Quote of the Day

I think science journalism is valuable and important, and in order to earn the trust of both scientists and the public, it needs to make honest, accurate reporting its chief value. Lately, there have been too many instances of a violation of that trust — and bending a story to more comfortably fit a common and erroneous stereotype is a perfect example of bad reporting.

PZ Myers

Emphasis mine. Myers is referring here to the odious “Women who dress provocatively more likely to be raped” article that recently appeared in The Telegraph. (If you didn’t see that one on the feminist blogs, the short version is, The Telegraph managed to pull that notion out of a press release about a study that said nothing of the sort.) But Maude knows we’ve seen more than a few examples of it around here

If you’re not already pissed off enough thinking about this on a Monday morning, check out the follow-up e-mail Myers got from a science journalist.

32 thoughts on “Quote of the Day

  1. Oh thank you so much for linking to Bad Science regarding the Telegraph article, and not the article itself. I can drink my coffee now; I won’t be compelled to throw it against the wall.

  2. That email breaks my heart for so many reasons. Editors have the right to edit (duh), but a complete rewrite seems unnecessary in any case. For a science piece, it seems highly unethical.

  3. This is chilling. I’ve lost the source of the quote now, but one of the links cited this as being “like feminism never…happened.” Or, you know, like women’s whole (fraught) status as citizens of quasi-equality with men (especially white men) can be just edited away. I’m feeling a bit edited away this morning.

  4. That Bad Science article is lovely, thanks muchly for the link.

    The e-mail Myers got… I dunno what to think. Even if they get an honest article, they have to skew it a bit? Yeesh. I realize there was the length issue, but then they completely reversed something he said, sooo…

  5. Even journalists who are trying to do it right are being screwed over

    One reason I don’t do it any more. After a while, having every story cropped, juiced up, or reduced to a single, half-assed idea gets old.

  6. And hearing from experts whose words get twisted or removed from context is also disturbing.

    I interviewed with someone once because I’m a therapist who works with fat women. What was frustrating was that the questions were incredibly leading…and when I gave sane moderate answers where I think she was hoping for something radical, the conversation ended very quickly.

  7. A separate article I read this morning had me pissed off over this exact problem in science journalism.

    The article was titled, “Fountain of Youth Drug Found?” by Sara Abadi, staff writer for AOL Health. (Not exactly the NYT, but a lot of people read those “welcome screen” articles.) In it, she wrote, “How the drug works is not exactly known, but experts believe that rapamycin might fool the body into thinking that calories are being restricted. Previous studies have shown that calorie-restriction can help lengthen the lives of both animals and humans. ”

    This line included a link, to support the calorie-restriction in animals and humans theory. The link led to another article which said “There’s been no scientifically peer-reviewed research on humans,” says Keri Gans, MS, RD, CDN and American Dietetic Association spokesperson. “That’s the gold standard on research. It’s premature in taking one study that was successful in rats and saying that it would work in humans.”

    What pisses me off, though, is that few people will ever follow that link and discover she was talking out of her ass (“bending a story to more comfortably fit a common and erroneous stereotype”), and only remember that calorie-restriction increases human lifespan, because it’s been proven, y’all.

    PS: For 20 minutes I’ve been trying – unsuccessfully – to find a way to contact the author to tell her she’s full of shit.

  8. Oops, she’s an “editorial intern” not a “staff writer.” Regardless, she graduated from the School of Journalism at Northwestern. She should know better.

  9. There are a lot of irresponsible journalists and editors out there, to be sure; but there is another facet to this. Sometimes the editors *think* they know what they’re talking about, but don’t; so the (badly) rewritten article can sometimes be a case of ignorance rather than malicious intent.

    I once spent the better part of three pages explaining to non-engineers the thermodynamic engineering definition of efficiency (versus coefficient of performance). The difference is blinding obvious to people in the field, and most engineers get an eye twitch when people say “150% efficient”, but the two concepts get mixed up surprisingly often in the general populace. Same with “stress” and “strain”–they mean totally different things in engineering-world, but most thesauruses would list them as synonyms.

