Science

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

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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.

NEXT: Lord of the Gadflies

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  1. “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.”

    They do the same thing with global warming or any number of other areas science that tells them what they want to hear. Notice of course, that it would sure as hell be their role if the peer-reviewed study said something like “greater gun ownership causes a lower crimerate”. Then I gaurentee you that most reporters would have no problem questioning the study. All this is is a cop out way of saying “I don’t question anything or anyone who tells me something I agree with.”

  2. “Journalism” has come to mean “recycling press releases”. This is sad.

  3. Does asking about confounding variable cause cancer in children?

    One researcher’s answer may surprise you!

  4. Notice of course, that it would sure as hell be their role if the peer-reviewed study said something like “greater gun ownership causes a lower crimerate”.

    Sure. Like when all of those reporters asked critical questions about the WMDs.

  5. I don’t know why people are surprised that journalists are lazy and many do a shitty job. A lot of people are lazy and do shitty jobs, whatever they do. Look at the DMV.

  6. All this is is a cop out way of saying “I don’t question anything or anyone who tells me something I agree with.”

    From what I’ve seen, it’s not a matter of agreement or disagreement.

    The typical science reporter, when deciding whether to write about some study, is just worrying about whether the story will be interesting to the readers. Or maybe just interesting to his or her editor. This concern often manifests itself as sensationalism.

    The part where the reporter doesn’t ask any questions is just plain old laziness, not agreement or disagreement with the conclusions.

  7. Yes Joe because all threads somehow relate to Iraq. I am not feeding the troll today. Go beg for your meals from someone else.

  8. No, it all relates to the stenographic nature of most reporting these days.

    I didn’t think I had to draw the connection for you, but I guess I was wrong.

  9. And everyone was so excited about a science debate yesterday!

  10. Mike,

    But it seems like what they find interesting fits a particular narrative. Take the Book, the Arming of America for example. That book was reported all over the country as the Gospel truth and turned out to be a complete fraud. In contrast, a book like More Guns Less Crime, rarely gets any press. More Guns Less Crime is very much a man bites dog story. It seems like the kind of thing that would interest readers. Yet, no one was to interested in it. Why? I think it is because it came to conclusions that reporters don’t often agree with. Arming of America did and thus got more press.

  11. Joe, I agree, same with WMD’s. There was no investigative jounalism, and it was compounded by the fact anybody they would have asked, had they thought to ask, anywhere in the world, from any political party, would give the same answer. I’m sure you saw the fairly new news about how that was the answer Hussein wanted his neighbors to hear. But, at the time “Iraq has chemical weapons” was accepted fact. In this case “dope causes gum disease” is not accepted fact. Therfore, in this case more questions should be appropriate to explore this previously unheard of claim.

    Or, was that your point?

  12. Reporters can’t be experts on everything, but they can ask smart questions and seek informed comments regarding a study’s potential weaknesses.

    They can’t if they aren’t all that smart to begin with.

    When I was in J school about an eon ago, I was struck by how uninformed most of my classmates were about current events. For that matter, it was even more striking how many of them were just not the brightest bulbs in the box.

    I never followed through with my degree into the field, but I do know from many conversations with professors and working journalists how it was expected for reporters to be able to write on anything and know next to nothing about the subject.

    That we have this situation is not all that surprising. Sad, but not surprising.

  13. Meh, the same problem crops up across the journalistic spectrum. When the so called stimulus package was being proposed, all the nightly news had to say about it was what form it would take and what results Pres. Bush thought he would get from it. The only dissection of it in my local media came from the guy who writes the economics column for the local paper.

  14. JW,

    When I started to get out in the world a bit and actually began to know something about technical subjects like that law, I was always amazed at how wrong reporters got things. I am not talking about ideological bias, I mean just plain wrong. Legal coverage is especially bad.

  15. When I started to get out in the world a bit and actually began to know something about technical subjects like that law, I was always amazed at how wrong reporters got things.

    That was the beginning of the end for me about journalism. Once you see how error ridden stories on your particular specialty are, you begin to wonder if these errors aren’t just as prevalent in other areas.

  16. John @ 3:53pm: “When I started to get out in the world a bit and actually began to know something about technical subjects like that law, I was always amazed at how wrong reporters got things. I am not talking about ideological bias, I mean just plain wrong. Legal coverage is especially bad.”

