Monday, 4 June 2012

Scientific research and commercially motivated over-selling

The blog Dispatches from the Cultural Wars has just included a post Can we please ban the evolutionary article template?  This looks at a news article Missing link found? Scientists unveil fossil of 47 million year old primate which over-hypes the discovery of yet another transitional fossil. 

I decided to add the following comment:

The news item is easy to understand if you realise that much of science has become a commercial industry which sells “new” information about some aspect of the world we live in. While many “pure” scientists may abhor this, the market place is becoming dominated by the need to publicise your self-styled successes in order to grab a larger share of the funds and prestige in a highly competitive market.

Even if you remove any newspaper journalist hype in the article it states that the researchers concerned saw the fossil as the opportunity for a History Channel film, a book release and a slew of other documentaries (probably none of them properly peer reviewed). What they did was what any commercial business would do if it came up with a “me-too” product which looked a bit different – which is to shout very loudly about how important the difference is.
Funding pressures affects what people do in all areas of research, including which areas a student can find an opening to enter research. Wild life research may well have been significantly advanced by innovation in the development of miniature cameras and the ways of using them – and as a result the public pay (directly or though associated advertising) for the research into animal lives. So far so good – but does this mean that the emphasis of the research moves away from the careful analysis of, for example, the analysis of the species diet and health through a study of their droppings, towards looking for visually spectacular but exceptional events which will sell to the TV networks. I am sure the same bias towards the market goes for palaeontology and other areas related to a better of the ways in which evolution has shaped our environment.
Looking back on my own career as a scientist I am sure I would have been far more successful life if I had actively explored the market place, rather than trying to be objective and deliberately critical of my own work in order to see if there were flaws before I went public. However I am sure I would not have been such a good scientist.
Democommie commented:

I agree with the bulk of what you say. Science, as an “industry” goes back a lot further than television and the intertoobz. The real problem, though, isn’t that some scientists misrepresent or allow others to misrepresent their findings. The problem is that the “journalists” are not only lazy in most of their “reporting”; they are, quite simply, unable to understand what they’re being told by the scientists. Add to that the competitive nature of the “news” business and you get situations like one Ed’s OP is about.
I responded:

I don’t deal in wild generalizations, such as the one you have just made about journalists. There are good and well-informed journalists (backed by good sub-editors, and editors) and there are bad ignorant journalists, sub-editors and editors. Such differences in competence this applies to all groups of people – and despite what you say scientists are not immune.
When I was doing my Ph.D. over 50 years ago I wasted a whole year because of errors in a paper (in a top peer reviewed journal) which had been “inflated” by including unsubstantiated claims. I went on to find many cases where experimental scientists has included citations to theoretical research where it was clear they didn’t understand the theory. In the same way theoreticians would cite experimental research which supported their theory – ignoring all citation which might suggest their theory might need revision – or in some case down-right wrong. In no cases were journalists involved in the inclusion of poorly understood and misleading material in the papers. Of course such papers got passed the peer-reviewers because, for example, the experimental papers were targeted at experimental journals and only reviewed by experts in experimental research.
It is important to realise that science has grown so big and subdivided into very narrow specialities to the extent that many trained scientists cannot understand and accurately report on the work of colleagues who work in a different but related discipline. Do you really expect a journalist who has to cover a wide range of science disciplines to have a perfect understanding of those disciplines? He needs to understand the principles underlying scientific research and be a good listener, who asks for explanations when necessary
While I have always worked as a scientist I can understand the problems facing the science journalist. My first science job included preparing research and development reports for an international company selling wide range of veterinary products, insecticides, etc, around the world – so that I needed to be able to understand topics as different as how ostriches were farmed in South Africa, and the way that the U.S. Food & Drug Administration approved new chemical products. I not only had to try and extract the essence of each news item, but had to report it in such a way that would not cause offence, as the report circulated internally to the managers who submitted the original reports. For instance many of the reports from the South African Research Team contained rather dubious statistics, and I needed to find subtle ways of describing the results “accurately” while at the same time including sufficient detail to alert the people who were reading the report that the statistics might need checking.
Later, when working at a university, I wrote book reviews and controversial “Opinion” pages for the New Scientist and articles for other magazines, mainly on scientific subjects. The top priority (if you want to be paid) is that the piece is going to be attractive to the reader – and you need to grab his attention in the title, the first line and (not normally my responsibility) any graphics or illustrations. If you don’t get it right a sub-editor may well “revise” your text to make it “more exciting” or it will get spiked. You may also have to try and convey the essence of a quite complex research project in no more than 500 words of everyday English.
Poor science journalism is likely to occur when a journalist with limited knowledge of the relevant speciality is working with a scientist who thinks all journalists are fools – especially if the scientist is desperate for publicity – as seems to be the case in the news item which started this thread. Things get even worse when the news paper/magazine editor/proprietor is only interested in increasing sales by over-hyping stories – but when this happens this is not necessarily the fault of the journalist.
I can’t comment on the States, but in the UK there a big differences between papers, and the problem is far more likely to be with an editorial policy to over-hype every possible story (not just science) rather than with the poor journalist who was sent out to gather material for the story.

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