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Al Jazeera America to close down Unsustainable business model cited in decision to close as global network announces a new digital drive in US market January 13, 2016 2:11PM ET by Al Jazeera Staff Al Jazeera (Arabic: الجزيرة‎ al-ǧazīrah IPA: [æl dʒæˈziːrɐ], literally “The Island”, … Continue reading

Al Jazeera America to close down
Unsustainable business model cited in decision to close as global network announces a new digital drive in US market
January 13, 2016 2:11PM ET
by Al Jazeera Staff

Al Jazeera (Arabic: ???????? al-?az?rah IPA: [æl d?æ?zi?r?], literally “The Island”, abbreviating “The [Arabian] Peninsula“)[note] (also Aljazeera or JSC[Jazeera Satellite Channel]) is an independent[1][2] broadcaster owned by the state of Qatar through the Qatar Media Corporation and headquartered inDohaQatar. Initially launched as an Arabic news and current affairs satellite TV channel, Al Jazeera has since expanded into a network with several outlets, including the Internet and specialty TV channels in multiple languages. Al Jazeera is accessible in several world regions.

The original Al Jazeera channel’s willingness to broadcast dissenting views, for example on call-in shows, created controversies in the Arab states of the Persian Gulf. The station gained worldwide attention following the September 11, 2001 attacks, when it was the only channel to cover the war in Afghanistan live from its office there.[3] It has also recently been acclaimed for its in-depth coverage of the Arab Spring protests and revolutions.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Al_Jazeera

Adjunct professors: slave labor of academia

Without any public notice, most colleges and universities are largely staffed by temporary adjunct faculty, with poor pay, no benefits, and no commitment to the institution.

Without any public notice, most colleges and universities are largely staffed by temporary adjunct faculty, with poor pay, no benefits, and no commitment to the institution.

Autism and vaccines: correlation is not causation

Anti-vaxxers point to the rise of autism cases and blame it on the increasing use of vaccines. But as all critical thinkers know, correlation is not causation!

Anti-vaxxers point to the rise of autism cases and blame it on the increasing use of vaccines. But as all critical thinkers know, correlation is not causation!

Nazis, the CIA, Oilman Slick, Hoaxes—and the Yeti

The search for the Yeti has included a wide array of colorful characters, including Nazis, CIA agents, oil millionaires, and TV producers known for their hoaxes

The search for the Yeti has included a wide array of colorful characters, including Nazis, CIA agents, oil millionaires, and TV producers known for their hoaxes

Krakens and crackpots—again

The ridiculous idea of “kraken” arranging the ichthyosaur vertebrae as art claim made in 2011 appeared to be dead and forgotten—until last week, when it was revived with even worse logic—and the media ate it up!

The ridiculous idea of “kraken” arranging the ichthyosaur vertebrae as art claim made in 2011 appeared to be dead and forgotten—until last week, when it was revived with even worse logic—and the media ate it up!

Cultural ignorance and scientific illiteracy

No matter what polls or surveys you look at, Americans are appalling ignorant about the world around them, and even more so about science. What are some of the causes, and what are the consequences?

No matter what polls or surveys you look at, Americans are appalling ignorant about the world around them, and even more so about science. What are some of the causes, and what are the consequences?

Lethal nonsense on “The View”

Anti-vaxxer leader Jenny McCarthy is given a spot on the TV show “The View” this fall—giving legitimacy to an anti-science movement that has spread millions of infections and killed hundreds of innocent lives.

The rumor mill had been buzzing for days. Then last week, as many of us were at The Amazing Meeting in Las Vegas, it was confirmed:  former Playboy Playmate, has-been actor, and anti-vaxx leader Jenny McCarthy will join the cast of “The View” this fall. A number of Amazing Meeting speakers commented on it. The media were full of statements of shock and anger, not only from the prominent skeptics and bloggers like Phil Plait and Sharon Hill, but even from the mainstream media, who uniformly saw this as a bad move. The ABC network released a lame statement from “The View” founder Barbara Walters, “Jenny brings us intelligence as well as warmth and humor. She can be serious and outrageous. She has connected with our audience and offers a fresh point of view.”

