Wrangling bad pop-science journalism

We all are familiar with the headlines:


We all also know that pop-science articles are, functionally, useless.  Sometimes its editors manipulating article titles to make them more 'catchy', sometimes journalists trying to stir up controversy, sometimes its scientists and PR departments trying to oversell interesting (sometimes not so interesting) research.

Average Joes and Janes cant peruse a science/heath/technology section and be confident in what they are reading.

Does eating broccoli really cure cancer?  Does eating broccoli prevent cancer? Or is it only a pharmacologic dose of a chemical found in broccoli?  Do over-the-counter versions work too?  Or does it have to be administered IV in a hospital?  What kinds of cancer does it work on?  What kinds of people were in the study?  How old were they?  Where were they from?  What was their race?  Gender?

And then there is the bane of all bloggers trying to cover a story that breaks in pop-media-- no links to the original article.  Certainly I dont expect all the info from a paper to be crammed into a pop-sci article, but why the hell cant journalists include a link to the research they are covering??  The title of the paper?  The journal it is published in?

Well something interesting has been born in the UK--

Youall remember the phone hacking scandal in the UK a while back?  Some journalists hacked into a missing little girls cell phone to try to dig up stories or something, and the cell phone activity got her family all excited that she might not be dead. Absolutely cruel, and apparently the hacking was not orchestrated by some tabloid, but by major mainstream news organizations. They had been doing it to celebrities, royals, family members of killed military personnel, terrorist victims (7/7, 9/11), disgusting.

So the government launched the Leveson Inquiry.

What does this have to do with science journalism?

Leveson was investigating ethics in journalism.  This includes science journalism, which plays no small part in creating and festering train-wrecks like anti-vax BS, and all the stuff we know and 'love' about pop science journalism like 'cures' and 'miracles' and whatnot.

So Leveson asked Fiona Fox of Science Media Centre what to do, and she and her crew came up with some *fantastic* advice:

• State the source of the story – eg interview, conference, journal article, a survey from a charity or trade body, etc – ideally with enough information for readers to look it up or a web link.

• Specify the size and nature of the study – eg who/what were the subjects, how long did it last, what was tested or was it an observation? If space, mention the major limitations.

• When reporting a link between two things, indicate whether or not there is evidence that one causes the other.

• Give a sense of the stage of the research – eg cells in a laboratory or trials in humans – and a realistic time frame for any new treatment or technology.

• On health risks, include the absolute risk whenever it is available in the press release or the research paper - ie if "cupcakes double cancer risk" state the outright risk of that cancer, with and without cupcakes.

• Especially on a story with public health implications, try to frame a new finding in the context of other evidence – eg does it reinforce or conflict with previous studies? If it attracts serious scientific concerns, they should not be ignored.

• If space, quote both the researchers themselves and external sources with appropriate expertise. Be wary of scientists and press releases over-claiming for studies.

• Distinguish between findings and interpretation or extrapolation; don't suggest health advice if none has been offered.

• Remember patients: don't call something a "cure" that is not a cure.

• Headlines should not mislead the reader about a story's contents and quotation marks should not be used to dress up overstatement.

Each one of those is a gem!!  Could you imagine???  Could you imagine if journalists followed this simple list of guidelines when they wrote pop-sci articles???  I have no idea how to spearhead anything like this in the US media, but change starts at home-- I already try to do those things myself, but I will make a point of doing it all better in the future.


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The girl's phone was not "hacked". The newspaper gained access to her voicemail, not her phone.

The accusation beyond that was that the voicemail box was full, so they deleted some messages to make room for any future messages. But it that apparently wasn't true at all. The phone was configured to delete played messages after 72 hours, and those messages were deleted before the newspaper even accessed the voicemail in the first place.

Something they had no right to do, of course, but putting two and two together, it would seem the parents or police were the ones who listened to the voicemails first, which triggered their automatic deletion. So blaming the newspaper for giving false hope to the parents that their daughter was still alive does not seem appropriate.

And to think that Rebecca Watson could have said something like this instead of slyming evolutionary psychology.

Fantastic advice! I am so bookmarking this, since it looks like I may be landing a semi-regular new pop-science-writing gig soon.

I promise I'll try not to disappoint. :)

By Optimus Primate (not verified) on 05 Dec 2012 #permalink

Lawl. Excellent advice that reduces to: be accurate, and sufficiently detailed and plainly stated in a way that an educated but non-expert can read it and have an accurate representation of what is known/unknown.

Or, in other words: demonstrate competence at effective, honest communication.

Who am I kidding? That shit'll never work!

I'm not too hopeful about the effect of Leveson on the British press in general, but this is a great list and I really do hope it gets picked up.

