Friday, June 3, 2011


Since I believe in fairness, I'd like to publish a response to my post about research in the lay press. A professional journalist was kind enough to mail me his take on the subject:

Dear Dr. Grumpy

To defend my profession:

You scientists DO understate the results of studies to "may possibly". It's not until you see lots of people die of something called "cancer" that you state the disease "isn't even a single disease- it's hundreds."

And a good scientist needs to have his or her nails removed without painkillers before one will state that, "XYZ causes ABC." How long did it take to figure out smoking causes cancer? That too much fat is not good for the heart?

That leaves Marty Anyreader wondering what the heck cancer is, and why, after throwing all that money at the problem, medical folks can't cure Cousin Tillie's breast cancer.

And you expect us journalists to explain that? We, who were the champion spitballers in the back of the room while you guys were soaking up all the teacher's attention? The ones who didn't take a single science course or even (gasp) statistics and probability in college?

Now, multiply that problem throughout the population of newspaper readers and television viewers. You have less than 30 seconds to explain a complicated scientific discovery to Marty Anyreader before he loses interest. So, editors think they have to "punch up" the story. Heaven forbid that he/she/it misses the Cure For Cancer!

Remember, as a journalist, our understanding of the basic science involved is sketchy at best. Readers/viewers is less than that (I know there are PhDs and the like out there, but ...)
Anyway, I think you see the problem. It's like explaining to Ms. Anypatient that she has Glioblastoma Multiforme. You have more time than we do. A little more at least. And your patient has more interest

My suggestion (besides requiring basic science for journalism students) is that scientists keep writing for other scientists. The research is valuable even if it does wind up in "Genetics Research and Lab Decor." However, when the article is published know that there will be a writer from "Dead Rat Weekly" who is having "Pulitzerchosis" and is itching to be the next Woodward or Bernstein.

In defense of my hungry colleague: Dr. Hodgkin's results, no matter how obscure, still suggest SOMETHING that might stop the cancer's spread.

To a scientist that is promising. Worth looking at further. I don't know if the result in the math sense is a significant number, but to a layperson, it is interesting. To someone with ovarian cancer or a loved one with ovarian cancer, it's a lifeline.

Maybe (or maybe not) it's something that will treat human ovarian cancer. But at least it will add to our store of knowledge.

But remember what I said about the science background of most journalists. To Reporter Hungry and Editor Avarice, this is big stuff. So it gets headlines.

And then doctors get women and their families wanting to know why YOU aren't using Dr. Hodgkin's' latest advance.


There is your audience and your "translator" to the masses. Good luck.

Dr. Grumpy responds:

Thank you for your letter. I appreciate you sharing your side of the issue.

I agree with you. All research, and every breakthrough, has to start somewhere. People focus on Penicillin being discovered by accident, but ignore that those situations are exceedingly rare. The majority of medical breakthroughs take a lot of time, patience, and money.

The trouble isn't in the research, it's how people make a huge leap of illogic from preliminary findings in non-humans, and suddenly want that treatment TODAY! A lot of treatments that looked remarkably good in preliminary stuff (look up Dimebon if you wish) have later fizzled in large scale human trials.

One topic that I did NOT touch on is the number of times you guys are screwed over by an unscrupulous Dr. Hodgkin. It wasn't really the main theme of the post, but I could have written this instead:

"Let's say Dr. Hodgkin does some research on rat ovarian cells. He finds that in 25% of rats with ovarian cancer, there is a gene that may be able to stop cancer spread.

He gets published in the obscure journal Genetics Research and Lab Decor. But no one pays attention. And to continue his research, he needs money. And he'd also like a promotion. But his stuff is obscure enough that he doesn't get a grant.

So he calls Mr. Hungry Reporter, and "leaks" his results in a way that makes them sound far more promising, and immediate. Mr. Reporter isn't a scientist, and has to take the story at face value. So he publishes what Dr. Hodgkin told him, making it sound like the cure of ovarian cancer is close.

Now the attention is on Dr. Hodgkin. His university is in the spotlight, and suddenly wants to put money into his program (after all, they don't want to look like they're ignoring a cure for cancer), so they solicit donors and promote Dr. Hodgkin. When his research is, in fact, anything but groundbreaking. He's simply manipulated the media in a way that is unethical (or pretty damn close)."



Dr. J said...

The other issue is that news bureaus used to employ science writers, that is people cross trained in journalism and science who could adequately navigate these issues. Now the science reporter is also the politics reporter and also covers the asia file.
Science news is, for the most part, misleading even when reported by well intentioned non-science journalists.
Dr. J

Anonymous said...

The gentleman's name is Zamboni, not Hodgkin.

gena said...

Y'know, maybe I'm taking the journalist's response too seriously, but I call bullshit.