I’ve seen McCarthy’s previous TV and movie appearances, and the best that can be said for them was they were outrageous. Whether her past efforts demonstrate  ”intelligence,” “humor,” and “seriousness” is debatable. Most people found her humor (especially in her disastrous movie “Dirty Love”, often ranked as one of the worst movies ever made) stupid, lowbrow and gross. None of her TV efforts showed she was any more intelligent than any other Hollywood celeb who is promoted  for their good looks. Over the last 8 years, she has been  the principal spokesperson for the  anti-vaxxer movement, lending her celebrity (and that of her once-boyfriend, Jim Carrey) to spread and legitimize her deadly ideas. She is such a symbol of the movement that one of the leading sites criticizing her is called “JennyMcCarthyBodyCount.com” and keeps a constant tally of the number of unnecessary deaths and illnesses caused by the anti-vaxxers.

This is not to say that I have any illusions that most TV is anything other than a vast wasteland, driven by advertising to put on pure garbage that appeals to the lowest common denominator of viewers who don’t discriminate, and can be lured to watch anything that goes on the air. We’ve all seen the pseudoscience constantly broadcast on some of the major cable channels, from UFOs to Bigfoot to ghosts to mermaids, all promoted as real and scientifically supported. Oprah had an even bigger audience than “The View,” yet she routinely programmed all sorts of woo, especially “New Age” healing and quack medicine, as well as con men like Deepak Chopra—and Jenny McCarthy, promoting anti-vaxxer ideas. Thankfully, Oprah’s show is off the air, and her eponymous network has nowhere the same reach as her network show once did.

Nor is “The View” itself a paragon of reason and critical thinking and intelligence. It currently has 3.1 million viewers daily, the highest ratings on daytime TV, but the numbers have been sliding since 2009. There have been relatively well informed, well educated, intelligent members of the cast before, such as previously departed Meredith Vieira and Lisa Ling, and now-departing Joy Behar (whom McCarthy is replacing). But they also featured the embarrassingly ignorant Sherri Shepard, who wasn’t sure that the world is round, believed in creationism, and thought Christianity preceded the Greeks and Romans. Or there was the now-departed Elizabeth Hasselbeck, who supported creationism and climate denial nonsense. She is now headed for a much more congenial setting: Fox News.

As I detailed in my new book Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten our Future, the anti-vaxx movement began with a single fraudulent 1998 study by British doctor Andrew Wakefield. He faked data to allege a connection between the MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine and autism-spectrum disorders (ASD) in order to promote his own vaccine. He was also paid by a lawyer secretly working with him to generate lawsuits against the MMR vaccine. This study  has since been repudiated by its coauthors, withdrawn by the journal that published it, and led to Wakefield being barred from practicing medicine in the UK. Nevertheless, it caused widespread and unnecessary fear and panic about vaccines, both in the UK and in the US. Large numbers of parents, frightened of vaccines because of the false claim that they triggered ASD, left their kids unvaccinated. The reason for the panic (besides the fraudulent Wakefield claim) is that the symptoms of ASD begin to show up at about the same age when the MMR vaccine is given. Given the emotional devastation that an ASD diagnosis can do to a family, and fed lies by the internet, parents were quick to believe this false correlation between two events that just happen to coincide in time. The medical community did hundreds of studies, using thousands of patients, investigating the claim. All have consistently shown that there is no connection between vaccination (or any ingredient in the vaccines, such as thimerosal) and ASD—but real data and facts don’t easily overcome emotional overreactions by distraught parents. Although there are many possible causes, the latest research shows that  ASD disorders are largely genetic in origin (especially common in male children of older fathers), so nothing  the parents could have done (shots, any other environmental factors) made any difference—it was probably in their genetic makeup and unaffected by what happened after the child was born.

