Science - Let's think critically

Get pupils to dissect newspapers and television to find the truth

James Williams

Do you use YouTube clips, newspaper articles or even popular television shows in your science lessons? Putting what we teach into an everyday context can make for stimulating lessons. But can we rely on the media for correct scientific information?

Take the following stories: "Mobile phone masts cause brain tumours"; "All GM (Frankenstein) foods are dangerous"; "The MMR vaccine causes autism in children". As science teachers, we would present all of these as false.

We can easily root out the stories that are obviously untrue, but others, which may be just as misleading, can be more difficult to spot. One, in a popular tabloid newspaper, claimed that drinking just two glasses of wine per day could "double your blood pressure". Reading on, we find that it could double the risk of having high blood pressure. What the headline stated was not accurate.

The best journalism and scientific research is both truthful and accurate, but it is entirely possible for something to be accurate and still be misleading. Statistics are also often misused in news stories. A good place to see examples of this is in Ben Goldacre's Bad Science column.

Using clips of "science in action" from TV shows such as CSI: NY (right) is appealing, but it can lead to misconceptions. Some common mistakes include showing only one or two crime scene investigators collecting and analysing all crime scene evidence, or the blue light that TV scientists use to detect the presence of blood at a crime scene when real-life forensic scientists prefer to work in full light so that nothing is missed. On TV, those examining a scene often don't wear face masks, but in real life they have to, to prevent contamination.

So while it is tempting to use news articles and items from popular TV programmes in lessons, try to relate the story to how real science works. Develop your pupils' critical thinking skills. Get them to critique a science news story, point out vital information that is missing or even flaws in the statistics or logic of the arguments used. They will thank you for it.

James Williams is a lecturer in science education at the University of Sussex's School of Education and Social Work. Bad Science is at


Explore the chemical, biological and physical investigations of forensic scientists with russellarnott's resources.

Or try 1kat1's quick forensic research quiz to test pupils' evidence-hunting skills.


Conversations continue among science teachers on the new draft primary science programme of studies. What do you think?

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James Williams

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