March 17, 2017 | David F. Coppedge

Nature Values Independent Science Journalism

Are independent science reporters less credible than the big players? Given Big Media’s awful track record, the journal editors welcome alternatives.

The editors of Nature had nothing to lose for blasting science reporters. According to an infographic produced by the American Council on Science and Health and Real Clear Science showing the “Best and Worst Science News Sites,” the venerable science journal (also serving as a news site) came out on top. They ranked best of publishers that “almost always” provide “evidence-based reporting” in their coverage.

In their March 7 editorial, “Science journalism can be evidence-based, compelling — and wrong,” Nature‘s editors say, “A ranking of the best science-news outlets misjudges the relationship between research and reporting.” First, they share some nasty quotes from the creators:

There has been much gnashing of teeth in the science-journalism community this week, with the release of an infographic that claims to rate the best and worst sites for scientific news. According to the American Council on Science and Health, which helped to prepare the ranking, the field is in a shoddy state. “If journalism as a whole is bad (and it is),” says the council, “science journalism is even worse. Not only is it susceptible to the same sorts of biases that afflict regular journalism, but it is uniquely vulnerable to outrageous sensationalism”.

News aggregator RealClearScience, which also worked on the analysis, goes further: “Much of science reporting is a morass of ideologically driven junk science, hyped research, or thick, technical jargon that almost no one can understand”.

The editors gloat a little, but then question the basis of the ranking. It’s hard to compare sites with different audiences, they note. And it’s “unfair to damn all who work on a publication because of some stories that do not meet the grade.” The internet has also “spread the brand and the content so much thinner.”

Next, they call into question what “evidence-based” means. Can peer review satisfy that requirement? Watch as they undermine this esteemed icon of reliability:

The judges’ criterion of evidence-based news is arguably problematic, as well. Many journalists could reasonably point to the reproducibility crisis in some scientific fields and ask — as funders and critics are increasingly asking — just how reliable some of that evidence truly is. Mainstream science reporters have typically taken peer review as an official stamp of approval from the research community that a published finding is sufficiently robust to share with their readers. Yet this kind of evidence-based reporting is only as reliable as the evidence it reports on. And many scientists would complain (even if only among themselves) that some published studies, especially those that draw press attention, are themselves vulnerable to bias and sensationalism.

Whoa! That’s the crash of an idol falling. What to do? Here’s where the editorial gets really interesting. Is there any room for the independent, non-institutional reporter?

This is one reason why the rise of the scientist (and non-scientist) as blogger, along with other forms of post-publication review, has been so valuable. Many scientists know about the problems with some fields of research. Many journalists do, too — articles on questionable practices from statistical fishing to under-powered studies are an increasing presence in most of the publications in the infographic. The relationship between science and media reporting is far from simple, and both sides should remember this.

Creation-Evolution Headlines scampers about like a small mammal under the feet of dinosaurs. It doesn’t even appear on the infographic. Even if it did, we all know what would happen. Because we dare to question the secular Darwinian worldview, Big Science and Big Media (including the creators of the infographic) would undoubtedly imprison CEH in the bottom right corner under “Pure Garbage”. We would be castigated for “ideologically driven or poor reporting”— why? Because that is the standard punishment for Darwin doubters. (At least we would have nearby inmates in the Huffington Post and Newsweek).

But notice what the editors said. Big Science lacks reliability. Big Media is gullible to the illusion of credibility offered by peer review. “Evidence-based reporting” is only reliable as the evidence it reports on. In this morass of bias, sensationalism, and the reproducibility crisis, who offers something of value? The answer, according to the world’s leading science journal—whose ‘evidence’ often comes under our microscope—is “the scientist (and non-scientist) as blogger, along with other forms of post-publication review”.

Thank you for reading our ‘valuable’ contributions.

Nature didn’t even mention the built-in bias of academia’s press releases, where employees in the Public Relations offices of universities and institutions write glowing reports of their scientists’ work to make them look good. Most of the Big Media sites on the infographic pick up these press releases and regurgitate them uncritically on their websites. Very few if any reporters have the guts to question what these press releases claim. We do.

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  • John C says:

    What really amazes me about the soft-ball approach of most science writers today is that the questions are really the basic journalist’s kit: Who, what, when, where, how, why. If they’re not even asking these questions, how do they qualify as journalists (and where can I get that job?) Is it because these people don’t even attempt to understand the science behind the news they report? That makes them worshippers, not reporters.

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