Science Writer's Motto: We Don't Ask Questions. That Is Not Our Role.


Over at AlterNet, Bruce Mirken of the Marijuana Policy Project suggests questions reporters should have asked about a recent trio of cannabis studies that generated alarming headlines. In addition to the lung cancer study I discussed the other day, he covers a study of marijuana withdrawal and a study of the association between pot smoking and gum disease that prompted an Australian news site to announce that marijuana "makes teeth fall out." The saddest part of Mirken's article is this response from an American editor to his suggestion that reporters should have asked about the possible influence of confounding variables, such as dental hygiene and use of other drugs, on the link between marijuana and bad gums:

We are dealing with a peer-reviewed journal study, and I don't feel at all comfortable going beyond what they are publishing. That is not our role.

Any journalist who doesn't feel comfortable going beyond what appears in a medical journal to put a study's findings in context and offer caveats where appropriate has no business writing about science. Reporters can't be experts on everything, but they can ask smart questions and seek informed comments regarding a study's potential weaknesses. If news organizations refuse to do so on the grounds that the study was peer reviewed and therefore must be faultless, they might as well just reprint researchers' press releases. Which is pretty much what they do, all too often.