The results of the scare have been horrendous: herd immunity has dropped so low in many places that there is a significant pool of unvaccinated kids, and  diseases can spread. In fact,  in many areas the once-rare diseases are now rampant. These infections that we vaccinate against are not just inconvenient, but deadly. The irony is that few of these anti-vaxx parents are old enough to remember the frightening days when polio, measles, mumps, rubella, chicken pox, and whooping cough routinely sickened large number of kids and killed a significant percentage of the infected population. But my generation, and especially my parent’s generation, remembers them well. I was deathly ill with the mumps, measles and chicken pox as a child, and my own mother was stricken by polio and barely survived. These  diseases now spread rapidly in this age of air travel, when a  virus from the underdeveloped world can jump across the world in hours, and infect a population in the developed world in a few days.

The biggest problem is not just the kids of anti-vaxx parents, who through their parents’ ignorance and false beliefs are at risk by remaining unvaccinated. Even greater is the risk to babies and toddlers too young for their first shots, with their immature developing immune systems. If exposed to an older child with a deadly virus, they have a much higher risk of getting very sick and dying. Anti-vaxx parents assert that they have the right to determine their own child’s health care—but when they infect other kids too young for shots, then they are a public health menace. They have no right to expose other people’s kids to deadly viruses—any more that someone has the right (under free speech) to shout “Fire” in a crowded movie theater.

As Time magazine said:

ABC might argue that hiring McCarthy does not mean endorsing her vaccine beliefs. Maybe not—in a way, it may be more dangerous, muddying a vital question of public health by framing it as a “controversy” that you can hash out in a roundtable before interviewing Bruce Willis about Red 2. Maybe ABC sees McCarthy as a lateral swap for Hasselbeck—another outspoken, blonde woman around the same age. But medical science is not a matter of “views” and “opinion.” It’s not like believing that capital gains taxes should be lowered or gay marriage permitted. Things cause disease or they don’t. Even if The View never airs McCarthy’s beliefs about vaccines—or, conversely, if every other panelist argues against them every day—by giving her implicit credibility the show has already suggested that her scaremongering is up for debate. She says one thing, Whoopi says something else—hey, you decide! People are talking! We must be doing something right! And there’s the bigger problem. To say that you can simply shrug off differences about medical fact as “outrageousness” or “controversy” is to feed the belief that science in general, be it vaccines or climate change or evolution, is simply subjective: you have your truth and I have mine. But we don’t. The Earth didn’t revolve around the sun only for Galileo. The problem with treating factual matters of science like opinion debates is that as soon as you do that, anti-science has already won. Let The View on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand as many hot-button social issues it wants. A virus doesn’t have two hands.

McCarthy’s anti-vaxx career started in 2005, when she claimed that her son Evan showed signs of ASD (although most medical experts doubt this diagnosis, and say he has Landau-Kleffner syndrome). She immediately latched on to the growing anti-vaxx movement, and became its leading celebrity spokesperson. She claimed to have “cured” her son of ASD through all sorts of quack medicines, including a gluten-free diet and risky “chelation therapy” (using toxic copper compounds in the body). In reality there is still no “cure” for ASD, since it a complex of disorders, probably with multiple causes. If it is a largely genetic disorder, there is little likelihood that it will ever be a single, simple cure. Don’t get me wrong: I feel her pain. I was probably an Asperger’s child (years before it was ever defined or diagnosed) and  two of my own children have Asperger’s syndrome. But I’m not adopting quack medicine treatments or preaching discredited ideas from the internet, but following the best science-based medicine to treat them and help make their lives better.  I don’t blame vaccines or anything else, because I probably passed the gene on to my sons as an older father with ASD and a member of a high-risk category.

As journalist Michael Specter (author of Denialism) wrote in The New Yorker:

Jenny McCarthy, who will join “The View” in September, will be the show’s first co-host whose dangerous views on childhood vaccination may—if only indirectly—have contributed to the sickness and death of people throughout the Western world. McCarthy, who is savvy, telegenic, and pulchritudinous, is also the person most visibly associated with the deadly and authoritatively discredited anti-vaccine movement in the United States. She is not subtle: McCarthy once essentially threatened the actress Amanda Peet, who has often spoken out about the obvious benefits of childhood vaccinations, by warning Peet that she had an angry mob on her side. When people disagree with her views on television, McCarthy has been known to refute scientific data by shouting “bullshit.”

