Archive for the 'Science and the Media' Category

Nov 22 2016

Fake News

fake-newsThis post is a follow up to my post from last week on post-truth. The idea that we are living in a post-truth era took off this last year, making it the top pick for Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year. Right on its heels, though, and perhaps a contender for phrase of the year, is “fake news.”

Fake news is clearly a thing. There are websites that make up fake news stories for various purposes. Already in the short life of this phrase it has been destroyed by abuse. It is already losing focus and meaning.

It is simultaneously a bug and a feature of the internet that it is a venue for a war of ideas. There is an obvious benefit to this in an open society – the free exchange of information in the marketplace of ideas. Let’s hash it all out with a true democracy of expression and access (well, for those with access).

The bug is that the internet is also a venue for fraud, lying, misinformation, and manipulation. Not everyone is a fair player, and they ruin it for everyone else. In actuality it is not black and white. Rather, there is a spectrum of behavior, and most people are at various points along that spectrum on different issues. At the same time there are extremes, some sites that aspire to a high level of journalism or scholarship, and at the other end sites that are pure fraud, propaganda, or click-bait.

We are collectively still trying to figure out how to deal with the resulting mess. It seems to me that part of the problem is that we are using the internet to address the problems of the internet. Bad actors can therefore hijack or duplicate the mechanisms of quality control and subvert them.

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Aug 19 2016

Communicating Risk and Certainty

climate-change-denialA recent article in the Guardian discusses how scientists and experts should communicate risk and certainty to the public. The author, Jack Stilgoe, makes some good points, but unfortunately frames it as part of a defense of Jill Stein:

She said that there were ‘real questions’ about the dangers of vaccines, that GM foods have ‘not been proven safe’ and that ‘more more research is needed’ on the risks of electromagnetic fields.

As with climate change, it is tempting to claim that the science is certain, the evidence is clear and the debate should move on. Things are rarely so black-and-white. In politics, the facts don’t speak for themselves, so it falls to experts to make sense of the shades of grey.

Stilgoe is speaking of a dilemma faced by experts and science communicators when dealing with political or ideological opinions that diverge from the scientific consensus. The real dilemma is that if we communicate the science in technically accurate detail, it seems as if we are equivocating and those on the anti-science side will unfairly exploit this to exaggerate the uncertainty. If we gloss over the uncertainty to emphasize the bottom line, then the anti-science side will unfairly exploit that to say we are engaged in a cover-up and are being uncritical.

It is a no-win scenario, which is often the case when dealing with those who put ideology above science and reason. They aren’t playing fair, which can give them a rhetorical advantage over someone honestly trying to be fair.

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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.

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May 27 2016

A Tale of Two Science News Reports


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.

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Oct 30 2015


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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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