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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 A peer-reviewed paper made that claim until it was retracted.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.

  • Too bad no one was allowed near Clinton to interview her about her health. Now that would have made for real fake news!

  • While you’re doing a fine job of reporting on retracted research, you’re veering more and more into “influence” writing.

    After a campaign filled with Hillary’s media supporters’ lies, distortions, “fake news” (anybody remember the pre-election celebrations of Hillary’s “historic victory?”), hit pieces, fantasy-imaginings, and media-all-in-for-HER, your article can ONLY find fault with Trump? This short article is peppered with sly-in-crowd jabs at Trump, and not one mention of the misdeeds of Hillary’s minions?

    And the biggest ignored-elephant-in-the-room, sucking out all the air so much that it’s a wonder you can breathe at all, is the “science” of “Climate Change.”

    In case you haven’t noticed, misdeeds abound in the government-funded purveyors of panic and chaos. Why the silence? Why is it that “Climate Science” is not a topic for polite “fake science” conversations?

    2017 will bring you lots of revelations as “deniers” start holding the purse strings. Hope you’ll cover it as the truth outs.

  • You make the claim that SCIRP (the parent organization of the “journal” that published the paper on AIDS). The publisher is listed in Jeffrey Beall’s list of predatory publishers. I would doubt that the paper was peer-reviewed

  • In addition to my comment below, some stuff to substantiate my claims:
    Systematic amputation of the UN human rights concept, in particular silencing of major parts of the economic and social rights by media and academia:
    Negation of the extremely strong relationship between GDP and infant mortality rate:
    Extremely euphemistic reporting about the topic of infant mortality in the USA:
    Gross misrepresentation of the Chinese development model:
    And many more to come in the next months about AIDS mortality in Sub-Saharan Africa, the long-term evolution of infant mortality in China, the crisis in the Middle East, education systems in Western countries, economic development models, etc.

  • Interesting article, but also terribly disappointing; it does not address any of the fundamental problems, namely the fact that academic and media discourse is at odds with a huge quantity of extremely reliable data for decades already, and this is what discredits them in the eyes of in increasing share of the population.
    First of all, without saying it explicitly, the whole article is constructed in order to make us believe that the problem is fairly recent:
    “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.”
    The authors do not say that the problem did not exist in previous years, but the article is focused exclusively on topics which have risen to prominence only recently.

    The second problem is that all the examples he quotes are cases where researchers made claims which go against the mainstream. In my research, I come up with one topic after another where precisely the mainstream views prevalent in the academic community are in gross contradiction with widely trusted data from reliable sources, but nobody wants to know about it.

    The third disappointment is the conclusion. Recommending that journalists wait six months before reporting about scientific findings, or a few hours for fact-checking before reporting political news, does absolutely not solve the problem. The systematic problems I find in academic research often date back decades. They are confirmed again and again by researchers, experts and journalists because they fit nicely into the mainstream views among intellectuals. Taking more time before publishing will only homogenize public discourse even more.

    Researchers and journalists do not realize that it is precisely this (almost) perfect homogenity of public discourse which has discredited them in the eyes of so many people. When, using standard methods of academic research, I find so many problems in mainstream academic and media discourse, many people will find them too because they have got some knowledge in one field or another. These issues must be addressed, otherwise we will have many more disasters like Brexit, Trump etc.

  • You say fake news, I say uncritical regurgitation of PR and other stories. Is it that hard to fact check these days? The Globe can do better.

  • Absolutely true on all counts. “Publish or perish” has corrupted the integrity of reported data, and the greater availability of outlets to publish even marginal research causes a proliferation of poorly done science.

  • I find it very hard to believe that cloud seeding experiments are not occurring every single day, this is an observation made with my own eyes. I don’t, obviously, know what these experiments are or what chemicals are being used but I can tell the difference between vapour trails and chemtrails.

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