McCarthy’s false ideas are more than just another idiot talking head blathering on about stuff they don’t understand on TV. As the leading celebrity spokesperson for the anti-vaxx movement, she is a symbol of this form of virulent anti-science, and everything she says (even if she never speaks a word about anti-vaxx on the show) is colored by that perception. It is akin to hiring any other leading figure of an anti-reality movement to such a prominent platform on TV. Take, for example,  Dr. Peter Duesberg, who more than anyone gave legitimacy to the false notion that HIV does not cause AIDS. He doomed at least 300,000 people when the South African Mbeki regime rejected modern medicine, treated AIDS with witch-doctor remedies like beetroot, and refused to tell their people to take precautions against HIV. Or instead of McCarthy or Duesberg, they could have hired a Holocaust denier like David Irving, or Ken Ham, the leading creationist in the US (except he and most evangelists have an even larger audience on their religious networks). Or how about the clownish climate-denier, “Lord” Christopher Monckton?

For all its faults, TV is the most powerful medium in the popular culture. People really do believe what they see and hear on TV, whether it be a faked show about mermaids, or bad medical advice on “Oprah.”  TV executives may only care what their advertisers think, but they are also using public airwaves to spout dangerous nonsense that kills innocent children. We can’t censor most of what TV broadcasts—but we shouldn’t be encouraging deadly pseudoscience by giving Jenny McCarthy a platform on the highest-rated show on daytime TV, either. The lives of the babies and toddlers who died needlessly because of the anti-vaxxers demand no less.

Bigfoot DNA? It’s Playing Possum!

When the story came out that Bigfoot DNA had been found, everyone was talking about it—and some of us were skeptical. Guess what happened when an independent lab checked the samples?

I’m on my way to The Amazing Meeting in Las Vegas as this posts, but I wanted to write this as an addendum to our just-published book on cryptozoology, Abominable Science! (available at TAM this weekend, and on Amazon.com). Daniel Loxton and I will both be at TAM if you want to get a copy autographed by both authors.

Last February, the news and blogosphere was buzzing with excitement. Someone had claimed that they had sequenced the DNA of Bigfoot! Naturally, such a sensational story was reported all over the internet and even the mainstream media as if it were solid, confirmed research. If there was any skepticism displayed, it was at the very end of a story that mostly gave the claim uncritical coverage. A number of mainstream scientists and skeptics wrote critical blogs and articles about the way the discovery was announced and the fact that it was announced without a publication backing it up, but everyone had to reserve judgment until the paper was actually published—and even more importantly, when the results were double-checked by an independent lab.

There were lots of reason for doubting the reality of the report. To start with, the researcher, Dr. Melba Ketchum (a long-term Bigfoot advocate, so she is no neutral  party) did one of the worst possible things to convince scientists: she put out a press release before any peer-reviewed scientific publication of results. This always makes scientists suspicious, because it is a common strategy among less reputable researchers to get the press to cover substandard or even ridiculous research before scientists could weigh in.

Then the red flags kept on coming. Her lab, which mostly does DNA analysis for veterinarians, was given an “F” rating with the Better Business Bureau. When the paper finally appeared, it was not in a peer-reviewed journal that scientists trust, but in some unknown source called “DeNovo Scientific Journal. It was the only paper in this online journal, another suspicious aspect of the research. And it took only a little bit of digging to find out that that Melba Ketchum had bought the journal itself and had no independent editorial board, so the research was completely self-published with no neutral peer review or quality control. Even Bigfoot advocate  Jeff Meldrum found this suspicious:

“To make an end-run around the process by erecting a facade in the form of a so-called new journal and allege that it is edited and reviewed, without providing any of that information on the public web page, it appears that she has undertaken an effort to self-publish, just to get it out there,” Meldrum told The Huffington Post. “And, to boot, she’s charging $30 a pop for a copy of the paper. Meldrum said he doesn’t think any credible scientific journal would shy away from the topic simply because of its controversial nature. ”I wouldn’t rule it out entirely. There are certainly politics involved in the selection of papers. If it’s solid work, this is the discovery of the century, if not the millennium,” Meldrum said. ”Any journal, if they were confident in the results and in the expertise of their reviewers, and it came down positive —I would think they would clamor for the opportunity to have that on the front cover of their journal.”