Part of a journalist's job, at least in my not so humble opinion, is fact-checking. If you've managed to get a BA at any college, part of what you should have learned is critical thinking, regardless of what your major is. If you're gonna take the time to write an article for publication to the masses, it seems to me that there's an inherent responsibility to make sure you understand what the hell you're talking about before unleashing it on others. And if you don't, ASK QUESTIONS. "Throwing a lifeline" with "maybe kinda" is irresponsible and cruel. You don't give someone hope based on "may possibly."

The idea that you've got 30 seconds to get a readers' attention smacks of a cop-out to me. The average reader isn't stupid. If you're losing them, perhaps it's because the writing is sub-par.

Anonymous said...

Hm, if anyone sounds Grumpy it's the journalist.

KJH said...

my rebuttal to the journalist:
if you don't understand the complicated science, you are completely unable and unqualified to explain it to anyone, much less marty anyreader. like it or not, you are the reason so much crap gets spewed by the media. at this point, i think any intelligent person completely ignores whatever you write/talk about and finds a source of REAL news. nice try, but at this point you belong to a profession of mudslingers, and i have no respect for you or your "work."

dr. grumpy - what i said above is exactly the reason dr. hodgkins can manipulate the media as easily as he often does. if they are claiming to be good journalists, they should do their research and fact-check the crap out of whatever it is they're going to publish/talk about. there's no excuse for the drivel that's counts as our "news" today.

Anonymous said...

a troll walks the night.

Don said...

There is another point that can be made here: While your correspondent seems to be knowledgeable in the medical field, far too many journalists are not. I see this a lot when it comes to the defense and aerospace fields, where I work. Too many journalists are largely ignorant of what they write about. They usually either take just what they are given by the PR people from the big firms, or they get their stories from weirdoes wearing tin-foil hats and listening to Radio Neptune.
This is a generalization, of course. But I have to cringe when I read stories on subjects that I have a professional level working knowledge of, that are completely and utterly claptrap. It is one reason that I stopped buying newspapers a few years ago.
His suggestion that journalism students take some science courses is excellent, and for those wanting to work covering aerospace and technology, possibly some low level engineering classes. Or at least read up on the field(s).
Still it is a very interesting discussion.

Albinoblackbear said...

Ben Goldacre really takes journalists to task on this whole issue (in an exceptionally interesting chapter in his book, Bad Science).

He cites the reasons mentioned by the journalist as the main problems with the 'system' and how health information is disseminated but doesn't let them off the hook for those reasons. After all, look at the damage that the media caused with the whole MMR hoax--and how little they've done in reparation.

Goldacre basically devotes his blog to this kind of stuff and did an interesting piece not too long ago in a similar vein:

I do think that journalists have an uphill battle in terms of distributing health information/research findings but with the way social media works these days the firestorm that can result as a consequence to ill-researched articles is far reaching and downright dangerous.

Once you scatter the feathers from the rooftop it's impossible to gather them all up again.

I don't know if the responder's suggestion of basic science education for journalists was meant to be tongue in cheek...but I think it is valid suggestion, especially if they are planning a career in that type of journalism!!

Or maybe we just need more statisticians and medical professionals to get a degree in journalism.

Or both.

Mr Mobius said...

The easiest explanation for the lay-reader about why these things have to go through so many trials is probably the latest storyline in House, where Dr House attempts to use a drug which is in trials of lab rats because it has shown promise to cure his chronic leg pain.

Turns out the drug does, but at an expense of forming rhabdomyomas (or worse?).

I.e. the reason why it takes a decade for most drugs to get to a licensing stage instead of being released with the slightest benefit observed.

Anonymous said...

As Gena said above, journalists are supposed to check the facts. SUPPOSED to. Just the other day I read an article in our newspaper that used Wikipedia as its sole reference. I know that because the author wrote "According to Wikipedia..." I can look up Wikipedia myself!
Having only journalists trained in science and statistics writing these articles sounds like a fine idea to me. Journalists writing about politics should get some training in statistics too. I am so sick of seeing those news stories during elections that inform readers "The Whatever Party is up 2% in the polls according to the latest survey, which has a 2% margin of error" and then proceeds to discuss why the party's standing in the polls has increased - because they genuinely don't understand what a margin of error is.

Anonymous said...

Anyone can post on Wikipedia. It gets peer-reviewed for more than most newscasts of papers.
The "journalist's defense of doing a half-assed job is precisely why nobody with any grasp of reality beyond the weathergirl's rack takes the media seriously.
One can Google the work cited in a news article and read a far more concise treatment thereof. The internet has, indeed, replaced the news media for factual information provided one has an active bullshit filter, and turns it on.

The Mother said...

Let me add that the "latest and greatest" research being touted by the media isn't even always legitimate.

