however, don’t have to join these two peer-review journals and participate in their stupidity, and thus I made no mention of the story on Behind the Black, because it is my policy to not waste much time on bad science, unless I think that bad science is going to have bad repercussions.
Well the bad repercussions have arrived. Since yesterday, the following so-called news organizations have run with this story, without the slightest indication that they have faintest understanding of science, statistics, or plain common sense:
- The Guardian: Apollo deep space astronauts five times more likely to die from heart disease
- Reuters: Study finds cosmic rays increased heart risks among Apollo astronauts Space.com: Apollo Astronaut Study Reveals Greater Heart Risk for Deep-Space Travelers
- New York Times: Study Asks if Moon Astronauts Got Increased Heart Risks
- Ars Technica: Apollo astronauts dying of heart disease at 4-5X the rate of counterparts
- Los Angeles Times: Deep space travel might blow your mind, but it could be bad for your heart
- Cosmos Magazine: Moon astronauts more likely to die from heart disease
- New York Observer: Space Radiation Devastated the Lives of Apollo Astronauts
- NBC News: Deep Space Radiation Caused Heart Problems For Apollo Astronauts
- Business Insider: Apollo astronauts are more likely to suffer heart problems, and we need to figure out why before we go back into deep space
- Wired: Apollo astronaut deaths raise serious concerns about deep space travel
- Motherboard: Cardiovascular Problems in Apollo Astronauts Linked to Radiation
- Wall Street Journal: Study Explores the Health Risks of Deep-Space Travel
- Geekwire: Apollo astronauts’ heart disease linked to space radiation, but there’s a big catch
- Washington Post: Studying heart disease in astronauts yields clues but not conclusive evidence
Most of these articles failed to note the absurdly small sample size that made any reasonable conclusions impossible. Some mentioned this “minor” detail, but did their best to minimize it or only mention it as an afterthought. Only the last two articles had the intellectual honesty to put the uncertainty of this result up front, but even here they are giving too much publicity to some very poor research that just doesn’t deserve the print space.
In reviewing all this junk journalism I must wonder what prompts these reporters and editors to do this. Are the driven by an unstated agenda (possibly a hostility to space exploration for any number of reasons)? Do they think the story so cool and having so much potential for generating hits that they don’t care if it is bad science? Are they so dependent on a reliance-on-authority that — simply because the study was published in a Nature journal and Science touted it, they assume it must be significant?
Or are they simply that ignorant of the basics of scientific research?
Unfortunately, it is probably a combination of all of the above, in differing amounts, depending on the publication. What all these news sources apparently lack is any reasonable skepticism and independent judgment when presented with an absurd claim. Instead, they nod their heads like good little children and run with it. It is this same bad judgment that I see repeatedly in endless stories about global warming and climate change, where no matter what happens — it gets cold, it gets hot, it gets wet, it gets dry, we have big storms, we have no storms — the press is immediately convinced when told that it must be because of the carbon dioxide humans are putting into the atmosphere.
This of course raises a much more significant issue: If the science journalists for so many major publications are so unable to exercise even the slightest judgment when it comes to bad science, what kind of bad reporting are we getting from every other department?
Sadly, I think we all know the answer to that question.