We Need More Bad Science Writers

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I've been complaining for years about bad science writing in the popular press, and occasionally I've even made (futile) suggestions for improvement. This morning, though, I've realized that there's a cure.

But first, the disease.

Here's what a professional science writer in a leading newspaper wrote:

Children can learn better at school by taking omega-3 fish oil supplements which boost their concentration, scientists say.

Boys aged eight to 11 who were given doses once or twice a day of docosahexaenoic acid, an essential fatty acid known as DHA, showed big improvements in their performance during tasks involving attention.

Here's what the scientific study under discussion actually said:

At baseline, there were no significant group differences for percentage correct, commission errors, discriminability, or reaction time. At 8 wk, there were no significant group differences in percentage correct, commission errors, discriminability, or reaction time. The time x dose interaction was not significant for percentage correct, commission errors, discriminability, or reaction time.

In fact, taking DHA supplements (from algae, not fish) had no discernable effect on any performance measures in the study, except that across the study as a whole, higher measured blood levels of DHA were associated with lower reaction times:

Among all subjects (n = 33), erythrocyte DHA composition was inversely correlated with reaction time at baseline (r = –0.43, P = 0.01) and endpoint (r = –0.41, P = 0.02), but was not correlated with other performance measures.

The science writer was Denis Campbell, health correspondent for the Guardian and the Observer. His article was "Fish oil helps schoolchildren to concentrate: US academics discover high doses of omega-3 fish oil combat hyperactivity and attention deficit disorder", published in The Observer, 5/30/2010. And the scientific study in question was Robert K McNamara et al., "Docosahexaenoic acid supplementation increases prefrontal cortex activation during sustained attention in healthy boys: a placebo-controlled, dose-ranging, functional magnetic resonance imaging study", American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 91:1060-1067, 2/3/2010.

So how can the "health correspondent" for a serious intellectual newspaper be so incredibly careless? And why hasn't he been fired, or at least transferred to the sports desk? (On reflection, that would  be a bad idea, since readers of sports news tend to get very annoyed if you report basic results backwards.)

As usual, I'm at a loss to explain why science writing in the mass media is often so spectacularly bad, and why spectacular failures of this kind seem to have so little effect on the reputations and careers of the guilty parties.

But Mr. Campbell didn't escape censure in this case, since Ben Goldacre devoted his latest Bad Science column  to Campbell's article ("Omega-3 lesson: Not so much brain boost as fishy research: One tiny brain-imaging study of fatty acids has been used to endorse fish oil as education's magic pill", 6/5/2010. Goldacre point

Fish oil helps schoolchildren to concentrate” was the headline in the Observer. Regular readers will remember the omega-3 fish oil pill issue, as the entire British news media has been claiming for several years now that there are trials showing it improves school performance and behaviour in mainstream children, despite the fact that no such trial has ever been published. There is something very attractive about the idea that solutions to complex problems in education can be found in a pill.

Goldacre goes on to put Campbell's story in its place:

Oddly enough, someone has now finally conducted a proper trial of fish oil pills, in mainstream children, to see if they work: a well-conducted, randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, in 450 children aged 8–10 years from a mainstream school population. It was published in full this year

Meanwhile, Euromonitor estimates global sales for fish oil pills to be at $2bn, having doubled in five years, with sales projected to reach $2.5bn by 2012. The pills are now the single best-selling product in the UK food supplement market. This has only been possible with the kind assistance of the British media, and their eagerness for stories about the magic intelligence pill. – and the researchers found no improvement. Show me the news headlines about that paper.

But here's the beauty part: since Bad Science is published by the same publishing company that employs Mr. Campbell, there's now a link to Goldacre's refutation at the top of  Campbell's article.

So that's the foundation of my modest proposal. Any newspaper or magazine that has a Science writer should also have a Bad Science writer, whose job would be act as a sort of intellectual ombudsman, to practice what Ben Goldacre in another post called "The noble and ancient tradition of moron-baiting".

You'd think that on a publication with a Bad Science writer, the Science writers would soon shape up — though the current case suggests that this thought is a naive one. But even if Bad Science writers should manage to work themselves out of a job in terms of criticizing their own publication's Science writers, there will still be plenty of work for them to do, riding herd on the politicians, the celebrities, and those publications that haven't yet hired their own Bad Science specialists.

