Archive for the 'Science and the Media' Category

Jun 30 2016

Mummies and Cancer

egyptian-mummy-3Often there are several layers to my skeptical articles – there is the science story itself, and then there is the reporting of the science and the underlying neuropsychological factors that led to the disconnect between the two.

Here we have another classic example, surrounding the claim that cancer (and sometimes extended to other “modern” diseases) were rare in pre-industrial societies based on evidence from mummies.

The Narrative

The psychological and media story here is that people tend to organize their knowledge around thematic narratives (which I am doing right here – so meta). We like stories, especially stories that have meaning, and especially when that meaning is emotionally satisfying or surprising in some way.

Continue Reading »

5 responses so far

May 27 2016

A Tale of Two Science News Reports

parviceps

One of the recurring themes of this blog, and of the skeptical movement itself, is that science news reporting is generally poor. It is highly variable – there are some excellent science news reporters out there, but most are mediocre and some are terrible. The problem is that the average quality is simply too low.

The problem is compounded by the fact that scientists sometimes overhype or overinterpret their results, but even more common, the press office for the university at which the scientists work often sensationalize the science. At every step there is an opportunity to add hype, misinterpret the actual results, sensationalize, focus on the speculative aspect of the study rather than the actual data, or simply get the story wrong.

The race for clicks seems to be driving the quality of science reporting down, favoring clickbait headlines. Reporters don’t seem to mind getting the story wrong and then being corrected by science bloggers, for then they just get another round of clicks correcting their own bad reporting as if it were someone else’s fault.

Sclerocormus parviceps Continue Reading »

16 responses so far

Oct 30 2015

TCM on NPR

Journalists frustrate me. Whenever they cover a topic about which I have a fair degree of knowledge, or even expertise, they seem to do a generally poor job. There are excellent journalists out there, but the average mediocre journalist tends to fall for the fallacy of false balance, indulge in hype and sensationalism, overly rely on individual experts who may have quirky opinions, and often fail to put topics into a proper context.

These failings are exacerbated whenever the topic at issue requires critical thinking and a high degree of skepticism.

Even generally high quality news outlets, like NPR, tend to fail when they deal with topics which require both expertise and skepticism, such as alternative medicine. A recent episode of Marketplace with Colin McEnroe is an excellent example of how a generally reasonable journalist can completely fail when dealing with such topics.

Continue Reading »

32 responses so far

Oct 09 2015

Nature Defends Science Communication

An editorial in Nature Biotechnology titled, Standing Up for Science, takes direct aim at the problem of science communication in our society. (It’s a short article – read it.) It’s a wonderful editorial, and I completely agree with it. This should not come as a surprise to any regular readers here.

The article focuses on the recent events involving US Right to Know using Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to essentially harass public scientists and troll through their e-mails so that they can take lines out of context and use it for anti-GMO propaganda. This effort was funded in part by a $47,500 donation from the Organic Consumers Association. The irony of this was apparently completely lost on USRTK.

The main target (so far, this affair is likely not over) was Kevin Folta, a gifted and dedicated science communicator (he has been a guest on the SGU a couple of times and was a speaker at NECSS). The “smoking gun” revealed by USRTK was that Monsanto had donated $25,000 (that’s $22,500 less than USRTK got from Big Organic) to Kevin’s University for public outreach, funds which he used to pay for gas money and snacks when he traveled for public speaking engagements. As Nature points out:

Folta broke no laws. The Monsanto funds were a donation to his university’s Foundation outreach program. They were tied neither to him directly nor to his research. His conflict of interest disclosures were wholly compliant with his university’s rules. He never used industry funds for personal gain.

Continue Reading »

13 responses so far

Jul 09 2015

New Zealand Ban on “Trolling”

New Zealand recently passed a law designed to outlaw cyberbullying and give victims a measure of protection. The intent of the bill good, and I agree that this problem may need some creative legislative solutions, but I don’t think this bill was well crafted. It further raises all the thorny issues of free speech.

The Telegraph reports:

The bill was introduced after a public outcry over the horrific “Roast Busters” scandal, in which a group of teenage boys from Auckland was accused of sexually assaulting drunk, under age girls and boasting about the acts on social media.

Public outcry is often a problematic motivation for new legislation. It motivates legislators to do something dramatic quickly, which does not lend itself to nuanced law. Of course this is a horrible crime and people should be outraged. The primary crime, however, was the sexual assault. Boasting about the crime later on social media rubbed salt in the wounds, but it would be a mistake to over-react to that aspect of the crime.

Continue Reading »

9 responses so far

Jun 25 2015

The Tim Hunt Hubbub

I have watched from the sidelines the recent controversy over the comments made by Nobel Laureate, Tim Hunt. Here is what sparked the controversy:

The British scientist told delegates at the World Conference of Science Journalists in South Korea that when women work alongside men in labs, three things happen: “you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry.” He then went on to suggest that perhaps the best way to solve this problem is to have sex-segregated labs.

