Science News Hype Getting Overdue Scrutiny
Finally, a journal is owning up to the propensity for scientists and reporters to exaggerate research.
In two articles, Nature, the world’s leading science journal, drew attention to the problem of exaggerated media hype about scientific research. In actual practice, science moves in a slow, tedious way. But you wouldn’t know it from the media reports, where everything is revolutionary, groundbreaking—and misleading.
In one article in Nature, Chris Woolston fingered university press releases as primary culprits, and media reporters as accomplices. Citing a study of press releases published in the British Medical Journal, Woolston showed how exaggeration begins in the press offices of academia, getting embellished on the way to the popular media’s websites. Why isn’t there more caution at the top?
University press officers who are under pressure to get news coverage for their institution’s research may be motivated to overhype, notes Mark Henderson, a former newspaper science editor and now head of communications at the Wellcome Trust, a major UK research-funding agency in London. But press officers are not the only ones to blame, he writes on the Wellcome Trust blog. “Scientists often deserve their share of responsibility as well. Some — though by no means all — are often only too keen to make inflated or extrapolated claims in pursuit of a little credit or media limelight.” And, he adds, some journalists can find it difficult to break from the pack and not cover a seemingly sensational finding, especially when the press release makes that finding sound true.
A Nature editorial in the same issue describes the “Spin Cycle,” with some spin of its own: Nature’s own determination to come out looking squeaky-clean:
Some journalists have nobly resisted the temptation to pass the blame in this way, and insisted that their profession must do more to check the claims made by others before handing them on. Others have called for stricter controls on what universities say, and for scientists who have their work promoted to be held accountable. These are all sensible ideas, and Nature fully supports the idea that researchers should work closely with those who write and circulate press releases on their behalf.
Neither article, though, addresses one large part of the problem: the complete absence of “peer review” when it comes to reporting science. University press officers are not held accountable for what they publish, nor are reporters called on the carpet for embellishing a press release or spinning it their way. If peer review is such a good idea for the scientist, why not for the others down the communication line?
We are that missing peer review. As our readers know, we routinely scrutinize the claims made in the name of science, and hold them accountable to the facts and to sound philosophy of science. We ask the questions that don’t get asked. We note the assumptions that color the news. You get both sides here: you can read their spin, and you can see our critique. The Darwine-drunk secular media never do that. How many times have we appealed to reporters to ask the same hard questions they would ask a politician? It’s a frequent complaint here. The only times they present other points of view are when they cite other Darwinists. This is like asking socialists to critique other socialists, pretending free-market economists don’t exist.
It would be a small step of progress if they would just ask the next origin-of-life researcher, “How do you know that is true? How is that tiny fact relevant to the origin of life? How would that overcome the objections of a strong critic of materialist origins?” The Darwinians are never asked, “Why is ‘convergent evolution’ an explanation for this? Isn’t that just a label for ignorance? Where is your evidence? Isn’t that little more than a just-so story?” The lamest excuses for “findings” get used and re-used to patch up the Bearded Buddha’s idol, with critics like us shouting behind the sound-proof barrier. Many sites, like PhysOrg and Science Daily, just regurgitate the press releases uncritically, dressing them up with graphics and advertisements. The ones that write their own text, like National Geographic, Live Science and New Scientist, never ask the hard questions of Darwinians, because they are in cahoots. Their mission in life is to hold up the idol, while shouting down critics or portraying them as clowns that can be ignored.
So while we’re glad Nature recognizes the problem, they don’t go far enough. One commenter noted in parentheses, “Of course, it is not limited to health matters.” The worst offenders are the Darwinists. If evolutionary claims had to stand up to serious critics with PhDs, like Steve Meyer, Michael Behe and William Dembski, Darwin’s idol would come crashing down on the threshold, like Dagon every time it faces the ark of truth.