    Heck, I’m amazed at how many of them can’t write or edit. The newspapers I read are chocked full of errors in usage, syntax & grammar, not to mention all the typos. So just it is they learn at Journalism school?

  17. Classic. Make a typo in a diatribe about typos. “So just what is it…”

    Thanks in advance to all who will chastise me for that and it’s well deserved.

  18. ut it seems like what they find interesting fits a particular narrative. Take the Book, the Arming of America for example. That book was reported all over the country as the Gospel truth and turned out to be a complete fraud. In contrast, a book like More Guns Less Crime, rarely gets any press. More Guns Less Crime is very much a man bites dog story. It seems like the kind of thing that would interest readers. Yet, no one was to interested in it. Why? I think it is because it came to conclusions that reporters don’t often agree with. Arming of America did and thus got more press.

    Google hits for “The Arming of America” 9,640
    Google hits for “More Guns Less Crime” 13,000

    Obviously that’s not anything like an accurate assessment of press related to each book, but I think it’s enough to support a request for you to provide some evidence of your claim.

    Also, maybe you can provide a Venn diagram that shows the overlaps between “science journalists looking for stories to support the dangers of global warming” and “science journalists looking for stories to support the demonization of marijuana. I’m not seeing the obvious parity you are suggesting.

  19. “chocked full of errors in usage, syntax & grammar”

    Oh, the irony.

  20. Does this attitude of not questioning have anything to do with the amazing credentialism in modern journalism? These days one goes to college to become a journalist. In days of yore, all that was required was an ability to write, some gumption, and a willingness to accept low wages (for most journalists).

    Nowadays, most papers, at least, demand a journalism degree. So, if you buy into credentialism, then are you apt to give credentialed people in peer-reviewed journals too much respect?

    I don’t know. But modern credentialism in journalism strikes me as idiotic. Oh, well. I could be wrong.

  21. The problem is much, much worse when it comes to science reporting. It’s bad enough that peer-reviewed research isn’t given so much as a second glance, but the very same treatment is given to the press releases of groups like the Center For Science in the Public Interest.

    Science-related news is reported as fact, so much so that, for instance, scientists who speak out againast global warming are labeled “global warming deniers.” People in general lack an understanding of the scientific process and the media is complicit in this problem. One doesn’t need to be a scientist to pick up on poor research techniques and broad conclusions that don’t flow from gathered data. And one also doesn’t need to be a scientist to understand that science is an ongoing search for truth and not a means of making definitive answers on complicated subjects.

    Matters are further complicated by the anti-evolution nuts who like to think making shit up in order to question existing scientific theories is part of the scientific method.

    It all adds up to one fucked up population when it comes to science and the media either reflects or perpetuates that problem, depending on your point of view.

  22. Not at all, Shirt. Unless you are a trained professional, paid to post here, and provided with editorial review of your postings, I don’t think your piddling errors can be compared to those of a journalist.

  23. Parse,

    Google hits does not equate to general press coverage. Being mentioned good or bad on 10,000 blogs, doesn’t equal 1/10th of the exposure as one fawning piece on the evening news or good review in the NYT Bookreview.

  24. Legal coverage is especially bad.

    I’m not sure if any coverage is particularly bad, as much as any time you know a lot about what’s being covered, you notice how bad it is. I’m a huge geek, so practically anything technology or software, outside of the specialized outlets, strikes me as absolute factual garbage. If you’re a gamer, you’ll notice how bad mainstream game coverage is (Mass Effect turning the 360 to a “sex box”). If I was a local politician, I bet I’d notice how inaccurate local political coverage was.

    I’m not sure if we can expect any better from lowest-common-denominator type media (and I don’t mean LCD in a snobby way, just by way of professional specialization).

  25. And as a lawyer, I’d agree the reporting of the law and other technical subjects can be bad, but the problem is different when it comes to science. When it comes to the law, it’s like reporters try and just get things wrong. When it comes to science, they’re just not even trying.

  26. Sure. Like when all of those reporters asked critical questions about the WMDs.

    Not a good example…at that time the build up to the war was bipartisan and therefor was lefty safe. Reporters only ask questions about non-lefty information.

