By the way if CNN has taught us anything with their coverage of a hormone study about women and their voting habits, it’s that all this talk about “politically correct” science and science funding is bullshit.
CNN and news organizations are quicker to cover this shit than they are covering studies a few months from now that say that the initial study is “flawed” or not true.
FJP: May we introduce you to Why Most Biomedical Findings Echoed by Newspapers Turn Out to be False, summed up nicely by the CBC?
The researchers, lead by neurobiologist François Gonon, examined the way newspapers reported on a number of high profile studies on attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). They asked the question: do scientific claims reported in the media end up being proven true over time? Their answer: in most cases, no. Then they asked: do the media go back and set the record straight? No again.
In other words, we, in the media, make a big deal over a new research finding, but when it turns out to be less exciting, or even wrong after future research, we don’t tend to report that. ‘Never mind’ doesn’t usually make it into the news.
Misinformation and Its Correction is a nice follow-up when your depression about the above dissipates and you want to hunker back down into it again.
Several things to add, my blog post was influenced by two pieces by Deborah Blum (great science writer by the way) for the Knight Science Journalism Tracker; they are Are Big Medical Results to Good to be True? and ADHD and the Practice of Science Journalism as a Deficit Disorder.
However I was at the bar simultaneously watching the San Francisco Giants light up the Detroit Tigers and studying for my exam on human genetics tomorrow morning so I couldn’t link to it from an iPhone because it’s a tedious task.
Secondly, had I know that FJP was going to reblog this I definitely would not have cursed AND I might have made a more coherent argument but thank you anyway.
The problems don’t exclusively lie with science journalists, as Philip Kitcher notes, it’s also about how and what information the public is given,
For half a century, since the pioneering work of Thomas Kuhn, scholars who study the resolution of major scientific debates have understood how complex and difficult judgments about the probative value of data or the significance of unresolved problems can be. The major transitions in the history of the sciences, from the 16th and 17th centuries to the present, have involved intricate debates among competing research programs, among well-informed scientists who gave different weight to particular sorts of evidence. It is an absurd fantasy to believe that citizens who have scant backgrounds in the pertinent field can make responsible decisions about complex technical matters, on the basis of a few five-minute exchanges among more-or-less articulate speakers or a small number of articles outlining alternative points of view. Democratic ideals have their place in the conduct of inquiry, for it is arguable that there should be more communication between scientists and outsiders in the construction of research agendas, in the discussion of standards of acceptable risk, and in the articulation of policies based on scientific consensus. Genuine democracy, however, requires a division of labor, in which particular groups are charged with the responsibility of resolving questions that bear on the interests of individuals and societies. Other groups, those covering such questions in the media, have the duty to convey the results so that citizens can cast their votes as an enlightened expression of freedom, justifiably aimed at the outcomes for which they hope. Staging a brief disagreement between speakers with supposedly equal credentials, especially when it is not disclosed that one of them is answering to the economic aspirations of a very small segment of the society, is a cynical abnegation of that duty.
It’s not just science journalists, it’s also scientists who make mountains out of small probabilistic data or scientists with ulterior motives (though the former is in my opinion a larger problem.)
Anyway, cool beans!