Science reporting is a global racket that uncritically propagates nonsense with the imprimatur of science.
Many in academia are concerned about unscientific ideas that go viral in social media. Perhaps they should set a better example themselves. Pure speculations that are demonstrably unempirical are published daily by Big Science and Big Media, with no rebuttals or caveats.
Here’s how it works: a “scientist” or “researcher” gets a wacky idea that cannot be proved. Because they wear the honorable label of “scientist,” their opinions have presumptive authority. Their institutions (universities or labs), eager to promote what a great job their staff scientists are doing, enjoy opportunities to highlight their work. Each institution has a public relations department that is always looking for new promotional material. Their expertise is in watering down the “findings” for a lay audience, gathering quotes as needed, adding a catchy headline and some artwork or photos. The PR office then puts the feed out until the journal paper is about to arrive, labeling it “embargoed” for the Big Media reporters until the Big Day. This gives reporters in Big Media time to tweak the press release with their own headline and wording. When the Big Day arrives, the embargo is lifted, and all the Big Media reporters come out with the same “news” almost simultaneously, using the same artwork, but with their own particular wording and headlines. Other Small Media reporters quickly copy the story uncritically, and it goes viral.
Who gets to ask, “Is this claim true?” Only independent sites like CEH, but they are swamped by the onslaught of internet packets flooding the world with the prepared copy script. Critics are only able to respond after the fact. This racket gives lone researchers with particular ideologies (like secular materialism) the advantage of a pre-emptive strike. Interestingly, social scientists from Italy, publishing PNAS, found a similar pattern of reception between conspiracy theories and science news (“The Spread of Misinformation Online”), but they did not consider the social dynamics of the science dissemination process.
The propaganda machine works well with right-to-know situations about observational evidence, like the latest images from Pluto. Where it fails the public is when the machinery lets in unsubstantiated opinion masquerading as science, or interpretations unjustified by the evidence. Here are a couple of recent examples:
1. The case of the globular aliens. How could anyone possibly know that globular clusters host alien civilizations? On January 6, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics posted a press release,“Advanced Alien Civilizations Could Live in Globular Star Clusters,” featuring Rosanne di Stefano claiming that such clusters are good places to look. She doesn’t even know there are any planets there, but speculated that they would be good targets for interstellar space missions—something so far out it’s unthinkable with today’s technology. On the same day, though, the usual suspects had their uncritical copy script ready to go, with the very same photo of the very same globular cluster decorating their versions of the nonsense:
- Interstellar civilizations may thrive in globular clusters (Science Magazine)
- Advanced Alien Civilizations Could Live in Globular Star Clusters (Live Science)
- Star clusters could host long-lived technological civilisations (New Scientist)
- Globular clusters could host interstellar civilizations (Science Daily)
- Globular Clusters Could Nurture Interstellar Civilizations (NASA Astrobiology Magazine)
- Star clumps harbour ‘sweet spot’ in search for alien life (BBC News)
A search on the key words “globular cluster” and “civilizations” in the past week turns up over 100,000 hits. The scheme gives tremendous power to individuals like di Stefano to air fact-free speculations instantaneously around the world, where it will be seen by readers who will likely accept it because of the public’s respect for “science.”
Incidentally, the one case where SETI turned up a potential signal from an alien civilization has been discredited. Back in 1977, radio astronomers found an intense, short burst from space for 72 seconds. Jerry Ehman from Ohio State wrote “Wow!” next to a printout of the code. The signal was never seen again, but despite its mystery, the episode has been a selling point for SETI ever since. Now, according to New Scientist, an astronomer thinks they just saw one or more passing comets.
