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From President-elect Donald Trump’s tweets to Facebook fabrications, 2016 has been the year of “post-truth.” Fortunately, we have science to rescue us from fake news, right?

Maybe not. Just as some political reporters were taken in by fake news during the election cycle, science journalists also fell for their share of it this year. Examples abound on HealthNewsReview, which rates coverage of medical reporting. These include the breathless and most likely incorrect revelation that actor Ben Stiller skirted death by getting a screening test for prostate cancer. Or Sheryl Crow’s nuance-free and deeply misleading promotion of 3-D mammography for the imaging company Hologic. Or the Cage Match of Credulity, in which Dr. Oz “interviewed” then-candidate Trump about his health, a journalistic farce that redefined the word softball.

Science itself never falls victim to this sort of distortion though, does it? We wish that was so. Take, for example, a conspiracy theory about cloud trails from jet planes that was published in a peer-reviewed journal. How about a study linking vaccines to autism long after such a connection had been thoroughly debunked? That one was published in a public health journal. Or this fake news whopper: HIV doesn’t cause AIDS. A peer-reviewed paper made that claim until it was retracted.


We could go on. But as you’ve gathered by now, science in its current state isn’t exactly keeping us safe from bogus research. Predatory publishers continue to churn out papers for a price, with minimal peer review — or very often no peer review — to vet the results. Unscrupulous researchers use those and other soft spots in the scientific publishing system to get away with presenting wild theories or cooking their data.

Journalists who don’t fact-check deserve criticism, whether the topic is politics, entertainment, or science. But the real trouble with fake news is when there’s a kernel of truth in the pile of garbage. That’s especially problematic in science: scientists continue to dress up weak findings in flashy clothes, all the better to publish with. Then their universities often bolster this flimsy work with frothy press releases that journalists fall for.


The antidote is simple — in theory, at least. Scientists need to focus less on pumping out articles and more on producing replicable and robust results. The journalists who cover them, meanwhile, should spend less energy trying to follow the bouncing ball of what the latest data show and devote more time to finding context for those findings. (Just in case you need evidence journalists aren’t always doing that, we have an, um, study about it.)

In a thought experiment designed to generate more informative science news, John Rennie, former editor in chief of Scientific American, once proposed a self-imposed “moratorium that forbade writing about new scientific findings until six months after their journal publication.” Rennie’s proposal, which he floated six years ago, was really just a trial balloon. He (and we) think journalists should write about what they want, when they want. But they should also take time to figure out whether the findings are likely to hold up.

Come to think of it, that might work for political coverage, too. Instead of posting a story 20 minutes after Trump’s latest tweet, maybe journalists who cover the administration should hold off on their stories until they’ve verified what the new president and his mouthpieces are really saying. (Before our colleagues shout “Not all reporters!” — we know that good reporters already do this.) True, the pace of news would slow down dramatically, but so would the flow of fake stories.

That’s an experiment worth testing.

  • While the concept of “fake news” is no doubt concerning, given we rely on the media to provide us with news stories rooted in research and fact, what is even more concerning to me is that the topic of 3D Mammography would be included under such a descriptor in this piece. As a leading radiologist and breast imager at one of the most reputable hospitals in the country, I find it alarming that STAT would refer to this technology in such a way that undermines the hundreds of clinical studies that have proven its effectiveness in earlier, more accurate breast cancer detection compared to 2D mammography alone.

    Ultimately a woman’s decision of when to get a mammogram, along with what type of mammogram to get, is a decision that should be made with her doctor, but it should also be one that’s based on proven scientific research, which overwhelmingly, and uniformly, points to 3D Mammography. There is nothing “fake” about the number of women who have benefited from the early detection this superior technology allows, and STAT is doing its readers a disservice by insinuating such.

    Professor, Department of Radiology and Biomedical Imaging
    Chief of Breast Imaging
    Yale School of Medicine

  • Science like journalism has fallen victim to their own narratives. Ever since science, specifically medical related science, became big business with slick marketing it has lost a lot of credibility. They really have themselves to blame for the rise in “fake science”. Yes there are those who claim “Chem-trails” are killing us all, and most recently there are youtube memes that the Earth is flat. They back up there flat Earth assertion with slickly made videos, photo-shopping pictures, and adding in bible verses to put their “point” across. They are very professionally done, and cater to those who have little education in any area of science.

    Science in general needs to get a grip on how research is interpreted to the general public. We have seen in the past 20 yrs the prime example of this with information about the humble egg. We are told not to eat it, it’s a heart attack grenade. Then we are told only eat the white, the yolks are a death sentence. Then we hear ok you can eat an egg, but only rarely. Only to follow up with yes you can eat an egg and enjoy it. It can be said for many other instances the public hears.

    All this “fake” news regardless of subject matter is the primary result of bad reporting, bad interpretation of information, and most importantly the assertions that what they tell us is the complete truth when in fact it is not. “Fake” news arises when people do not have all the information, and balanced information. People have questions, what they hear/read does not make sense logically to them so they search for their answers online. They want more information and fall into the “fake” news trap by someone who sounds authoritative. Science needs to keep information within their own sphere and discourage “others” not learned in the field to stop reporting/interpreting results/conclusions.

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