The first item is the one that always bugs me the most. You expect to encounter bias, but not clearly stating sources just hinders (or even prevents) further investigation and honest discussion.

As to how we put it into effect, most journalism these days is on-line and I imagine pressure from readers is what will work best. When you see articles that fall short of this standard, go to the comments and ask why.

Minor point, but in the UK there is no absolute diistinction between "tabloid" and "major mainstream news organizations" as there may be in the US. The paper at the centre of many of the allegations (News of the World) would have been generally called a tabloid newspaper I think but was owned by News International.

Thanks Dai. I think we need to be asking ourselves the same question about N. American papers as well. Many papers are finding themselves short of income and increasingly irrelevant to online readers. Some are finding that their readers have an appetite for tabloid-style journalism in the guise of a serious newspaper. So they're testing the waters to see how much tomfoolery people are willing to tolerate, and how much cash is to be had.

Sort of like that W. Churchill quote: "Madam, we've already established [what you are]. Now we are haggling about the price."

This would have prevented the whole ENCODE creationist fiasco.

By eveysolara (not verified) on 07 Dec 2012 #permalink

"From our earliest tree analyses, it was patently evident that the LAV and IIIb viruses had to have had a recent common ancestor.... By including all of the available gene sequences in a single analysis for the -IIIBs, it is actually possible to define the branching order of the variants to a high degree of statistical precision. There is no doubt but that it shows the LAV source of the IIIB viruses: the NL43 clone of the BRU isolate is the oldest sequence; the published BRU follows it; the IIIBs follow thereafter...."


There are so many parallels between the disaster back then and the disaster we have seen since 2009. All the little lies back then ("No we never had LAV in our lab", "Oh, on second thought, we had it, but never used in the room we made our studies" and so on until they had to finally admit that they have had a contamination), all those lies have happened again happened as if it were a 2nd generation copy. Just replace LAV with VP62-plasmid, replace HTLV-IIIb with "HGRV", and so on. It is a very similar modus operandi that I find it hard to believe that Ruscetti didn't learn his trade from Gallo, and Mikovits in turn from Ruscetti. If this isn't the same MO, then VP62 and "HGRV" are not the same virus.

(Retro-)Virology and the whole NCI/"War on cancer" money-blackhole in the USA is an Augean Stable that has never been cleaned – so go ahead, ignore the massive problems in your field, circle the wagons ("Science corrects ITSELF!!!!") and be happy how courageous Dr. Confirmation Bias in the UK is, in a field you know diddly squat about.

And while are glad to get into a bitch fight at every opportunity with Mikovits or any of the CRAY V99/Gerwyn sockpuppets, you are chicken shit to touch the fraud that is happened for decades in your field with a ten feet pole.

But oh, look over there! Bad pop-science! Naughty, naughty. *wiggle finger*

You have acquired so much knowledge of this XMRV fraud and what are you doing with it? Nothing. Science corrects itself my ass.

By Tony Mach (not verified) on 08 Dec 2012 #permalink

But please, do blog about how you will:

b) for the first be ripped off because you were so foolish to send materials or information to an colleague


b) for the first time refuse to send out materials or information to an colleague because you fear to be ripped off

Isn't "do science" wacky fun? I'm sure both moments will be lots of LOLZ.

Just think "science will correct itself" when an fellow scientist tries to rip you off.

(And no, I don't think all scientists are corrupt, far from it. But unless you acknowledging the problem and actively do something about the corrupt ones – instead of simply circling the wagons – these corrupt scientists kind of accumulate like sediment and take away the resources proper scientists need. Then again, it's not like that bad medical science done by corrupt scientists will adversely affect anybody, right? It's not like any lives were ruined in the first years of the HIV-epidemic because of Gallo's shitty HTLV-3B test had a shitty sensitivity/specificity record, right? HIV negative, HIV positive, who cares! Right? And after all, the science will correct itself. And who cares if any CRAZY ME/CFS patients take anti-retrovirals, right? After all, hasn't the science corrected itself, right? So why should you care?)

By Tony Mach (not verified) on 08 Dec 2012 #permalink

Thanks for this. Even in our press releases, we never use the word cure unless at least one person has actually been cured of a disease. At most, we might put it at the end, with an "in the future" attached. So it never fails to amaze me how many journalists pick up our press releases and put the word "cure" in the headline, or reprint them word for word, without even a cursory check with a scientist not involved in the study. (Of course, any of our press releases have been approved by scientists, heads of departments and deans, so the facts are correct. Nonetheless, it is our job to promote our research, so any spin will definitely be positive.)

Thanks so much for these, Abbie - they are splendid. Definitely going into the syllabus for next semester's writing course!

By David Kroll (not verified) on 14 Dec 2012 #permalink