Regular LL readers know that we're not naive about the relationship between "news" and truth, especially when it comes to science reporting or the accuracy and context of MSM quotations and even video clips. In fact, we could fairly be accused of excessive cynicism. But this is breathtaking: "Science Reporting Gone Wild", Neuroworld, 1/18/2010; "The British media's 'Blonde Moment'", Neuroskeptic 1/28/2010.
(Well, I guess there's also the "editorial computers hacked by a team from the Onion" theory…)
There are other reasons that I prefer to answer journalists' questions via email, but this is certainly a good one all by itself.
Based on the links above, or the dozens of other examples we've documented over the years, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that many if not most journalists feel free to mis-remember, select, edit, re-order, fill in, and generally simulate (not to say fabricate) quotes, to fit the story that they've decided to tell. When the mis-quotes are roughly congruent with at least some out-of-context piece of what the source actually said, then nobody usually pays any attention, even if a recording of the misquoted passage is easily available.
But another fact about journalists is that they sometimes — maybe often — don't really know much about the topic of their story. This is especially likely to be a problem with science reporting, where misunderstanding may lead to airbrushed quotes that are nonsensical, or at least largely unrelated to what any sources ever actually said.
Perhaps that's what happened here. And then again, maybe Harlow just doesn't care about whether or not what he writes is true, or is happy enough to write what he knows perfectly well to be false. According to the description of the sequence of events in the Neuroskeptic post, the last hypothesis is better supported:
Harlow, whose recent output includes "Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie no more" and that incisive piece of reportage, "Sandra Bullock overtakes Streep in dash for awards glory", wrote to Sell saying that he was writing an article about blondes, and asking whether Sell's data was relevant.
Sell hadn't considered hair color in his research, but he reanalyzed his data on Harlow's request. He found no association between blondness and personality, which is not surprising because it's hair we're talking about. Harlow, apparently unhappy with this, wrote the article anyway, simply making up various claims about blondes and attributing them to Sell and his paper, backed up with some fake quotes.
If that's what really happened, it goes well beyond the usual ignorance, carelessness, and sensation-seeking.
[Update — mgh reminds us of a similar event in 2006-2007, discussed here. In that case, I concluded that "these people are not lying, exactly. They simply don't care one way or another about what the facts are, and this shifts their work out of the category of lies and into the category for which Harry Frankfurt has suggested the technical term bullshit". That was because he falsehoods seem mostly to have originated with others, and the journalists were mainly guilty of failing to exercise even the most elementary sort of checking. Thus it was at least arguable that Isabel Oakeshott and Chris Goulay were bullshitters rather than liars.
In the case John Harlow's Blonde Warrior Princess article, we seem to be left with only two options: either the scientist in question, for some strange reason, lied to Harlow about unpublished aspects of his research, and then decided to deny it after Harlow based an article on that conversation; or else Harlow fabricated the whole thing, because he thought the fabrication would make a better story than what the scientist actually told him.]