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56 Comments »

  1. Army1987 said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 9:33 am

    I wouldn't call that "Bad Writing". I would call that "Lying".

  2. D.O. said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 9:44 am

    On reflection, that would be a bad idea, since readers of sports news tend to get very annoyed if you report basic results backwards.

    There is always politics or economy pages. I am waiting to read that Barak Obama addressed a Tea Party crowd, while Sarah Palin stumped for health care reform.

  3. Sili said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 9:49 am

    There is always politics or economy pages.

    Or we could turn them loose in the arts section.

  4. Ginger Yellow said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 10:08 am

    "So how can the "health correspondent" for a serious intellectual newspaper be so incredibly careless? And why hasn't he been fired, or at least transferred to the sports desk? "

    A couple of points:

    1) Goldacre has often argued that health writers for (UK) newspapers are not really science journalists, and are even less likely to have scientific training than science writers. Rather ironically, Denis Campbell came to the Observer's health beat from the sports desk.

    [(myl) I noticed that. Maybe he got one too many cricket-match outcomes backwards, and they decided to move him to the health and science desk, where they thought that no one would be keeping score.]

    2) Campbell was also responsible for arguably the most egregious health/science reporting in the Observer's recent history, comprehensively demolished by Goldacre (and Brian Deer) here and here.

  5. Stephen Jones said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 10:15 am

    So how can the "health correspondent" for a serious intellectual newspaper be so incredibly careless?

    The Observer has long stopped being serious or intellectual. It's a tabloid rag without the oomph.

    [(myl) I bet they get the sports scores right, though.]

  6. Ed Cormany said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 10:15 am

    has anyone found a corresponding press release for this study? it'd be interesting to know how whether the article was pure fabrication or Campbell was just being a stupid sockpuppet for some PR flak who's really to blame for the lie. (either is culpable, but the former strikes me much more as a firing offense.)

    [(myl) Excellent question -- the "sockpuppet" answer is the usual one. In this case I looked and didn't find a culpable press release -- this press release from the AJCN is quite an accurate one -- but absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, etc.]

  7. MattF said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 10:22 am

    Well… it's science, in the "latest diet fad" sense. Articles saying that research has shown that the latest diet fad (Fish oil! Brain food!) has no scientific validity is, in the judgment of the editors, not what the Observer readers want to see. And, they may be right.

  8. Ginger Yellow said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 10:30 am

    "But here's the beauty part: since Bad Science is published by the same publishing company that employs Mr. Campbell, there's now a link to Goldacre's refutation at the top of Campbell's article."

    A bit of background on this, in case anyone's interested:

    Despite being part of the same publishing group, there's no love lost between the Guardian and the Observer. The Observer has for the last decade or so been following all the other Sunday papers downmarket, and is effectively competing with the Sunday Times (FWIW, there's an interesting analogy between the above papers' relative quality and that of the Times/Sunday Times) and the Mail On Sunday. Meanwhile the Guardian has for the most part tried to stay upmarket – its science journalism, despite some lapses, is generally the best in the UK press – although it has succumbed to some pretty pathetic celebrity/showbiz puffery. So the Graun's writers tend to look down on the Obs writers. Meanwhile the Obs staff resent the fact that that the Guardian Media Group has slowly been amalgamating the two papers with the end goal that the Obs would effectively become the Sunday Graun – culminating in a planned closure last year that was only just averted, but with the loss of many staff and much of the paper's content.

    So it's no surprise to see a Guardian writer slagging off an Observer writer. That said, Goldacre has criticised Guardian writers as well.

  9. Ian Preston said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 10:37 am

    This piece in the same day's Telegraph appears to refer to the same research having been presented in the previous week at a conference at the Royal Society of Medicine.

    [(myl) The McNamara et al. reference comes via Ben Goldacre, who wrote:

    So this is all looking pretty wrong. Are we even talking about the same academic paper? I've a long-standing campaign to get mainstream media to link to original academic papers when they write about them, at least online, with some limited success on the BBC website. I asked the writer Campbell which academic paper he was referring to, but he declined to answer, and passed me on the Stephen Pritchard, the readers' editor for the Observer, who answered a couple of days later to say he did not understand why he was being involved. Eventually Campbell confirmed, but through Pritchard, that it was indeed a paper from the April edition of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

    At the end of the Telegraph article that you cite, which is mostly about effects on pregnant women, there's a suggestion that McNamara also presented (what sounds like) the same research at a recent conference. So far, I can't find an abstract or a press release for that presentation, if it indeed took place.]

