The editors of Nature remind us that ...
Extraordinary claims, as the saying almost goes, demand more scrutiny than usual to make sure they stand up. That is how science works. Claim and counter-claim: intellectual thrust and experimental parry.They report on an upcoming meeting meeting of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing in Columbus Ohio. Apparently, this council is composed of scientists and journalists and the goal of the meeting is to search for "lessons learned by scientists and science writers" in light of their publicity campaign promoting the flawed paper.
The Nature editors note that ...
The first thing to highlight is that such a thing as the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing even exists. Too many scientists dismiss the media and journalists as sloppy and unwilling to engage in both detail and ambiguity. In fact, there can be no branch of journalism as self-scrutinizing and anxious about its performance as that which covers science. It is hard to imagine political and sports reporters taking the time to discuss so thoroughly what (if anything) they did wrong after one of their stories went belly-up.Indeed, that's admirable, but it's another example of journalistic hyperbole. I do not believe that this branch of journalism (science writing) is as "self-scrutinizing" as they would have us believe. I do not believe that science writers usually debate and discuss what they did wrong when a story goes belly-up.
But it may be true that science writers are increasingly "anxious" about their performance. Why are they so "anxious"? It's because they are doing a very sloppy job characterized by parroting press releases written by amateurs whose main goal is to promote their institution or by science journals that want publicity.
Science writers (and journals) used to get away with this but now ...
The (welcome) rise of the science blogger has fuelled this navel-gazing. Some bloggers seem to spend most of their time criticizing other science writers, or at least debunking examples of what they regard as inferior science writing. But they do lots of good stuff too. Although traditionalists lament the decline of science coverage in the mainstream press, a terrific amount of analysis and comment, much of it very technical, is happening online under their noses.There's an interesting slip of the tongue in that paragraph. If science writers are really interested in self-scrutiny then they should welcome the arrival of a group of bloggers who point out their errors. This should be a "good" thing but the Nature editors clearly contrast this role (criticizing science writers) with other "good stuff" that bloggers do. Apparently the criticism of science writing doesn't count as "good stuff." It just makes science writers anxious—which they weren't before science bloggers came on the scene and pointed out what a bad job they were doing.
Nature then admits its complicity in hyping the event and not doing a proper skeptical analysis of the findings. The editors then get to an important issue.
Some may question the timing of the announcement, made when the paper was released on the Internet, not accepted or published by a journal, but at least the evidence was there to examine. If the scientists and the media both largely acted properly, then what should be discussed at next week’s meeting? It could do worse than start by screening the celebratory online video produced by ... and released to accompany the announcement. Scientists and journalists can include as many academic caveats as they like, but the sounds and images of champagne corks popping tend to render such statements of caution just that — academic.I bet you're thinking that this is all about the ENCODE publicity campaign and how Nature was totally at fault for misrepresenting the data and hyping the false claims of the ENCODE Consortium.
There is a deeper issue here: science not by press conference but presented as an event. What in reality is a long, messy and convoluted process of three steps forward and two steps back is too easily presented as giant leaps between states of confusion and blinding revelation. At the heart of this theatre is the artificial landmark of a peer-reviewed paper. Fixed print schedules and releases to journalists under embargo (with or without champagne videos) help to lend the impression that the publication of a paper is the final word on a question — the end-of-term report on a scientific project that details all that was achieved.
Nope. It's about the discovery of gravitational waves—a paper that turns out to have been wrong because scientists didn't do the proper controls.
Meanwhile, Nature, and science writers in general, have yet to admit that they failed massively in September 2012 and they have done little to convince us "bad" bloggers that they are capable of self-scrutiny. This is serious because in this case Nature and its editors were very active participants in the making of videos and holding press releases [see How does Nature deal with the ENCODE publicity hype that it created?]. Let me remind you of the video PRODUCED BY NATURE featuring Senior Editor Magdalena Skipper in which she promotes the idea that most of the human genome is functional. [Note: I'm getting error messages when I try to run this video.]
Maybe there are other things that the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing could be talking about? Maybe there are other examples of bad science journalism that the editors of Nature should be addressing?