    I feel like a lot of editors don’t have either the education or the experience to avoid screwing stuff like that up, and don’t have the time or inclination to check it with the original author before putting the paper to bed. Boo.

  10. so the (badly) rewritten article can sometimes be a case of ignorance rather than malicious intent.

    Oh, I think that’s often the case. But since editors are supposed to be in the ignorance-curing business, it’s no less problematic.

  11. Same with “stress” and “strain”

    Also “Significant” this is probably mostly just because I spent too much time grading freshman stats homework. Significant is Significant people.

  12. I ran into this in tech support. Editors who know next to nothing about editing the registry or updating a boot sector can completely wreck havoc on technical articles, which is why the technical editor always had the last word.

    Gina Kolata also talks about the piles of dubious press releases and press kits science reporters get in her book Ultimate Fitness, which I really must review one of these days.

  13. … but the two concepts get mixed up surprisingly often in the general populace.

    It’s not at all surprising. I don’t get them, for instance, because I’ve never received any training whatsoever in engineering, and I have absolutely no idea what the ‘coefficient of performance’ is. So aside from the popular meaning of ‘efficient’ – more or less, effective with a minimum of waste – all that might as well be in Klingon.

    And that, in a nutshell, is what science and technology reporting is supposed to be about: reporting on the news in these broad areas in terms understandable to folks like me. And it hasn’t.

  14. Eucritta, it can’t be just reporting the news in terms understandable to folks who don’t know the lingo — not if that involves misusing terminology. Science reporting isn’t just about explaining science at a level the general public understands; it’s also about educating that public.

  15. Sorry, off topic, don’t know where to post. Just wondered if you were going to do a post on the new pick for Surgeon general. An AA female physician, who will be counseling Americans on their health and who*gasp* looks like a normal woman.

  16. But Volcanista, doesn’t editing the public begin with writing it in a way that’s understandable to lay people? Obviously, misusing terminology isn’t going to further anyone’s understanding of anything, but I guess I just don’t think you and Eucritta are disagreeing here. You’re both saying it’s about educating the public — but it can fail both when descriptions are too technical for people outside the industry and when the technical stuff gets fudged until its meaning changes.

  17. (So for example, a MSM news story about research on, say, bridge stability based on experimental analyses of bridge-building material stress and strain responses, could define stress, strain, and strain rate. The concepts are not so hard that people couldn’t understand it, and then the article could be written much more easily. Precise language makes talking about this stuff considerably less confusing, not more.)

  18. Oh sure! I’m just saying that education is part of the responsibility of reporters, too, at least IMO. Not mixing up the terms “stress” and “strain” is more than just pedantic when you’re trying to explain research about stress and strain. And I also don’t want reporters to simplify my science so much that the main points are lost, even if what I think are the main points are not very sexy news stories! There is space in a news story to teach quite a lot, and that is not often used. At least, not for good.

    Wild extreme example: how the scientists monitoring Soufrière Hills in the 90s used the local radio station like a volcanology class, teaching the local public the terminology and concepts. It’s an extreme example because it’s about hazards mitigation, so they used the radio as a tool to educate the public in an attempt to get them to better understand warnings and evacuation orders. They hoped (and generally, from what I have heard, found) that if the citizenry understood what hybrid swarms were, and the risks they entailed, they might be more likely to evacuate when the scientists announced that they had gone up to level 2 or level 1 alert because of increased frequency of hybrid swarms.

  19. volcanista, my training is in archaeology, so believe me, I can feel your pain. I’ve seen stories so mangled, I had absolutely no idea what they were about even when I’d just read the actual report, and it doesn’t help at all that sometimes archaeologists themselves become so enamored of interpretations that they’ll bend time and space in their honor. (Or, My Ire Against the Interpretation of the Hols-Fels Venus, Let Me Show You It.)

    My own contention too is that almost anything can be made to be ‘sexy’ – it’s all in how well it’s written. Case in point: back when I made my living as a data and word processor operator, a paper on the history of shotcrete passed over my desk. And it made what might well have been a snooze fest into such entertaining material, that 25 years later I remember it with tremendous fondness. I just wish I’d kept a copy!