  10. Michael said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 10:42 am

    Mark, you are suggesting that for each bad science writer there is a Bad Science writer.

    Great idea.

    [(myl) Exactly. Except that one per newspaper or magazine should be enough, really.]

  11. Ian Preston said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 10:48 am

    myl: The Telegraph article that you cite is about effects on pregnant women, not on school children. I don't see that it's in any sense "the same research".

    The article starts off talking about pregnant women but lower down in the article it says: "New research presented at the conference also suggested that docosahexaenoic acid deficiency may also play a role in the development of behavioural disorders such as ADHD in children. A study by Dr Robert McNamara, from the department of psychiatry at University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, found that boys aged between eight and ten who were given additional docosahexaenoic acid had increased brain activity in attention tasks than those taken placebos."

    [(myl) Yes, sorry, I commented too soon, and modified what I wrote while you were writing this! Can you find an abstract or press release for McNamara's presentation at that conference, or any other details?

    The Royal Society's May diary of meetings is here, but I don't see anything relevant, except for the "Evidence-based nutrition" conference, which doesn't have any presentation by McNamara (or for that matter anything about DHA for pregnant women, as far as I can see). ]

  12. Ian Preston said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 10:59 am

    myl: Can you find an abstract or press release for McNamara's presentation at that conference, or any other details?

    I can't find either but this appears to be a programme for a meeting on DHA at the RSM that week with him chairing a session (see p.5).

    [(myl) Good! (The program isn't on the RSM's web site, or on its diary of meetings, so I failed to find it.) This tells us that McNamara did make a presentation at a workshop in London in late May, shortly before Campbell's article appeared; so presumably Campbell got the information in some way from that presentation, or conceivably from an associated press release (though one doesn't seem to have been posted in the usual places). I'd guess then that he never read the cited scientific paper, but simply misunderstood the presentation (or perhaps was misled by it, though I'd hope that McNamara presented his research accurately).]

  13. Adam said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 11:27 am

    The Observer has been going steadily downhill since firing Will Self — when I stopped buying it. (I just finish Saturday's Guardian on Sunday.)

  14. Jonathan Badger said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 11:35 am

    As usual, I'm at a loss to explain why science writing in the mass media is often so spectacularly bad

    In part because a "science writer" is often expected to cover physics, chemistry, biology, and medicine, while having (at best) an undergraduate background in only one of those. It would be wonderful if papers would have a multiple of qualified writers, bit given that many papers have ceased to have a science writer at all (and simply rely on news services for the few science articles they publish), this isn't very likely.

    [(myl) In cases like this one, or the infamous "twitter numbs our moral sense" stories, doing a decent job wouldn't require any particular qualifications beyond a reading knowledge of English and a bit of common sense, perhaps bolstered by a few phone calls to sensible experts in case of uneasiness.]

  15. Dan Lufkin said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 11:35 am

    The Washington Post recently published an article by David Fahrenthold on climate modeling by computers. DF interviewed several genuine climate scientists and then blew it by including a rebuttal from a well-known conservative blogger who claimed that the scientists didn't take water vapor, the solar cycle, etc. into account in their models. Pure codswallop, of course, but it got a prominent sub-head and left the reader with, at best, cognitive dissonance.

    I e-mailed DF and asked him what he thought he had accomplished by this attitude. He replied that the blogger had "used a public forum" to present his views and was therefore entitled to coverage along with the scientists.

    I'm at a loss to understand such a criterion, and it seems to me that it is an instance of the self-licking ice-cream cone. I blog, therefore I am.
    I guess that's another manifestation of the PR sock-puppet phenomenon.

  16. Stephen Jones said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 12:01 pm

    In part because a "science writer" is often expected to cover physics, chemistry, biology, and medicine, while having (at best) an undergraduate background in only one of those.

    He needn't even have a degree in science to be able to tell what is bunkum and what is not. Lack of background is not an excuse.

