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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.

This post was first published on January 18 2016.

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