    Your example contradicts your argument.

  27. bigbigslacker wrote:
    “Joe, I agree, same with WMD’s. There was no investigative journalism, and it was compounded by the fact anybody they would have asked, had they thought to ask, anywhere in the world, from any political party, would give the same answer.”

    Well, not really. Like, you could have asked anyone from the Iraqi government, or the weapons inspectors, like Scott Ritter, and they would have given a different answer.

  28. “Reporters only ask questions about non-lefty information.”

    I understand the meaning here, but in today’s diverse media I think this statement is far too simplistic. If by “reporters” you mean the major dead-tree newspapers or ABC, CBS, NBC or CNN you are correct. However, the dead-tree newspapers are loosing readers and the alphabet networks are loosing influence. It is far too simplistic to speak about a “media bias.”

  29. …reprint researchers’ press releases…

    Actually, for me a researcher sending out a press release is a warning sign for junk science. It isn’t a perfect predictor, but it is one that makes me take a closer look at the research.

  30. Google hits does not equate to general press coverage.

    Yes, that’s what I meant when I wrote “Obviously that’s not anything like an accurate assessment of press related to each book.” Then I invited you to provide some evidence of your assertion, an invitation you managed to avoid in your response.

    Nor did you respond to the counterintuitive notion that science reporters are lefty tree-huggers who despise the demon weed marijuana, which seems to be implicit in your comment.

    Finally, a quick check of the google results demonstrates that “The Arming of America” isn’t the book you are talking about–it’s a biography of Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson, who served under FDR and Truman. I think the book you mean is “Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture,” which returns less than 2,000 google hits.

  31. School of Journalism

    Our motto: if you can’t make it here, your last chance is Education.

  32. Well, not really. Like, you could have asked anyone from the Iraqi government, or the weapons inspectors, like Scott Ritter, and they would have given a different answer.

    Or you could have sat in your living room watching CSPAN. I knew the WMD story was bullshit when Powell went to the UN. Up until that time the administration was all “You don’t know what we know. We know about the WMDs”. The phrase “slam dunk” was bandied about. The they were like “Alright alright, we’ll tell you what we know. Powell will lay the whole thing out for you”. So Powell starts talking and after about 15 minutes you realize all he’s got is his dick in his hand.

    I don’t know, maybe you need a couple semesters of physics to smell the BS. That still leaves an awful lot of folks that should have seen right through it.

  33. joez law breaking out all over in this thread. You know who you are.

    (Mass Effect turning the 360 to a “sex box”).

    Criminy. One hard PG-13 scene (with, as I vaguely recall, bottoms but no nipples) and its a sex box?

  34. Media produces sensational headlines over questionable studies…film at eleven.

  35. “There is much to be said in favor of modern jornalism. By giving us the opinions of the uneducated, it keeps us in touch with the ignorance of the community.”

  36. Warren,

    I recall everyone I knew who was against the war arguing that an invasion was going to result in Saddam using chemical weapons and killing millions. I can tell you from personal experience of being in Iraq in March of 2003, the military assumed that Saddam had chemical weapons and was going to use them. I was at V Corps Headquarters in Kuwait and later just behind 3 ID when they moved through the Karbala Gap and everyone was on edge over the prospect of Iraq using WMDs. Everyone up to the commanding general put their MOP gear on when the alarms went off. If only you had been there to tell us how Powell had his dick in his hand.

    The fact is that intelligence is very imprecise. People want a definite answer and there rarely is one. We know now that Saddam was afraid of being invaded by Iran and was bluffing to make sure Iran thought he still had WMDs. He also still had the scientists and the equipment necessary to ramp up production whenever the heat was off. Now it is easy to say, we should have known. But at the time, it wasn’t nearly as obvious and a lot of people on both sides of the war debate took Saddam at his word that he had WMDs and was going to use them. It may have been wrong, but it wasn’t unreasonable at the time.

  37. “Not a good example…at that time the build up to the war was bipartisan and therefor was lefty safe. Reporters only ask questions about non-lefty information.”