  17. Richard Lubbock said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 12:38 pm

    In my day, a generation ago, the science writer always had the phone at hand for checking stories with authorities, and today there's email as well. Some scientists can be rude to journalists and that may discourage some follow-ups. I suggest the Observer turn its grave attention to a more foolproof topic such as astrology.

  18. David Eddyshaw said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 1:16 pm

    This is not a phenomenon confined to science writing, alas.

    Whenever even "quality" news media trespass on anything that I happen to know about first hand, I find that as often as not they have got it bizarrely wrong; not just wrong, but oddly wrong, "what were they thinking?" wrong, in a way which shows an amazing lack of interest on the part of the writer in establishing any facts at all.

    There are, to be fair, some shining exceptions (the sainted Ben G being one himself, of course.)

    I think that sad fact is that journalists, for the most part, are careful of facts to the precise degree that carelessness incurs a penalty for them. There are not enough readers who care about science as a great intellectual activity (as opposed to a source of "well, fancy that" gossip) for bad science reporting to attract any siginificant penalty.

    In an age of powerful democracies heavily dependent of the fruits of science for their viability this is pretty alarming.

  19. Chandra said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 1:25 pm

    When ambiguous phrasing is used intentionally to draw attention to an article (as I'm assuming the title of this post was), is it still considered a crash blossom? (This is an honest question – I'm not trying to be snarky.)

    [(myl) Yes, it would be fair to call this article's title an on-purpose crash blossom.]

  20. Forrest said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 1:28 pm

    I think you're being much too charitable, in asking how the writer could have been so careless. My hunch is that this is much closer to lying, if it doesn't actually cross that threshold. I'm not suggesting that the writer is a corporate hack trying to sell pills or supplements … but that he probably had his narrative written, facts be damned.

    After all, science is both complicated, and boring. Following up on the actual paper takes precious time that could be spent on Twitter. How many Guardian readers are going to do this, when their paper tells them right here in black and white that fish pills make your kids smart?

    Do you remember publishing a series of letters between a scientist and the chief editor for the NYT? There was some talk about readers being unable to stomach the "inedible" papers coming out of mainstream science publications, and needing them broken down by the paper into juicy headlines?

  21. Karen said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 1:41 pm

    The WaPo article cited by Dan Lufkin above is a perfect example of two things: the Post's disdain for science in general and GW in particular (see the sordid George Will saga for details), and the reporters' tendency to give "balance" by finding someone from both sides and presenting them equally, even when that leads to "at least one prominent writer has noted that in fact, as he puts it, the sun sets in the south, where it's hot".

  22. Picky said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 1:42 pm

    So was it carelessness or not that made you attribute the article to the Guardian, Forrest?

  23. Ian Preston said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 1:59 pm

    Justified though his general point may be, I think Ben G's rhetorical plea – "Show me the news headlines about that paper" – possibly paints things a little too blackly. Here are some, I think:

    Telegraph: Fish oil capsules 'don't boost brain power in children'

    Daily Mail: Fallacy of fish oil revealed as study finds supplements DON'T boost children's brain power

    BBC News: 'More omega-3 research' needed, says Prof Amanda Kirby

  24. Buck Ritter said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 3:06 pm

    He's a journalist. As long as he's entertaining people and keeping the readers coming back for more, who cares?

  25. Dr Aust said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 3:31 pm

    "So how can the "health correspondent" for a serious intellectual newspaper be so incredibly careless? And why hasn't he been fired, or at least transferred to the sports desk? "

    Perhaps the sports desk doesn't want him back? Before he became a laughably (mis) named "health correspondent" Campbell was on the sports desk – and before that I believe he covered rock music.

    BTW, he also has "previous form", as we Brits say, for Epic Healthtripe. Perhaps his most infamous story was a dire MMR story in Summer 2007, linked to an extended hagiographic interview with disgraced researcher Andrew Wakefield of MMR infamy. It was basically a fawning celeb puff piece, which was also eviscerated by Ben Goldacre over several weeks on his blog, e.g. here. The whole saga was so embarrassing that some people have even suggested it contributed to Observer editor Roger Alton losing his job. Sadly, though, the quality of the Observer's health and science coverage doesn't seem to have improved much since 2007.

  26. Brian said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 4:19 pm

    We definitely need more Bad Science writers. Once a week is not enough.

    Really, we need more Ben Goldacres.

  27. David Eddyshaw said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 4:31 pm

    @Dr Aust:

    Very interesting link. "Previous" indeed. I am driven to agree with Forrest above that it's much too charitable to describe this fellow as merely "careless." He does this on purpose.

  28. Rubrick said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 6:37 pm

    As usual, I'm at a loss to explain why science writing in the mass media is often so spectacularly bad, and why spectacular failures of this kind seem to have so little effect on the reputations and careers of the guilty parties.

    I've always assumed it's because wrong, exciting articles generate more buzz — and hence more revenue — than accurate, boring ones. If most of the readership is ignorant about science (a fair bet, I'm afraid), then making science articles more accurate will only lose readers (even faster than they're already being lost, I mean).

    People read the sports section to stay informed; they read the science section because they've finished the sports section and still have a few subway stops to go.

  29. Spectre-7 said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 7:02 pm

    I've always assumed it's because wrong, exciting articles generate more buzz — and hence more revenue — than accurate, boring ones.

    I've heard that theory before, but isn't it a bit of a false dichotomy? Perhaps I'm just being naive here, but I honestly believe it's possible to write articles that are both accurate and exciting at the same time.

    When accuracy takes a backseat to excitement, it flat-out ceases being journalism. At that point, it's just fiction… and rather poor fiction at that.

  30. Guillermo said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 10:08 pm

    >I've heard that theory before, but isn't it a bit of a false dichotomy? Perhaps I'm just being naive >here, but I honestly believe it's possible to write articles that are both accurate and exciting at the >same time.

    Spectre-7: Sorry for getting into your thread. It is my first post here, so I hope I can phrase myself as good as everyone else here. In regard to your post, I grant you that the possibility of having mass produced articles in media that result in being accurate /*and*/ exciting is very real, though to both of us, is also very small compared to traditional mash-ups that get publicized everyday, everywhere.
    As Mr. Eddyshaw pointed in an earlier post, there is a notable lack of interest in journalism to portray science objectively by, at the very least, trying to follow some sort of verification-clarification process that can withstand the test of the scientific method. Take for example the constant streaming of information coming from the facts of Global WarmingEcoFriendly Policies–>Conservation trends. All these have become a very "normal" and even common type of information in the media (no one would be surprised to read about them in the same newspaper at any given time), and indeed, these topics share some conceptual grounds. However, all three as scientifically different, and should be regarded and studied under different rules and techniques. The necessity of energy efficiency in order to improve production effectiveness and quality (EcoFriendly Policies) is a concept totally separated from a cultural-social-political need to suggest-exhort-enforce different conducts to minimize waste and restore flora/fauna. At the end, Global Warming is not a scientific reality as much as a political need created around the end of the seventies in order to push the chemical industry (and many other sectors of production and services) under new legislations, new standards and, more importantly, new costs.
    So all aforesaid comes to many conclusions, one of them being that currently, its is hopeless that media articles will be less imprecise or better directed, since the vast majority of scientific knowledge, properly presented might, in all certainty, become as hindrance rather that a vent for the needs of the public, the industry and the Government. Save a small, but ever growing percentage, the masses like to be in a planet where science is reduced to the choice of a pill or two in order to achieve a specific goal, so the journalist must write to them. We don't live in the same society as in the 50's or 60's when we had not a global warming, or fluorocarbons. We were worried/interested in other, more immediate, problems.

  31. Stephen Nicholson said,

    June 8, 2010 @ 1:59 am

    I agree with the idea above that journalists should link to the paper/research they are writing about. I wonder if journalism is the only professional non-fiction writing where the author doesn't have to cite their source?

  32. Mike E. said,

    June 8, 2010 @ 2:40 am

    I am a little puzzled by this
    "Among all subjects (n = 33), erythrocyte DHA composition was inversely correlated with reaction time at baseline (r = –0.43, P = 0.01) and endpoint (r = –0.41, P = 0.02), but was not correlated with other performance measures."

    Does that mean that higher DHA levels are associated with lower ( = faster) reaction times?

    [(myl) Yes, that's correct.

    Note that blood-level DHA measurements did show an effect on reaction times (though not on other performance measures), while the dietary intervention (i.e. taking DHA pills) did not have a significant effect on any performance measures (including reaction time). Presumably this is because the dietary intervention was not strongly enough correlated with blood DHA measures.]