Throughout the long wait for the paper to appear, rumors were flying. There were lots of conflicting stories about whether it was under review or not, and a Russian co-author leaked all sorts of information that was not consistent with what Ketchum’s lab was saying. The press release and other announcements claimed that all the mitochondrial DNA was human (no surprise), and come from normal human hair which has mitochondrial DNA but no nuclear DNA. The nuclear DNA largely matches human samples as well, along with an “unknown component” that Ketchum prematurely attributes to Bigfoot. As our own Steve Novella put it:

Let me offer a preliminary alternate hypothesis. The hair samples that contain only human mtDNA are from a human. The samples from which the nuDNA is isolated are also from humans but with some contaminants or some other animal source mixed in. That seems to be a more parsimonious interpretation. I would like to know more about the source of the DNA, but I guess that will have to wait for the full details to be published. The fact that the human DNA is modern human (hence the need for the alleged hybridization to have occurred so recently in the past) is most easily explained as the source simply being modern humans. Let us also consider the scenario that Ketchum is suggesting—in the very recent past (less than 15,000 years) an unknown primate bred with modern human females (mtDNA comes almost exclusively from the female line) producing the creature we now know as bigfoot. What, then, must the original unknown primate looked like? The result of this pairing then produced fertile offspring, enough to generate a new stable population of bigfeet. It is highly doubtful that the offspring of a creature that looks like bigfoot and a human would be fertile. They would almost certainly be as sterile as mules. Humans could not breed with our closest living relatives, the chimpanzees, or any living ape. It is probable that we could produce fertile young with Neanderthals, but it gets doubtful the further back in our evolutionary history we go – and how far back would we have to go to reach a common ancestor with bigfoot? The bottom line is this—human DNA plus some anomalies or unknowns does not equal an impossible human-ape hybrid. It equals human DNA plus some anomalies.

One of the first people to get an advance peek at the paper, geneticist John Timmer of the online journal Ars Technica, reported:

At this point, we get into some actual biology with enough details to analyze. And the details appear to point in the exact opposite direction of the authors’ conclusions that bigfoot represents a recent hybridization between modern humans and an unknown species of primate. To begin with, the mitochondrial DNA of the samples (when it can be isolated) clusters with that of modern humans. That isn’t itself a problem if we assume that those doing the interbreeding were human females, but the DNA sequences come from a variety of different humans—16 in total. And most of these were “European or Middle Eastern in origin” with a few “African and American Indian haplotypes.” Given the timing of the interbreeding, we should only be seeing Native American sequences here. The authors speculate that some humans may have walked across the ice through Greenland during the last glaciation, but there’s absolutely no evidence for that. The best explanation here is contamination.As far as the nuclear genome is concerned, the results are a mess. Sometimes the tests picked up human DNA. Other times, they didn’t. Sometimes the tests failed entirely. The products of the DNA amplifications performed on the samples look about like what you’d expect when the reaction didn’t amplify the intended sequence. And electron micrographs of the DNA isolated from these samples show patches of double- and single-stranded DNA intermixed. This is what you might expect if two distantly related species had their DNA mixed—the protein-coding sequences would hybridize, and the intervening sections wouldn’t. All of this suggests modern human DNA intermingled with some other contaminant.

When the paper was finally available, it was accessible only behind a paywall that had a $30 charge for one paper. It is common in these commercial journals to charge a small amount for an individual paper, but a fee this large, going directly to the pockets of the author who owns the journal, suggests that she was milking the site for money from dedicated Bigfoot believers, and discouraging most scientists (who are not interested enough in the issue to waste $30) from accessing it. Others have suggested that since her company got the “F” ranking from Better Business Bureau and is tanking, she dreamed the whole thing up as a scheme to raise money from the Bigfooters.