    In my opinion the media leans both left and right. The bottom line for the MSM is to support the status quo. The MSM uses its support of various “wars” ie War on Drugs, War on Terror, War on Poverty, etc to keep the uninformed masses clamoring for protection from the state and the states handlers. Conservative news is as crazy as liberal news each of them panders to their particular demographic.

  38. War has always been a government program. Read your history books not “his”story check out War is A Racket. War is not about national defense it is about profits always has been always will be. I know LRC was on blast around here for a while but they have good information available you just need to keep your BS locator on while reading the articles. If you want information about libertarian writings from the past and today I haven’t found a better site yet and I’ve been looking.

  39. “Conservative news is as crazy as liberal news each of them panders to their particular demographic.”

    True, when Fox News Channel first came into my area in the 1990’s I liked it. It was a breath of fresh air compaired to the alphabet networks. I was never of the opinion it was “fair and ballanced” but it was nice to see a different slant on things. But for about the past five years or so it has become increasingly anoying and obviously pandering – especially that morning program “Fox & Friends”. There is still one good show on it though, one show that is still worth watching if you get a chance: Fox News Watch. I can’t stand the rest of it anymore.
    http://www.foxnews.com/foxnewswatch/

  40. John, I’d still like to see some evidence of your basic premise–that the failure to question scientific studies attributing alarming health risks to using marijuana is evidence of the media’s left wing bias.

  41. School of Journalism

    Our motto: if you can’t make it here, your last chance is Education.

    Cold. Brutally cold.

    In my own field of alledged expertise (modern weapons systems) the MSM never gets it right. It’s wrong, incomplete or irrelevant. You have to go to specialty publications to get anything close to useful. The folks at Jane’s are pretty damned good. Not 100% accurate or complete but, given the subject matter, that is to be expected.

    I’ll go out on a limb here and wager that evry professional thinks that MSM reporting sucks related to their field. Then they go to specialty publications that are too dry for anyone not really intersted in the subject.

    I’m going to cut MSM reporters a little slack here. Being tasked to dumb things down to the general populace’s level, while not screwing the reportage all up, is not an enviable task.

  42. John,
    I basically agree with you. I figured it was likely that Saddam had chemical weapons. If I was Saddam, I’d would have had chemical weapons. The point I was making was about how the administration was “Slam Dunk” sure he had WMDs. They went on and on about mushroom clouds and so forth. But when they showed their hand, it was all conjecture and rumor.

    Now we know he had chem weapons, so he could have buried them anywhere. It would be hard to say one way or the other. But we were told he was making nuclear weapons. And for that you need facilities bigger than you could hide in a sand dune. Manufacturing nuclear weapons is not something you could possibly do in secret if the United States Government was looking at you.

    Also the whole Saddam links to Al Qaeda was transparent nonsense too.

  43. “Being tasked to dumb things down to the general populace’s level, while not screwing the reportage all up, is not an enviable task.”

    I’ll go out on a limb here and say that the proportion of the public that cares about political or scientific news enough to read or watch something other than celebrity news or sports news neither needs nor wants news to be “dumbed down.” Sure, there are a lot of idiots out there but most of them do not pay attention at all. Many of them do not vote (I wish none of them did.) The MSM is loosing ground to althernative news sources and for good reason: the MSM dumbs down when they need not do so.

  44. The dumbing down wouldn’t be so bad if people didn’t tend to suspend their disbelief when watching news programs. Most people who watch the news believe what they see because it is “news” it wouldn’t be on TV if it wasn’t true. I find it hard to cut the MSM slack because there is no excuse for not at least getting the facts of a situation right if you are calling yourself a reporter.

  45. PIRS –

    Darned good point. Joe shit doesn’t even read the article about Yucca Mountains and nuclear waste beyond the headlines. Why not write the piece for the 5% who will read the thing?

    Of course that costs money. Five percent of your audience maybe just isn’t worth it. So I go elsewhere for the info. It’s out there if you’re willing to search. The Intertubes help a lot if you possess a calibrated B/S detector.

  46. Many of them do not vote (I wish none of them did.)

    I agree maybe we should go to a system of voting where questions are asked about the candidate the potential voter will be voting for and if the voter doesn’t know the answer they don’t get to vote for that candidate. And while we are at it we could institute a law that requires our politicians to know the ins and outs or pros and cons of legislation before they get to vote on it. (Not all the way serious) I’m not suggesting a “poll tax” just a “know some basic facts tax” before anyone is allowed to commandeer my rights to benefit there particular interest group.