  33. outeast said,

    June 8, 2010 @ 5:02 am

    While I'm not about to fly to Campbell's defence, the hype about fish oil extends well beyond the mass media – Discover magazine had a rather breathless piece about it back in March, including intelligence-boosting claims supported by unspecified and uncited research. If a major science magazine can't do better…

    [(myl) But Discover certainly counts as part of the "mass media". And its writers are prone to the same sort of carelessness. For example ("Flacks and hacks and Hitchens", 12/14/2006):

    Anne Casselbaum wrote in Discover Magazine "Women Don't Understand (why Adam Sandler is funny)"

    "Stanford University humor researcher Allan Reiss has a reassuring insight for all the men whose girlfriends and wives roll their eyes at Adam Sandler movies: Women really do enjoy a good laugh as much as you do; they are just wired to focus on different aspects of humor."

    In the study Reiss et al. did, the women found the same cartoons funny to the same degree as the men. But the study wasn't in any way designed to find the (no doubt genuine) differences among its subjects's various senses of humor, and in particular it shed no light whatsoever on the distribution of Adam Sandler's appeal by sex.

    Discover is not alone among popular science-themed magazines in this respect. See e.g. "Envy, Navy, whatever", 10/27/2006, and especially the comments from Julia Hockenmaier and Blake Stacey at the bottom. You might also look at this sketch of the EmDrive Affair by Blake in a comment on David Brin's blog.

    Overall, magazines like Discover and New Scientist are just as much in need of Bad Science writers as The Observer is. Maybe more, in fact, since they have many more science writers.]

  34. Leo said,

    June 8, 2010 @ 5:21 am

    The sports analogy is a good one. It suggests the question, who is the target audience for science writing in newspapers? Clearly, sports writing is intended for people who actually care about the subject and will pay quite some attention to detail. If a football match ended in a boring 0-0, then nobody – surely nobody at all, anywhere – would appreciate it if next day's paper carried a completely imaginary report of a seven-goal thriller, just to "keep it interesting" – sports fans want to know what really happened.

    So when editors commission a science article – at the expense, presumably, of some other competing interest – who do they intend it for? Do they have a target in mind, or is there just a general feeling that they "ought" to commission a science piece from time to time?

    [(myl) Judging strictly on the basis of the results, I've suggested that the goal is (often) to provide moral instruction.]

  35. Słowosław said,

    June 8, 2010 @ 7:58 am

    Regarding such writing in politics, this article gives some food for thought:
    http://www.slate.com/id/2256068/?from=rss

  36. Ian Preston said,

    June 8, 2010 @ 10:44 am

    myl: … so presumably Campbell got the information in some way from that presentation, or conceivably from an associated press release

    It seems it was from a press conference.

  37. Ginger Yellow said,

    June 8, 2010 @ 10:45 am

    " It suggests the question, who is the target audience for science writing in newspapers?"

    Again, Goldacre has addressed this question at length. He puts it another way, although the sports analogy works too. Goldacre's question is this – why is it that (broadsheet) newspapers are happy to print in-depth, feature length articles on books and music written by experts and assuming a fair bit of knowledge of and interest in the subject, but they won't do that for science? Here he is in his own words:

    "Because papers think you won’t understand the “science bit”, all stories involving science must be dumbed down, leaving pieces without enough content to stimulate the only people who are actually going to read them – that is, the people who know a bit about science. Compare this with the book review section, in any newspaper. The more obscure references to Russian novelists and French philosophers you can bang in, the better writer everyone thinks you are. Nobody dumbs down the finance pages. Imagine the fuss if I tried to stick the word "biophoton" on a science page without explaining what it meant. I can tell you, it would never get past the subs or the section editor. But use it on a complementary medicine page, incorrectly, and it sails through."

    Goldacre argues this is because newspapers are stuffed with humanities graduates, which I'm not sure I agree with. I mean, they are, but I'm a humanities graduate and I don't want dumbed down science reporting and (I like to think) I don't dumb down the highly technical financial stuff I write about in a trade paper. Conversely, the mainstream press does indeed dumb down the finance pages, contra Goldacre. Some of the reporting on the financial crisis, especially in the early stages, was as bad as any Bad Science howler. I think it's more to do with misapplying the "95% rule" of journalism, which states that everything in your article should be intelligible to 95% or more of your readership. Newspapers (especially their editors) tend to assume that people don't understand science, in the same way that they assume people don't understand policy. But when they write about books or music, say, they only apply the rule to an assumed elite audience of connoisseurs. Whereas science stories are distorted in an attempt to make them enticing to the mass readership.

