Psst! New York Times science bloggers! You don’t have to act like CNN!

When an august but certainly slipping publication like the New York Times can’t even keep some of the entries in its science blogs from looking like chaff from a bored bunch of A.P. biology students, there would seem to be little sense in hoping that some news outlets still favor dry fact over controversy.

Experienced science writers should know by now that when writing about experiments involving rat behavior or physiology with a proposed bearing on human function, the proper thing to do isn’t to draw — or pretend to draw — lurid and half-assed conclusions and form — or pretend to form — questionable theories just because they are counterintuitive and bound to rile people. In other words, don’t bury the most important element — the ubiquitous caveats about comparing rodent bodies and brains to those of people — under a bunch of bullshit, as has been done in this piece purporting to deny the well-established cause-and-effect relationship between physical exercise and mood.

You can read the details if you like; in brief, scientists have found that neurogenesis in the hippocampal area of the brain may be associated with greater anxiety in rats, animals in which “anxiety” means something wildly different than it does in people. More research is needed, blah blah blah. The scheme here is fairly typical of the form such stories now assume:

1) People make assumptions about an aspect of human behavior or physiology.
2) Scientists studied rats and learned that this assumption may not be valid in rats.
3) Think of the implications if this were true in people! It would turn the world on its ear! Holy fuck!
4) But alas, as usual, rats aren’t people, and if you look more deeply at the data the study actually seems to confirm what we all previously believed.

Writers should relate these stories as a scientist would, flavoring it to suit the tastes of the masses without burning the shit out of it. As it is, there are enough twits out there as it is who think that running too much really did kill Jim Fixx back in 1984. This is a country of birthers and truthers who desperately want to think that it’s perfectly healthy to weigh 280 pounds and sleep in tanning beds.

Actually, the fine print at the bottom is the most informative tidbit in the entire post:

Corrections: An earlier version of this post misidentified the affiliation of Dr. Fuss and Dr. Gass; they are with the Central institute of Mental Health Mannheim and the University of Heidelberg. The earlier version also misidentified the affiliation of the scientists whose experiment was presented at the 2010 Society for Neuroscience meeting; it is Oklahoma State University.

Fuss and Gass, hoping to contribute to knowledge of human mental states. Outstanding. That’s almost as rich as a Soviet world record holder in the hurdles during the 1980s being named Stepanova.

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