  47. J Sub D,

    Thanks,

    It may cost money on the margin to hire better quality reporters (or fire incompitent ones) but I think it would pay them in the long term because it would stop some of the bleading. They need to compete for those of us who actually pay attention. You are right that the intertubes have a great many of resources and it is to those resources that many go no rather than watch the MSM. If they want me as a customer they need to stop dumbing down their reporting. Getting at least most of the facts right wouldn’t hurt either.

  48. James,

    I would just be happy with a system where pottential voters had to take a short test on the contents of the U.S. Constitution before voting. You have no business voting on people to fill a job if you do not know what that job is. And I also like the Read the Bills Act idea that Downsize DC is promoting.
    http://www.downsizedc.org/read_the_laws.shtml

  49. “Sure. Like when all of those reporters asked critical questions about the WMDs.”

    Sure because no one in the press was critical about Bush’s so-called “rush” to war and his justifications for it. Good ole joe, still dumb as fuck I see.

  50. “And one also doesn’t need to be a scientist to understand that science is an ongoing search for truth and not a means of making definitive answers on complicated subjects”

    That is a lesson hypocritical assholes like Al Gore need to learn.
    And joe, you are still fucking retarded.

  51. Without reading the thread, I will pause to bask in the intense irony of Jacob Sullum giving advice about responsible reportage on science…

  52. “Our motto: if you can’t make it here, your last chance is Education.”

    There are a lot worse gigs than teaching, and journalism is one of them.

  53. “There are a lot worse gigs than teaching, and journalism is one of them.”

    Potentially shitty choice either way: reporter for a small-town newspaper, OR adjunct professor at the University of Phoenix.

    If those are my career options, I’d rather work retail.

  54. I often review academic sabermetric (statistical analysis of sports) studies on my blog, and there are often serious problems with the methodology or conclusions.

    For instance, about a year ago, there was a study that purported to show that teams who do a lot of fighting win more hockey games. It turned out that the authors just misapplied the output of the regression — an obvious undergrad error that should certainly have been caught. But the papers didn’t get anyone to comment, and ran a huge article touting the result.

    A high proportion of these kinds of studies have flaws, even (IMO) the ones by more famous academics. I would imagine the same would apply in other fields, fields that I know nothing about.

  55. Without reading the thread, I will pause to bask in the intense irony of Jacob Sullum giving advice about responsible reportage on science…

    Me, too, NM. Me, too.

  56. “There are a lot worse gigs than teaching, and journalism is one of them.”

    Well, agreed… mostly.

    My ex was a public school music teacher, and you’d be hard pressed to beat the holiday time that she received. People often forget to add that into the equation. She made 45,000 a year, and could have made an extra 10,000 a year if she taught in a horrid area. She didn’t have kids, so it was clearly enough to live nicely on. Other people’s mileage may vary.

    The politics of public schools is another story.

    Ultimately, while teachers have to grade homework, as a journalist you get paid a shitty wage to do someone else’s homework, which I find utterly bizarre.

  57. The funny thing about parse’s takedown of John’s assertion about the two gun-ownership books is that John’s argument began by criticizing other people for basing their reporting on “established narratives” and not finding out the objective truth when it goes against those narratives.

    And B still needs a hug. I don’t know what poster I’ve smacked around too much is hiding behind that letter, but dude is hurting.

  58. I recommend reading the Skeptic Society’s essay:

    “Journalist-Bites-Reality!
    How broadcast journalism is flawed
    in such a fundamental way that its utility as a tool for informing viewers is almost nil..”.

    It explains many, many things…

    http://omniclimate.wordpress.com/2008/02/13/skeptics-society-how-broadcast-journalism-is-flawed/

    http://www.skeptic.com/eskeptic/08-02-13.html#feature

  59. I agree that science reporters have the responsibility to research a subject and include confounding information. We would all be much better served, for example, if science reporters would take a more skeptical approach to AGW rather than automatically falling in line behind the politicians at the UN that authored the report. The public deserves to know that there are those in the scientific community that have serious disagreements with the conclusions and recommendations of that report.

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