    Where I do agree with Goldacre is that it's baffling that newspapers think there's an audience for informed and intelligent, even pretentious, writing about books, but there isn't for science. As he puts it, where's the journalism for all the people with science degrees from redbrick universities who are now in middle management somewhere? He's also correct, I think, that science is uniquely ill suited for hard news stories. Surprising – and hence newsworthy – results are often wrong, and rarely if ever certain. So you get a succession of news stories where "scientists say" one thing only to be contradicted shortly after when "scientists say" the opposite.

  38. chris said,

    June 8, 2010 @ 11:03 am

    And why hasn't he been fired, or at least transferred to the sports desk?

    The sports desk is important to the newspaper's bottom line, and he isn't competent to be there.

    Science gets the dregs because (a) there aren't that many people who care about it at all and (b) most of them have already accepted that the state of science journalism is lousy, so they don't expect any better.

  39. Leo said,

    June 8, 2010 @ 11:36 am

    Ginger Yellow – interesting, and thanks for the Goldacre quote. I think I agree with you that the "humanities graduate" answer is not sufficient on its own.

    The most in-depth coverage of any subject in a newspaper is in the dedicated sections – Sport, Culture etc. A reference to (random example) Pushkin that would be acceptable in a Culture section would NOT be allowed in a brief news item on page 2. When you are reporting "the news" – which ostensibly is defined by its being recent, rather than by its subject matter – it seems that you must assume as little reader knowledge as possible. But in the supplements, that requirement is much less strict, you have a freer hand – so perhaps if more newspapers had a Science section, there would be more "Good Science" (though not necessarily less "Bad Science"). The Guardian scrapped its Science and Technology section a couple of years ago, but I'm not convinced that this was because none of its readers were interested.

    In other words, science may be ill-suited to news stories, but not necessarily to newspapers – they just need to give it rather more breathing space than they generally do.

    Come to think of it, what should a good newspaper journalism of science look like? Perhaps somewhere between the press release or abstract of an original research paper, and the full-length content of a science magazine?

  40. Ginger Yellow said,

    June 8, 2010 @ 1:41 pm

    "Come to think of it, what should a good newspaper journalism of science look like? Perhaps somewhere between the press release or abstract of an original research paper, and the full-length content of a science magazine?"

    Well, again, Goldacre has some ideas on this. I hate to keep bringing him up, but he's thought about it a lot and makes many good points. Some of them are about improving conventional news stories – for example improving the presentation of statistics (using absolute risk numbers rather than or as well as relative risk numbers) – while others argue for giving science the same long form treatment other subjects often get, allowing writers to explain the experimental history behind a newsworthy result/discovery and putting it in proper context. There's no reason you couldn't have that sort of semi-feature in something like the G2 or the Sunday Times News Review. They do for other news subjects, so why not science? And the big US papers have tons of long form "news" stories that are basically features, so that sort of science journalism wouldn't be out of place at all.

  41. JimG said,

    June 8, 2010 @ 2:14 pm

    Digression alert: "PR flak" mondegreen?
    Not to focus on our fellow logger who wrote it above, this would mean antiaircraft artillery bursts that conveyed the desired message. Flak is the German short form of FLiegerAbwehrKanone. I always wondered about the etymology of flack (in its PR sense), perhaps originating from the name of a man who worked as a publicist.
    One cute usage involves the PR person serving as a flak-catcher for his/her employer.

  42. anon said,

    June 8, 2010 @ 3:55 pm

    Buck Ritter:

    He's a journalist. As long as he's entertaining people and keeping the readers coming back for more, who cares?

    I hope you're joking!

  43. Dave R. said,

    June 8, 2010 @ 6:55 pm

    Not just the Guardian's/Observer's science writers, I'm afraid. Their tech correspondent/agony aunt, Jack Schofield, doesn't know the difference between a virus and a worm.

    For the I'm-a-linguist-not-a-geek-dammit reader, that's similar to not knowing the difference between a transitive and an intransitive verb.