  20. I’m assuming people getting indignant about the editor rewriting the thing do not work in the writing field. :) That’s more or less par for the course. But not running the finished, rewritten project past the original author OR a fact-checker? That’s totally irresponsible. I’ve certainly had articles go out under my name where I barely wrote a word, but I always see them and someone besides me or my editor always checks them before they get published.

    Science writing can be particularly difficult because the technical words don’t always sound like “coefficient of performance” — sometimes they are words like “work” or “stress,” where you think you know what it means but there’s a specific technical meaning that most people don’t grasp. The different but overlapping vocabularies of “technical lingo” and “normal speech” mean that an apparently innocuous rephrasing into lay language can actually drastically change the claim being made, for instance by using words that are synonyms in normal English but not at all the same in science, or by assuming that words with different specific scientific meanings are actually synonyms because they might be in regular speech.

  21. Reporters tend to bungle their descriptions of legal issues, too, particularly judicial opinions. I think there might be a similar problem to science reporting that what sounds like the most interesting thing to lay people is often not what is actually significant about a particular thing. Which is how we get headlines like “Nation’s Second Highest Court Says Lead in Paint Not a Problem,” when what was really going on was that the court said that an adminstrative agency regulation validly made a rule that prohibited lead to a certain concentration. Or whatever.

    I actually don’t think it’s just searching for money through more interesting headlines, either. I think journalists are searching for something that will connect with the reader and that leads to misrepresentations of the scope of that connection.

  22. Like anything we read we need to take it with a grain of salt. We need to analyze our own feelings and beliefs as well as what we have heard around the topic already. Is it a shame that journalism like this exists? Yes. Is it a shame that student was misinterpreted for readership? Yes.

    However we are all also human and the majority of the population will be more interested in fanatical scientific evidence, then what science truly found out. Again, a shame.

    What I think we need to do is just remember that science is an evolving ever changing thing and just because its scientific doesn’t mean it’s, true, a good idea, or from a reputable source. Wasn’t shock therapy a fantastic scientific breakthrough?

    So I love the fact this wasn’t blindingly revered as new science, that it was called into question. I don’t think journalism will ever be 100% honest, honesty doesn’t sell papers as well as a fantastic story.

    So thank you, thank you for reminding people to stop, and think about what they are reading.

  23. volcanista, my training is in archaeology, so believe me, I can feel your pain. I’ve seen stories so mangled, I had absolutely no idea what they were about even when I’d just read the actual report, and it doesn’t help at all that sometimes archaeologists themselves become so enamored of interpretations that they’ll bend time and space in their honor. (Or, My Ire Against the Interpretation of the Hols-Fels Venus, Let Me Show You It.)

    I’d just like to jump in here to mention that the shit they do to findings in bacteriology and epidemiology are utterly astounding as well. You know CA-MRSA is going to kill us all, right? Because it’s, like, immune to all antibiotics! Everyone panic!!

    Well, you know, except for the part where it’s still susceptible to vancomycin and a couple of other newer antimicrobials, and it’s not actually any worse than 15 other bacteria I could think of off the top of my head, and your chances of contracting any of them are actually pretty slim. But still, PANIC!

  24. emmy, yes!

    Health news often strikes me as akin to an ever-shifting maze, in which every few steps a new obstacle springs into place: yet another article urging me to PANIC! about this or that disease or condition or social phenomenon, none of them ever placed into context or even described adequately, and rarely providing any genuinely useful information. I used to read the NYT’s health section fairly regularly, and most of the time finished up feeling as though I’d been smacked from pillar to post to no purpose whatsoever.

    And all this, all this feeds into our distorted perception of what constitutes wellness, not as simple good health but as an ever-retreating golden ring at the end of a race in which diseases chase after us like so many hell-hounds, zombies and bug-eyed monsters from outer space.

  25. I’ve seen stories so mangled, I had absolutely no idea what they were about even when I’d just read the actual report

    Seems to be a common theme. I’m studying quantum information, and practically none of the popular news articles I’ve seen have enough information for me to figure out what the heck new “breakthrough” they’ve come up with this time. Usually I can at least guess which paper they’re basing the story off of, but one time I couldn’t even figure out who had done the work in question.

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