I finally got a look at the paper for myself. Most of it reads like a conventional DNA paper, and the results don’t look that oddball since they are presented in a normal fashion. (By contrast, many crackpot papers have bizarre writing and structure, often presented in a weird font like Comic Sans). There is a section claiming that they eliminated questionable hair samples by comparing their samples to reference samples of hairs of humans and other common North American mammals. Only hairs which had a “novel visual structure” (p. 3) were said to have been used in the study.

Then there were other samples that included “toenail, tissue, blood, mucus, scratched tree bark and saliva claimed by submitters to be from an unknown and previously undescribed hominin”. They came from 14 states and 2 Canadian provinces. “Samples were subjected to a preliminary screening by utilizing eyewitness interview information, visual and histological examination, and DNA testing.” What?? This is the key issue that screams out for further investigation. Her samples were collected by people who claimed to witness Bigfoot, yet there is no identification of the source, where it came from, and how they know it came from Bigfoot—an inexcusable gap in the essential data allowing us to assess the reliability of the collecting procedures. More significantly, not one of them was able to get a photograph of Bigfoot as it left tissues behind. I find that very  hard to believe in a day when nearly everyone carries a cell phone camera in their pocket. Surely a photo would provide much more convincing evidence that the sample allegedly derived from Bigfoot. There are accounts of how the “blood sample” was obtained when Bigfoot cut its lip sucking on a sharp rain gutter. If the witness saw that much up close, why are there no pictures? This doesn’t give us any confidence that these “eyewitnesses” actually saw a Bigfoot leave the sample behind. Instead, it suggests that sampling is much less rigorous and second-hand, as indicated by the story that some of her samples came from a blueberry bagel left out in a Michigan back yard that is claimed to be frequented by Bigfoot.

This cartoon says it all (from http://xkcd.com/1235/)

This cartoon says it all (from http://xkcd.com/1235/)

And this begs an even larger question: if we have an unknown DNA sample, how do we know it’s from Bigfoot? We cannot just assume that if it doesn’t come from a known North American mammal, it’s automatically from Bigfoot. Without already having Bigfoot in captivity to sample from, all we can say about an unknown DNA sample is that it’s from an unknown source! This a common problem with cryptozoologists and pseudoscientists: if there is some phenomenon that is not yet easily explained by science, they assume that it must be caused by Bigfoot or ghosts or UFOs or some other supernatural cause. The proper scientific assumption is that if the cause is not yet known,  we don’t jump to supernatural conclusions—we just don’t know the cause yet.

Well, the verdict is in. Ketchum sent  reporter Eric Berger of The Houston Chronicle  her samples so he could get them tested by a reputable independent geneticist. The result? Mostly just regular human DNA, with contamination by a number of critters, including an opossum! Ketchum describes her lab procedures in detail in the paper, and claims she had samples of other North American mammals to rule out their input. Apparently she forgot to include one of the most widespread mammals in all of North America, Didelphis virginiana—the American opossum.

Geneticist John Timmer of Ars Technica has done a post-mortem on the entire Bigfoot DNA fiasco. He dissects what went wrong with her methods, her analysis, and her interpretation of the results. It all boils down to the fact that Ketchum was a “true believer” who wanted to find Bigfoot DNA so much that it distorted her perspective and she overlooked huge problems in the sampling, in the lab techniques, and in the obvious implications of the results. She was utterly convinced that the samples were not contaminated, yet in her methods section she admits to screening out hairs and other tissues that were from non-hominin mammals.  Again and again, she got warning signs that the samples were contaminated, that most of the DNA was just from modern humans. It was clear that there was a mixture of a bunch of North American mammals in it that she refused to think about, but she let the software blindly crunch the DNA sequences without throwing other mammals in the mix, and so on. Especially when she got the mix of both single and double-stranded DNA, she should have known she had a lot of different mammals in the sample. As Timmer explains, she was so sure it had to be Bigfoot DNA that every contradiction or warning sign was completely ignored, and she constructed a bizarrely implausible story about Bigfeet interbreeding with humans only 13,000 years ago. It was also clear that this type of analysis was beyond the level of training and competence of a person like Ketchum. As Timmer and several others have explained, she jumped to the wrong conclusions or used the wrong methods when she encountered results that were not in her background or training. As Richard Feynman said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”

I can just see the gags and cartoons out there now: Bigfoot in the “opossum death pose”; Bigfoot hanging upside down from a tree like an opossum….