Hunt was widely criticized for his comments, which were interpreted (quite reasonably) as sexist. Within days he was pressured to resign from his honorary post at University College London. In response to that others came to his defense, including 8 Nobel laurates and Richard Dawkins, who characterized the reaction as a “witch hunt.” Others, like Brian Cox, did not go that far but did say the response was “disproportionate.”

This has led to a round of criticizing those defending Tim Hunt. And now the Tim Hunt camp has responded further, saying that Hunt was taken out of context, that he followed up those words with, “Now seriously, women are needed in science,” indicating the whole thing was just a bad joke. That claim, however, is disputed, and there is no objective record to resolve the dispute.

Continue Reading »

22 responses so far

Apr 07 2015

Rolling Stone and Journalism Failure

In November 2014 Rolling Stone magazine published an article called, “A Rape on Campus.” If you click on the link to that article today you are directed to another article on Rolling Stone: “A Rape on Campus,” What Went Wrong?

This one article may have triggered two important conversations in our society. The first was to push forward the conversation on the problem of rape on college campuses. This is a real and serious issue, but as is often the case when a new social issue comes to prominence the basic facts have not been fully vetted and worked through. There are many claims on all sides of the issue, and a lot of new data to sort through. For example, there is ongoing debate over the true incidence of rape on college campuses.

The article also unintentionally sparked a discussion of best journalistic practices. As the editor of Rolling Stone describes:

Last November, we published a story, ‘A Rape on Campus’ [RS 1223], that centered around a University of Virginia student’s horrifying account of her alleged gang rape at a campus fraternity house. Within days, commentators started to question the veracity of our narrative. Then, when The Washington Post uncovered details suggesting that the assault could not have taken place the way we described it, the truth of the story became a subject of national controversy.

Rolling Stone commissioned an independent journalistic investigation, which has now been published. The Columbia Report is a harsh indictment of the failures of the magazine, and a cautionary tale for all journalists.

So, what did go wrong? A New York Times editorial characterizes what went wrong as a failure of skepticism.

Continue Reading »

45 responses so far

Mar 16 2015

FOIA Requests to Biotech Scientists

On the SGU this week we interviewed Kevin Folta, who is a biotechnology scientist at the University of Florida. His specialty is strawberries – he is trying to identify which genes are responsible for the intense flavor of wild strawberry varieties. Some of this flavor was inadvertently lost over decades of cultivating strawberries to be big, attractive, and have a good shelf life. He sent me some of the wild varieties he is working with. They produce small (really small) unattractive strawberries that taste amazing. Ideally he would like to figure out how to combine the incredible flavor of some of the wild strawberries with the marketable cultivated varieties.

Kevin is also a science communicator. He does outreach to help the public understand his science, the science of plant genetics, which includes genetic modification. He is publicly funded and so all of his funding sources are fully disclosed. He has no funding from industry, no conflicts of interest.

However, because he is an outspoken critic of unscientific anti-GMO propaganda he has been targeted by the anti-GMO crowd. Their latest strategy is to go on a fishing expedition using freedom of information act (FOIA) requests. The anti-GMO lobby, of course, is not monolithic, and this is one group who is undertaking this approach – US Right to Know (funded by the Organic Consumers Association). They have issued FOIA requests to obtain all the e-mails of 14 senior biotech scientists.

Continue Reading »

21 responses so far

Mar 03 2015

The Problem with Astroturfing

In a recent TEDx talk, Sharyl Attkisson nicely demonstrates the deep problem with astroturfing, although part of her demonstration was inadvertent. The problem is actually deeper than she stated, because she herself has fallen victim to part of the deception.

Astroturfing is essentially fake grassroots activism. Companies and special interests create non-profits, Facebook pages, social media persona, write letters to the editor, and essentially exploit social and traditional media to create the false impression that there is a grassroots movement supporting some issue. The key to astroturfing is that they conceal who is truly behind these fronts.

Attkisson, a journalist for CBS news, points to several examples in which pharmaceutical companies, for example, secretly promote their drug and marginalize criticism. She correctly points out how campaigns of doubt and confusion can work, by generating so much controversy that the public loses confidence in the science (and in fact science itself) and throws the baby out with the bath water.

This is all part of the same phenomenon I discussed in yesterday’s post about Google ranking websites by their factual accuracy. There is power in information, and there is essentially a war going on over control of information, which increasingly is fought on the battleground of the internet and social media.

Continue Reading »

30 responses so far

Feb 12 2015

Scott Adams on Science and Nutrition

In a recent blog post, Dilbert writer Scott Adams wrote:

What’s is science’s biggest fail of all time?

I nominate everything about diet and fitness.

Maybe science has the diet and fitness stuff mostly right by now. I hope so. But I thought the same thing twenty years ago and I was wrong.

From there he goes on what can charitably be called a rant against science, arguing that the public is justified in not trusting the findings of science because science has been wrong before. Adams’ criticisms, however, are based largely in his own misunderstanding of science.

He makes two major errors in his analysis. The first is to confuse mainstream media reporting of science with the science itself. The second is to have an incorrect image of how science progresses over time.

Continue Reading »

45 responses so far

Next »