Scientists should not be given the right to fact check the press

Last week, Dr Petroc Sumner, Dr Frederic Boy and Dr Chris Chambers, all from the School of Psychology at Cardiff University, argued in the Guardian that “Scientists should be allowed to check stories on their work before publication”. The only sensible and rational response to that is “No, they should not.”

Sumner, Boy and Chambers argue that scientists should be given veto because:

  1. Scientific papers are peer reviewed so have already been scrutinised by independent eyes, implying that journalists therefore don’t need to be themselves independent when reporting such papers.
  2. There are no political parties in science, ergo there can be no ‘conspiracies’
  3. Scientists have nothing to gain and a lot to loose from exaggerated claims in the press
  4. It’s the only way to ensure accuracy

What utter tosh.

There is no doubt at all that quite a bit of science journalism is appalling, riven by inaccuracies, biases and sometimes just complete twaddle. You only have to read Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science to see what a mess journalists get themselves into. The problem is that Sumner, Boy and Chambers are engaging in special pleading on the basis of four flawed premises:

Firstly, scientific papers may well get peer reviewed, but that doesn’t mean that they are correct, it simply means that they have been looked at by some other scientists who either can’t find or won’t find fault. Papers get retracted when problems come to light later on, so peer review is not a guarantee that a paper is correct.

Secondly, the idea that there are no lines to toe in science is utter bunkum. There may not be political parties but there certainly are scientific orthodoxies, and that means lines to toe. The fact that something has become orthodoxy does not, in and of itself, guarantee that it is correct. Prevailing theories do get overturned when new evidence comes to light and, whilst those who make extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence to back them up, science has a rich history of exactly that.

Point three only needs to be answered with one word: Ego.

And point four shows a spectacular misunderstanding of the journalistic process and the factors that cause errors and misinformation to propagate. Let’s take a quick look at some of these (I’m sure there are more, please do add them in the comments!):

  1. Good journalists on tight deadlines have little time and few resources to do comprehensive reading and research on a story, so mistakes,  misunderstandings and inaccuracies can easily creep in to the work even of the most dedicated.
  2. University and research institution press releases, and sometimes even scientists themselves, can be misleading. Sometimes those inaccuracies are picked up by the journalist, sometimes they make it through to press.
  3. Some hacks and editors don’t actually give a shit whether something is accurate, they simply want a shocking or outrageous story that they think will get them lots of readers.
  4. Some hacks have financial relationships with the companies whose “science” they are writing about, destroying any vestiges of impartiality they might once have claimed.

Which of these scenarios would actually be helped by adding an extra layer of “fact checking” by scientists? In the first case, the journalist doesn’t have time/resource so the fact checking just isn’t going to happen. In the second, the fact checking would be undermined by the very people doing it as they would only propagate their own inaccuracies. And again, in the third and fourth scenarios, facts are irrelevant, so why would they get checked?

There are things that would help, however:

  1. Additional time and resources for science journalism and appropriate training . This is frankly never going to come from the news organisations themselves because they are all struggling to survive and science is seen all too often as a minority sport. It might be that a well-respected science communications charity or NGO could fund training for journalists wanting to cover science, e.g. in how to interpret papers and how to understand statistics. They would also need to fund the journalist’s actual work, ensuring that they had the time and resources required to do a good job.
  2. News organisations need to take complaints about inaccuracies more seriously. Even the so-called quality newspapers don’t always pay any attention to readers who point out problems in science stories. Often, then will officially stand by the most egregious bullshit because they’d rather not have to deal with the fact that they got it wrong.
  3. Some sort of standards commission with real power should hold all news organisations to account, forcing them to make corrections and imposing significant fines for the most egregious misbehaviour. I’d say “Maybe the PCC could do this sort of thing”, but they’re a spineless, toothless waste of time. If there was any censure at all of misinformation in the media, some of which is actively harmful to the reader’s health, maybe this conversation wouldn’t be dragging on and on for years, as it actually is.
  4. Oh, and here’s an innovative one: Maybe university press departments should stop sexing up press releases, liaise more tightly with their own scientists to get their facts right, and provide any relevant photos, graphs, graphics and data in reusable formats with a clear and concise explanation of what they illustrate. Of the press releases covering scientific topics that I’ve had to work from, none gave me even half of what I needed.
  5. Scientists should be responsive to press enquiries, and should prepare FAQs, lists of relevant links and re-usable quotes about their research up front. Their papers should be available, along with a proper bio and even photos, just in case. Whilst most of the scientists I’ve dealt with have been very responsive, none have sent me a link to a website with background info and relevant resources on it that I could use to quickly bring myself up to speed before asking them specific question. It would have saved everyone’s time if they had done that. (Plus it’d be a great thing for me to link to in my articles!)

Science journalism isn’t actually a collaboration between scientist and journalist, it’s a process of interpretation which depends on both sides being independent of the other.

So what would happen if Sumner, Boy and Chambers got their wish?

Well, where there’s orthodoxy there’s the opportunity for new ideas and voices to be suppressed when they come into conflict with established bodies. Although science is supposed to be immune to this, it does sometimes – thankfully rarely – happen. If there are no independent science journalists, there’s no opportunity for new voices and evidence to be heard.

When scientists get it wrong, which they do, we need science journalists like Goldacre need to be able to criticise their methodologies, assumptions and conclusions free from interference. If Goldacre had to pass everything he wrote past the people he was writing about, he would get almost nothing published.

In short, we would see the wholesale marginalisation of dissent, and not just dissent from the journalist, but from opposing scientific voices too. It would be, in short, a disaster for science and science communication.

(Hat tip: Glyn Mottershead.)