 

Science Journalism

I recently got into a small kerfuffle with a journalist, actually a sports writer who decided to dabble in science journalism. The exchange started at science-based medicine when I wrote a piece critical of the claims being made for a new device called the GyroStim, which is being offered as a treatment for brain injury. […]

I recently got into a small kerfuffle with a journalist, actually a sports writer who decided to dabble in science journalism. The exchange started at science-based medicine when I wrote a piece critical of the claims being made for a new device called the GyroStim, which is being offered as a treatment for brain injury.

In this article I linked to a piece in the popular press about the treatment, in the Denver Post by a sports writer, Adrian Dater. Dater thought I was being unfair in my criticism of his piece, and so wrote a response on his blog.  The exchange and the comments have exposed many of the problems with journalism in general and science journalism in particular, that I would like to explore further here.

First I have to say that there are many excellent journalists and science journalists out there. I am not implying that that there are no good journalists. I do find, however, that the baseline quality of science journalism is lacking and, if anything, getting worse. Part of the problem is the evaporating infrastructure for full-time journalists. Many outlets no longer maintain specialist journalists, and use generalists (including editors) to cover science news stories.

What follows can be seen as a quick primer, or at least a list of helpful suggestions, to journalists who wish to cover science topics. I will primarily use examples from the recent exchange over the GyroStim.

Think About the Narrative

Almost all news stories have a clear narrative. The facts of the story are presented in a way to create a meaningful story. Even if all the facts are individually correct, the choice of which facts to present, in what balance, and in which order affect the bottom line impression left by the article. The choice of headline is also important, and I know for big news outlets the article author is often not the headline writer, but that doesn’t mean the headlines don’t matter also – they tend to frame the article.

For example, Dater defended his article by claiming that he got all the facts right, that he included “balance” (more on that below) by indicating the Gyrostim is not FDA approved and quoting a doctor saying more evidence is needed, and that he did not directly endorse the treatment.

My criticism, however, was based on the narrative that he blatantly created. I find it interesting that he seems to be unaware of this narrative or its effects.

The story was framed as a touching account of a father who is an engineer who decided to build a machine to cure his daughter of cerebral palsy. Right out of the gate the reader is rooting for this machine to work. The pull-out quotes include, “Spinning stimulates the brain,” and “Miracles almost every day.” He also ended with a hopeful anecdote:

“The machine is amazing, it really is,” said Hishon, who played nine games for the Lake Erie Monsters this season after nearly two years of concussion symptoms. “It just seemed to wake something up in my brain. I can’t explain it, but it definitely worked wonders with me.”

The fact that there is some token skepticism tucked in the middle is just part of the narrative – every story needs a villain, right?  Dater may not have intended the skeptics to be the villain of his narrative, but that is the role he assigned them. On the one hand you have a loving father, hope, the device is being researched, you have excited practitioners, and many patients who are thrilled with their results, and on the other side some talking-head canned skepticism – “more evidence is needed, not FDA approved, blah, blah.”

It seems to me that many journalists don’t even think about the narrative – it just emerges as a default story format. Start with a human interest angle to draw in the reader, then just report what both sides are saying, be sue to include plenty of anecdotes, and then end on a hopeful note.

What many non-science journalists don’t seem to get is that this is not a proper narrative for a science story. Further – all journalists need to decide what their narrative is before writing the story (although hopefully after they have researched it – often journalists decide on their narrative first then just backfill the facts and anecdotes).

