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Blue Monday and the problem of junk science

Learn why Blue Monday is a cause for concern, but not for the reasons you might think, with Dr Andrew Bell – a Lecturer in Quantitative Social Sciences at the University of Sheffield Methods Institute and contributor to the free online course Making Sense of Data in the Media.

blue monday

It’s Blue Monday, so you might be feeling pretty low today. Alternatively, you probably feel much like you did last Monday.

If you don’t know what I am talking about, for the last 10 years, the 3rd Monday of each year has been awash with tabloid articles about the ‘research’ conducted for travel company Sky Travel, reporting on ‘scientific’ evidence that today is the most miserable day of the year (or possibly it’s next week, depending on who you ask). Accompanying these articles are a similar quantity of news articles debunking the theory, and bemoaning the presence of junk science in the media.

There are enough articles showing that Blue Monday doesn’t exist – I won’t add to them.  So why write this? Is any of this ‘Blue Monday’ debate even important? I believe it is, and not because it matters whether Blue Monday exists or not.

Why ‘Blue Monday’ is important regardless of if it exists 

First, stories like this devalue real evidence: real findings about the world that actually do matter to people. Hundreds of researchers across the world are working to find things out that will better society. When they find things out that are important, we need to know about it, and we can’t do that if it is buried by stories about chocolate helping you lose weight (it doesn’t).

Second, stories like this make the news media less valuable. When we no longer see value in the news as a source of reliable information, what does it provide? A source of entertainment perhaps, but I think we should be striving for more than that.

And third, when we live in a world where real evidence is undervalued, and the aim of the media is to provide for the whims of the masses rather than actual information, it becomes dangerous. When a headline suggests that one in five Muslims support violent Jihadis (they don’t), or that climate change is a myth (it isn’t), people who read these are affected – presence in even the least reputable newspaper implies a veneer of truth, so readers’ beliefs may change or be hardened, or readers may feel offended, or ostracised. And that is bad for the world when the story is, in fact, junk, and its conclusions can lead to bad personal and policy decisions.

How can we improve our understanding?

So, is there anything that can be done to change the way the media works, and make it value good evidence more highly? Whilst there are many examples of excellent journalism out there, junk science and junk media are probably not going anywhere any time soon. As a result, we as readers and consumers of the media need to learn how to process it. We need to be able to dig deeper into stories, and make our own decisions about what is real, what matters, and what we can, and should ignore. We need to take responsibility for what we believe and what we do not.

That is the reason why my colleagues and I at the Sheffield Methods Institute have produced a new Futurelearn course on Making Sense of Data in the Media as well as creating a new undergraduate degree to ‘level-up’ our students’ quantitative social science skills. Whilst it is not reasonable to expect everyone to understand all the complex statistics that are reported in the media, there are some simple things that we can do as readers to help us be critical about the findings that we see. By signing up to the course, we can help you learn the skills to do this.

In the meantime, don’t feel too down. After all, apparently the happiest day of the year is only a few months away!

If Dr Bell has got you debating data, then join the free online course Making Sense of Data in the Media from the University of Sheffield Methods Institute. The course begins on 8 February 2016.

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Comments (6)

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  • Roxanne

    I am so happy to see that at last there is people that help others to reason and motivate individuals to be aware of what they listen or read on the media. But is it possible to have professionals or scientits to control this kind of info that confuses the masses and allow misunderstandings of the real truth?. How can we stop this and certainly punish and rule properly what happens in the media.? We must educate in every country and place to teach reliable info and always follow the truth. There are so many lies coming and going around us that we can realize how deeply and downwards the ethical values have gone. Thanks a lot for this wonderful, amazing programme that teaches people to be better individuals, well prepared to achieve their goals in a conflicted society!!

  • Geoffrey S Dearn

    Dr Bell’s comment is very welcome. I would like to think that we are less gullible today but the price we pay is a lack of trust in what we read and hear in the media.

  • Janet

    Don’t read the newspapers or listen to the news. I don’t, and I am much happier. Everyone in the media or producing same has an agenda. Like the song said,” It’s good news week. Someone’s dropped a bomb somewhere, contaminating atmosphere and blackening the sky. It’s good news week…………………….”

  • Jerry

    I agree that there is a lot of junk science, even in scientific journals and which genuine scientists are persuaded by. However, an open exchange of ideas is lacking and censorship is fierce, so people are often driven to inconsistent conclusions despite having the ability to evaluate arguments and evidence. Science also has an often bullying nature which forces scientists and the general public to fall in line with the supposed ‘scientific consensus’. This is the case with global warming (which has its dissenters) for example – whether or not you think the IPCC’s claims are true, most people assume (with very little justification) they are because they are so well publicised compared to counter claims, and most don’t bother to evaluate the evidence for and against.

  • claudia

    Excellent! It is very important to be aware of junk science, junk information, junk food and how media can deform opinions, even in not important issues. This article was very nice to read! Thanks

  • Pam Wall

    Hurray! What a great blog! I too am of the opinion that junk media does more harm that a great deal of other things in this world. As someone who had to study statistics as part of my degree course (and hated it, I have to say), I am firmly of the opinion that many of the stats that are bandied about in the press are worthless because they are taken out of context, or use too small a number of researched items (eg how can a survey of 50 participants on a world-important topic have any real value?).
    I do hope your course reaches lots of people who will read the media etc more wisely in future. Good luck, Dr Bell!