We can't expect untrained media to know the difference between a Wakefield and a real scientist, I suppose. But if the media showed even a tinge of skepticism, perhaps the anti-vaccine movement wouldn't have gained the enormous head of steam it did. And we wouldn't be in the middle of a serious measles epidemic, just waiting for the first deaths. Nor would we be desperately hoping that polio doesn't reappear.

That's why this form of journalism is irresponsible.

Anonymous said...

I would like to thank the "journalist" for responding and confirming that their profession is now less competent than the average science blogger. Let's be clear, the "journalist" who wrote you is not a "professional". I have no doubt they are getting paid for their work, but professionals do not revel in ignorance or incompetence.


Anonymous said...

Wait. Journalists don't have to take science, stats and probability in college? I thought EVERYONE had to take at least a basic course in those things. My BA is in psychology and I had to take statistics (which I referred to as sadistics) probability and biology. Journalism majors have it easy!

Ben S said...

Relevant topic.

Part two.

"And you expect us journalists to explain that?"


Anonymous said...

As a former working journalist, please let me clear up a few things.

#1 - I have no idea where this guy went to school, but at my university we HAD to take science courses as well as the dreaded statistics class. These were in addition to courses in history, geography, geology, psychology, sociology, foreign culture, and political science.

No one can be an expert in every subject. We just try to have a good understanding of most of them so we can convert that knowledge into some reasonably coherent writing.

#2 - The first job an eager journalism graduate attains is the lowly grunt work of rewriting press releases. Every new science discovery, medical research trial, animal rights activist stunt/legislative quarrel/ environmental plea or physics argument (wow, there's a lot of arguing physicists!) is written up as a press release & sent to all major news outlets.

Most press releases are ignored. The ones that catch the editor's attention are slapped on the rookie's desk with no instruction other than "rewrite this so that it fits the lifestyle/current events/sports or newsy section of our paper." It's a depressing job and probably equivalent to the med student/intern paying-of-the-dues process.

At first, the eager young reporter attempts to verify facts & get a personal interview with the subject of the press release. They are rebuked at every turn because NO ONE wants to speak with the press - even those who wish to use the press for their own gain! It's sick really. Do you honestly have to wonder why most journalists are so jaded & cynical?

#3 - All journalism students are told in their very first writing class that they must write so that someone with no more than a 5th grade education can understand their article. THAT is the level most newspapers must adhere to and it's disheartening & disgusting.

So, basically, all of the enthusiasm & excitement of the new journalist is systematically drained out of them until they are snarling, chain-smoking alcoholics on their 4th marriage. It's a fairly ugly profession.

That said, I agree with most of you. I believe the writing is getting WORSE. I can't believe some of the things I read now because they distort the true meaning so badly - ESPECIALLY in regard to statistics. It's embarrassing to think that the graduates of today are THAT moronic. :-(

Moose said...

The journalist is arguing that they have to dumb it down because people are dumb?

YAY! Let's just keep them that way.

*sigh* Can I PLEASE live on another planet now???

Anonymous said...

In the meantime, Dr. Hodgkin's colleagues, many of whom do research just as good or better, think Dr Hodgkin is a total jerk for running to the media. They are, of course, totally correct.

ANOther said...

"And if you don't, ASK QUESTIONS. "Throwing a lifeline" with "maybe kinda" is irresponsible and cruel. You don't give someone hope based on "may possibly." "

This is what I wanted to say but couldn't find the words. My Dad has pancreatic cancer and I've heard one or two of these "may possiblys" lately and each one has been a crushing let down when further investigated.

Unknown said...

ESPECIALLY in regard to statistics. It's embarrassing to think that the graduates of today are THAT moronic.

Years ago, the Austin newspaper ran a story that because X% of the blood samples taken at the University of Texas student health center were HIV positive, X% of the students at UT were also HIV positive. I had no idea the bar for critical thinking was so low in the newspaper world, but now I trust almost nothing I read.

Jen in Cincinnati said...

actually, the "fact" that too much fat is bad for the heart, is not even a fact. journalism should require thorough research and understanding of sources of bias, even in scientific publishing.

dlazerka said...

Please, write one more post about another illogical leap:
Cellphones harm does not mean radiation harm. I heard rumors that main cause is additional stress, not radiation.

SampleOfAwesome said...

Three words:

Jenny McCarthy, Autism

Anonymous said...

@Class factotum - In my statistics class, the professor used this example of horrible conclusion jumping to explain how (and how not) to critically assess statistics:

When ice cream sales increase, violent crime also increases. This MUST mean that eating ice cream provokes violent behavior!

Uh no, fool, it's called SUMMER. Tempers tend to rise during unbearable heat. The beating-season just so happens to coincide with the desire to cool oneself with a cold dessert. :-p

It's been a looong time since I was in college, but that example always stayed with me and I investigate the stats behind ALL ridiculous claims now. You just wouldn't believe some of the idiocy I've encountered!

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