Here are some other narratives that journalists covering science stories might consider:

– The allure and harm of false hope, and the exploitation of false hope by dubious practitioners and companies.

– A cautionary tale about getting excited prematurely by some newfangled treatment before it is adequately tested, given that most new treatments do not pan out.

– Is new and high tech always better – does this machine that costs tens of thousands of dollars work better than a $20 device that has a similar function?

Put the Story Into Context

The most challenging part of science reporting is putting a new story into a deeper scientific context. This requires background research and talking to a variety of experts – and asking the right questions and really listening to what they say. This context includes:

– What is the plausibility of the new claim? Does it confirm or contradict what is currently believed to be true?

– Does the new device, treatment, product resemble anything that has come before? Is it truly new, or just a rebranding of an old concept – and if the latter, how have previous incarnations fared?

– What is the current consensus, if any, on this new claim? Is it truly controversial, or very one-sided with the majority of scientists taking one position and only a few outliers disagreeing with the consensus?

– What are the credentials and backgrounds of the experts on which you are relying. Is their degree generally recognized as valid? Do they have a history of making other dubious or controversial claims? Do they have a history of fraud?

– Overall, how does the new discover, claim, treatment, etc. fit into existing evidence and scientific theories?

– What are the implications of all this for the current stance one should have toward the claim – should it be considered experimental, should it be taught in public science classes, should it be legal, etc. ?

– What steps are needed in the future? What questions need to be resolved?

Adding the above context is exactly what we do at Science-Based Medicine, and at many other “skeptical” blogs. Good science journalists also do this. This is the real story, not the fluff narrative that is better suited to covering the local dog show.

False Balance and Token Skepticism

The balance of the article should generally reflect that balance of scientific acceptance.  If 95% of the scientific community accepts one consensus, then that is what the bulk of the article should reflect. If you feel the other 5% deserves a mention, then it should be given appropriate space, and also put into context (as above).

Stories about politics and social issues requires obsessive balance, because these are mostly based on value-judgments and opinions. For these stories a journalist needs to get the facts right, and make sure that all credible sides have their say.

Science does not work like that. In science, some opinions are objectively better than others. Science stories are about the evidence and the process of science – about finding the best current answer. Science articles need to reflect that.

As soon as you put a pseudoscientist up against a genuine and respected scientist, you have elevated the pseudoscientist to a stature they likely do not deserve. You have framed the story in a very deceptive way that does not reflect the reality.

Bad science journalism generally falls into one of three categories in this regard. Some stories have false balance, where a pseudocontroversy is presented as if it is a real scientific controversy. This is  the false-balance fallacy.

Other stories have what we call token skepticism – most of the article dedicated to giving a forum to the crank and glowing anecdotes, with scant mention of doubt and/or quick commentary by a real scientist. Dater’s article fell into this category.

The third is when even token skepticism is lacking – the story is presented without a hint of skepticism or actual investigation.

Conclusion

Good science journalism requires putting a science news story into a proper context, making sure the narrative that emerges is fair and appropriate to the actual story, and properly balancing different points of view to the scientific consensus and to scientific legitimacy.

This is not easy. It requires, in my opinion, at least a baseline of scientific literacy. It also requires significant background research into the topic, and into any experts upon which the journalist relies.

What we have from Adrian Dater is an excellent example of what happens when a non-science journalist thinks they can dabble in science reporting, without understanding any of the special requirements of competent science reporting. Even more telling that the article itself is Dater’s defense of his journalism. As is often the case with defensive overreaction, he just dug himself in deeper and deeper.

The exchange also highlights for me the new role that science blogs are playing in the reporting of science news. Journalists who write bad science news stories now have to contend with the second wave of science blog analysis. Now actual scientists, or at least dedicated science journalists, can add the missing context, deconstruct a misleading narrative, and rebalance a science news story.

Journalists, like Dater, who encounter this science-blog pushback when they write a naive and misleading piece would be better off if they embrace the criticism and try to learn from it, rather than get into an online fight with someone who actually knows what they are talking about.