  44. Dr Aust said,

    June 8, 2010 @ 8:11 pm

    According to Ben Goldacre's Bad Science website, the Campbell article has now been pulled (without leaving any explanation).

    BTW, another "health correspondent" on a different British newspaper has had a pop at Goldacre for being nasty to Campbell. Unfortunately the news guys can't seem to get his facts right either, as Ben and others have been gleefully pointing out here.

  45. Sili said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 6:20 am

    He's a journalist. As long as he's entertaining people and keeping the readers coming back for more, who cares?

    I hope you're joking!

    Why? I thought we were all generally agreed that newspapers exist only to sell adspace.

  46. Leo said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 6:23 am

    When you have a proper Science section, writers have the time and space to do a decent job; here's an example I saw lately from a major US paper: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/29/science/29glass.html.

    I wonder why there is less of this in Britain. Having more Good Science in our papers might not directly reduce the amount of Bad Science, but it would be a big step in the right direction, for all sorts of reasons.

  47. Leo said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 6:26 am

    Apologies, here's the link.

  48. cirret said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 8:46 am

    @Dave R.: More fundamental than that – like the difference between a noun and a comma?

  49. Ken Brown said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 11:40 am

    JimG said: "Digression alert: "PR flak" mondegreen?"

    Maybe. Might depend on if the poster is American or not. Here in Britland "flak" is quite commonly known but "flack" as a name for PR person is I suspect almost unknown. Its a strong Americanism. I suppose we might say that a PR hack is employed to catch (metaphorical) flaka. I'm not sure we have a current British English word "flack" other than as an Anglicised spelling of "flak". (Whether or nto the American English word "flack" is from "flak" is another question)

  50. Ginger Yellow said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 11:46 am

    "I wonder why there is less of this in Britain."

    Like I say above, US papers are bigger on long form journalism in general than UK papers. It's rare to see a story of that length on any subject in a UK paper.

  51. Rubrick said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 2:29 pm

    Cirret: @Dave R.: More fundamental than that – like the difference between a noun and a comma?

    In biology, yes. In tech, no; the distinction between a computer virus and an internet worm is actually fairly subtle (though any tech writer should certainly understand it).

  52. v said,

    June 12, 2010 @ 5:51 am

    So if I understand this correctly, fish oil doesn't help most people but does help ADHD people a bit? BTW, I never managed to find out if methylphenidate does better than a placebo for non-ADHD people besides lessen the need for sleep?

  53. Ian Preston said,

    June 14, 2010 @ 6:01 am

    From yesterday's Observer (Sun 13 Jun):

    "Fish oil helps schoolchildren concentrate" (News), claimed that research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed omega3 fish oil could combat hyperactivity and attention deficit disorder.

    We wish to make clear that the study did not include ADHD. Additionally, algal DHA, not fish oil, was used in the study and the simple attention task employed during MRI scans did not specifically identify improvements in attention. We have removed the story from our website and apologise for these errors.

  54. Ginger Yellow said,

    June 17, 2010 @ 12:35 pm

    In an almost timely move, the Guardian has launched what it claims to be a new approach to science reporting, starting with this story on a paper in nature about genetics and autism. It's called the story tracker, and it features a link to the paper, the original article, and then a series of updates featuring commentary from scientists, the blogosphere and other news outlets, as well as links to related stories such as public policy implications of autism and a Q&A for parents. Looks like a promising approach indeed, although obviously it's not easily replicable in print.

  55. Dr Aust said,

    June 19, 2010 @ 9:10 am

    The Guardian's story tracker is an interesting idea, and consciously much closer to the blogosphere way of covering something.
    Unfortunately, the comments thread at the particular one Ginger Yellow linked seems to have degenerated into the usual tinfoil-hat-fest that attends anything mentioning autism on the Web. This is due to the anti-vaccine crazies, who routinely attack genetic explanations for autism, or indeed any explanation other than their preferred fantasy about childhood vaccines.

    Such threads almost always end up with one or two or three of them cackling away to one another, mainly because the scientists (of whom a number have been debating them) eventually realise the argument is fruitless.

  56. test said,

    September 26, 2011 @ 6:07 pm

    Like I say above, US papers are bigger on long form journalism in general than UK papers. It's rare to see a story of that length on any subject in a UK paper.
    a

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