Archive for the 'Science and the Media' Category

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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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.

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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.

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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.

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45 responses so far

Dec 19 2014

Universal Medicine Uses Google To Silence Critics

An Australian based company called Universal Medicine (UM) has been criticized by various skeptical blogs and groups as being a new age alternative medicine cult. Looking through their website, this seems like a reasonable observation. (The term “cult” is fuzzy, but many of the features seem to be present.)

In response to this criticism, UM has apparently issued many complaints to Google, claiming defamation. According to the site Chilling Effect, Google has responded at least in some cases by removing the sites from Google searches, effectively censoring those websites.

Doubtful News was one of the sites censored by Google.

This type of action represents a serious threat to the skeptical mission. Part of that mission is consumer protection, and the primary method of activism is public analysis and criticism of dubious claims, products, services, and organizations. Essentially, we expose charlatans.

Charlatans, it turns out, don’t like to be exposed. They don’t like bad press.

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12 responses so far

Nov 18 2014

Perception vs Facts

I was recently in a conversation with someone about the alleged threat that Muslims present to Western societies. I made the point that not all Muslims are radicals, and it’s not valid to condemn the entire group based upon the actions of their most radical members. They countered that “90%” of Muslims were radicals.

Obviously, they made this figure up on the spot for rhetorical effect. But this was their perception, shaped, very likely, by the type of news they generally consume.

In addition to the biasing effect that media can have on our perceptions of reality, there is a day-to-day subtle confirmation bias that colors our perceptions. It is very true that “believing is seeing” – we tend to notice, remember, and accept observations that seem to confirm (or can be interpreted to confirm) our internal model of reality. We tend to ignore or (more often) dismiss observations that seem to contradict our internal narrative. They are reinterpreted, or treated as “exceptions” (assuming the rule to which this new evidence would be an exception).

The good news is that today we have rapid access to objective factual information like never before. I love whipping out my smartphone and fact-checking in the middle of a conversation. This access to information should also have a humbling effect, and should motivate people to question the “facts” that they have rattling around in their brains. Don’t trust anything unless you have a recent and reliable reference.

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54 responses so far

Sep 30 2014

Dr. Oz, Autism, and GMOs

It is no longer news that Dr. Oz has long ago abandoned any pretense to scientific rigor and is simply another scaremongering hawker of snake oil and nonsense. Still, it’s hard not to marvel when he sinks to a new low.

On a recent show Oz’s target was genetically modified organisms (GMO). This is not new for Oz, he has hosted anti-GMO activists in the past, warning his audience about non-existent health risks.

This time around Oz and his guest are claiming that pesticides used with certain GMO varieties may cause autism. Why is it always autism? It’s likely at least partly due to the fact that awareness of autism has been increasing in the last 2 decades, creating the false impression that autism itself is increasing. This leads to numerous false correlations (most famously with vaccines) and the assumption of cause and effect (often to support a preexisting bias). As you can see from the graph, however, the rise in autism diagnoses tightly correlates with increased organic food sales – but I guess you have to cherry pick the correlation you want.

The narrative that Oz spun for his audience was this: GMO is tied to pesticide use. Those pesticides are hazardous to your health, and specifically might cause autism. Organic food is pesticide free, and going organic can actually cure autism.

Every link in that chain of argument is misleading or patently wrong.

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29 responses so far

Sep 08 2014

Internet Echochambers

I recently came across a post on the skeptic subreddit pointing to the rules of the 9/11 truther subreddit:

Welcome to 911truth! The purpose of this subreddit is to present and discuss evidence showing that the US Government’s version of the events of 9/11 cannot possibly be true. Submissions or comments supporting the official version, including links to sites purporting to “debunk” the 9/11 Truth Movement (depending on context), are considered off-topic here.


  1. Stay on topic. Off topic comments are subject to removal.

Rule #7 also made me smile:

7. No caps lock.

This is the double-edged sword of the internet – it allows for unprecedented on-demand access to incredible information, but that information is biased.

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140 responses so far

Aug 26 2014

Scientific Literacy

I was recently interviewed for an article on Medical News Today by David McNamee regarding Why is scientific literacy among the general population important? The topic, of course, is very important to me, as I have spent a great deal of my time attempting to promote scientific literacy generally, with an emphasis on medical science since that is my specialty.

Carl Sagan articulated the basic issue well (of course) – to paraphrase, we live in a civilization increasingly dominated by science and technology, and with a populace less and less able to understand current science and technology. This is a recipe for disaster.

There are many examples that should be readily accessible to regular readers of this or other science blogs: are vaccines safe and effective, how much of our resources should we invest in reducing carbon emissions, are GMOs safe and are they a benefit or risk to the environment, should we put fluoride in public water supplies, how should alternative medical treatments be regulated and how should we invest further in clinical trials of their efficacy?

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23 responses so far

Aug 15 2014

Bad Reporting About Epigenetics

Brad Crouch should be fired. At the very least he should never write a science news article again (well, maybe after remedial education and appropriate penance). At first I thought perhaps he was a general or fluff journalist taken off the dog show beat and asked to cover a science news item, but his byline for The Advertiser (an Australian news outlet) says he is a “medical reporter.” That’s frightening.

I read a lot of bad science news reporting, but rarely does a reporter so thoroughly misrepresent the actual science news – unless there is an obvious ideological agenda, but as far as I can tell this is just pure incompetence.

He is reporting on a review article on epigenetics recently published in Science. The two articles have very little in common, and it’s difficult to see how Crouch arrived at his story other than just making shit up. He begins:

LANDMARK Adelaide research showing that sperm and eggs appear to carry genetic memories of events well before conception, may force a rethink of the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin, scientists say.

First, the paper is not research, let alone “landmark” research. It is a review article. It’s not even a systematic review or a meta-analysis, which a reporter might be forgiven for calling a “study” – it’s just a discussion of the topic of epigenetics.

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83 responses so far

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