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 A peer-reviewed paper made that claim until it was retracted.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