2. The case of the dancing dinosaurs. A scientist out walking in Colorado one day sees some impressions on the ground. What do they mean? Paleontologist Martin Lockley looked at them and had visions of dancing dinosaurs. He had an artist paint a picture of a T. rex dance party, the male trying to impress the female with its fancy footwork. Because the University of Colorado at Denver is mighty proud of their dino hunter, they put out a press release on January 7, artwork and all, telling reporters how wonderfully this supports Darwin’s idea of sexual selection—all from some impressions in the dirt. “Discovery shows dinosaurs may have been the original lovebirds: CU Denver researcher finds signs of dinosaur mating behavior.” When that hit the wires, all the world’s reporters were ready to go, artwork in hand:
- Mysterious footprint fossils point to dancing dinosaur mating ritual (The Conversation)
- Dinosaur Tracks Reveal Odd Mating Dance (Live Science)
- Dinosaurs may have danced like birds to woo mates (Science Magazine)
- Dinosaurs took part in building competitions to attract females (New Scientist)
- Dinosaurs may have been the original lovebirds, discovery shows: Researcher finds signs of dinosaur mating behavior (Science Daily)
Dinosaurs may well have engaged in mating rituals, just like birds do. One thing is certain, however; Lockley never watched a T. rex dance. He just saw some impressions on the ground and drew a speculative inference. What’s troubling is that his inference, with the University of Colorado’s suggestive and speculative artwork, went out across the internet almost instantly with no contrary interpretations. A search shows over 100,000 hits on this story.
Real science is messy. There is often intense debate about how to interpret data. Scientific claims in journals are also subject to retractions and corrections which, not being as “newsworthy,” don’t often get reported. When the public is fed one line of interpretation via a propagation apparatus that can flood the internet with one person’s interpretation instantaneously, the public is likely to get a very distorted view of how science works.
I have a personal experience with how unfair Big Media can be. When a judge ruled against me in my lawsuit against JPL, an AP reporter typed out a story with his spin on the case, echoing largely JPL’s side of the story. This lone reporter’s take went out over the wires with all the presumptive authority of The Associated Press. I watched helplessly from home as, within minutes, the internet registered hundreds of hits as it reverberated around the world. Big Media, with all its affiliates from small towns to international markets, republished it uncritically, never once calling me or my lawyer to ask if I had a response. I started a little blog site to tell my side of the story, and a few friendly organizations supported my position, but how many millions of readers of the Big Media propaganda machine assume they know what really happened because of that lone reporter’s biased report?
That was a case of legal misreporting, but science reporting is worse. The top-down reporting apparatus gives unreasonable power to any lone scientist who is on OK terms with his or her institution’s public relations department. The PR people have a vested interest in making their staff scientists look good. It’s an unholy union almost guaranteed to propagate nonsense with the presumptive authority of science. It’s true that many press releases accompany peer-reviewed papers in journals, but since Big Science and Big Media are in cahoots to reject any evidence of intelligent design, no matter how compelling, they get to use the propaganda machine to swamp the internet with Darwin’s interpretation.
At JPL, I would sit in on press conferences and watch the reporters ask questions. Reporters came from Space.com, Astronomy Magazine, Sky & Telescope, and major newspapers and broadcasters. It was interesting to watch the social dynamics. The scientists were up on stage, the reporters down in the audience. Because of this social hierarchy, reporters would usually ask innocent questions to get clarification of what the scientists said. It would have been socially out of place for them to challenge a claim, even if the reporter was knowledgeable about the subject. The scientist, after all, has the PhD and access to the data. The setup allows a “scientist” like Jonathan Lunine to speculate about possible life on Titan at a press conference without fear of being challenged; reporters will likely just write it down and regurgitate it in the news.
This is a very unhealthy way to do science. Scientists need to be challenged. They need to be called to account when they make evidence-free claims or offer mere opinions. They are scientists, not priests. It’s not just other scientists who should challenge them, but knowledgeable laypersons as well. Many reporters and observers have college degrees; they are not dummies when it comes to the subject matter, even if they don’t work as scientists in academia. As we often say here, science would improve if reporters would press them with hard questions the way they do to politicians, and if they had the guts to say, “But Dr. Scientist, how can you say that? You have no evidence. That sounds patently absurd.” The scientist would quickly shape up if he knew that reporter would actually say that in his story, especially if his university president complained about the bad publicity to the institution.
Because of the gutless stance of reporters, the situation is unlikely to improve any time soon, but there is always hope in the power of truth over falsehood. We provide a valuable service at CEH by showing how to critically analyze “scientific” claims. You can help by retweeting our tweets and sharing our entries on social media. Don’t complain about darkness. Shine some light. It’s the best disinfectant, after all.