08
Dec
10

Bad Science+Bad Journalism=Bad Publicity

It is unusual how press-conference-quality-science often doesn’t meet the qualifications of undergraduate-quality-science. Examples of this include Ida, arsenic DNA, vaccines cause autism; I could go on, but you get the idea. All of these have several things in common, many things wrong, and interesting lessons. These are important for many reasons, but mostly because, even with bad science, we can learn from them.

Ida-that delightful little Darwinius masillae fossil from the Messel pit in the southwest corner of the state of Hesse in Germany-was a gorgeous fossil, and could have been even more remarkable had it been properly studied without trying shoehorn this little fossil as a transitional form between Strepsirrhini and Haplorhini by only comparing her to living primates. You cannot use paleontology to prove a point while simultaneously ignoring all of the other paleontological finds.

The autism-vaccine crap utilized something else entirely, several somethings to be more precise. It relied on a small uncontrolled study (12 data points) to draw sweeping conclusions. Data were manipulated to show a stronger correlation. Some of the children had medically documented problems BEFORE they received the vaccines while others did not show any problems even after being vaccinated (except in the paper). So these data were very well cooked and manipulated to fit the conclusions Wakefield (and/or the lawyers that had been paying him) wanted.

The arsenic DNA debacle is the most recent of these cases of highly publicized bad science. If you look closely enough, though, you can find a number of similarities between the “science” of all of them.

1) There’s always a press conference in really bad science, not like “MHC effects mate selection” bad–which was pretty bad, but seems to be an honest mistake, but “not even wrong” bad or ignoring/misrepresenting previous research.
2) The paper is always released at the same time as said press conference leaving no time for review.
3) The data/methods/conflicts of interest are not fully disclosed

There are a few other things that these cases have in common:
1) Discrepancies between the press conference and paper
2) Overly simple explanations of the paper during the press conference
3) The press conference will often present wild implications of the scientific impact of the paper.

If all of these high profile press conferences continue to be facepalm inducing botches, it will continue to diminish the public perception of science. So, as someone educated but (unfortunately and not by choice) not active in the scientific community, go where the research leads, not where you want the data to lead.

Advertisements

3 Responses to “Bad Science+Bad Journalism=Bad Publicity”


  1. 1 Pliny-the-in-Between
    December 10, 2010 at 2:55 pm

    In the end, the arsenic paper made me want to reach for same.
    The completely unfiltered nature of media access today may do more to obfuscate truth amongst a growing overburden of trash than it does to disseminate knowledge.

  2. 2 jaredcormier
    December 10, 2010 at 5:46 pm

    I’m fairly certain I get more reliable science reporting via facebook and twitter…

  3. 3 Pliny-the-in-Between
    December 10, 2010 at 6:20 pm

    Too true. I had an interesting experience recently when a local media person had gotten wind of our work. This person wanted an interview but mostly wanted us to play up our research (ie – make wild claims). We refused and offered to host an open discussion on the current state of the work and our next steps in development. No interest. I tend not to be much of a media darling since I tend to be extremely conservative with any statements and favor tightly controlled incremental pilot implementations. I’ll never make it on to Oprah now….


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


Join the best atheist themed blogroll!

RSS Adventures in Ethics and Science

  • An error has occurred; the feed is probably down. Try again later.

RSS Blag Hag

  • An error has occurred; the feed is probably down. Try again later.

RSS denialism blog

  • An error has occurred; the feed is probably down. Try again later.

RSS ERV

  • An error has occurred; the feed is probably down. Try again later.

RSS Greg Laden’s Blog

  • An error has occurred; the feed is probably down. Try again later.

RSS Laelaps

  • An error has occurred; the feed is probably down. Try again later.

RSS Lawful Good Wonk

  • An error has occurred; the feed is probably down. Try again later.

RSS Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

  • An error has occurred; the feed is probably down. Try again later.

RSS Pharyngula

  • An error has occurred; the feed is probably down. Try again later.

RSS Tetrapod Zoology

  • An error has occurred; the feed is probably down. Try again later.

RSS White Coat underground

  • An error has occurred; the feed is probably down. Try again later.

Older stuff

wordpress stats

%d bloggers like this: