Tag Archives: Science journalism

Science journalism blows it, dolphin rape edition.

A few weeks ago I got into a discussion on Twitter with Ananyo Bhattacharya, online editor of Nature News and writer for The Guardian’s science section, after he put out a call asking for ways to improve science journalism. During that conversation, I argued that one way to do this is to create a culture of journalism that values scientific knowledge and expertise as a core value[1]. Ananyo seemed unimpressed with my viewpoint, and suggested that the main point of science journalism was to pry into the dark corners and root out biases, fraud, and the like in science. He views scientific communication and scientific journalism as two distinct things (and thinks that journalists doing ‘PR for science’ is ‘drippy’). Indeed, when asked directly during a Royal Institute forum on science journalism whether journalists should read the original papers behind the stories that they write, he dismissed the idea:

“If the question is ‘must a good science journalist read the paper in order to be able to write a great article about the work’ then the answer is as I said on Tuesday ‘No’. There are too many good science journalists who started off in the humanities (Mark Henderson) – and some who don’t have any degrees at all (Tim Radford). So reading an academic research paper cannot be a prerequisite to writing a good, accurate story … So I stick to the answer I gave to that question on the night – no, it’s not necessary to read the paper to write a great story on it (and I’ll also keep the caveat I added – it’s desirable to have read it if possible).”

He further suggests, in the same comment (original source), that if journalists had to read original papers than no one could report on particle physics[2].

I’m not going to try and hide my bias here: I don’t like Ananyo’s viewpoint on this. I don’t think that it will lead to good writing, either of the communication or journalistic variety, but more importantly I think that forcing journalists to read the papers before they write an article might have stopped stupid @#$@ like what happened today from happening at all.

The story: I received an e-mail this morning from Dr. Bill Sherwin, a member of the Evolution and Ecology Research Centre (E&ERC) here at my current institution, the University of New South Wales. Bill is one of the authors on a new paper coming out in the Proceedings of The Royal Society (B), entitled ‘A novel mammalian social structure in Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops sp.): complex male-male alliances in an open social network’. The paper is a nice little exploration of the characteristics of social networks in dolphins found in Western Australia; in essence, they were testing whether two hypotheses about the nature of these social networks were tenable given the data they’ve observed. In particular, they tested whether dolphins show signs of engaging in ‘community defence’, where higher order alliances of dolphins form to patrol and defend a larger community range, similar to chimpanzees, or if it follows a ‘mating season defence’ model where male groups shift their defence to smaller ranges or sets of females when it’s mating season. The comparison to terrestrial species with complex social cognition (such as primates and elephants) is an interesting one, because it provides yet more insight into the relationship between the development of complex cognitive faculties and social relationships.

So far, so good. Bill gave a simple explanation of the paper in an email that he was sent out to the E&ERC this afternoon:

We put out a paper that said “dolphin male alliances are not as simple as other species”, but it has stirred up quite a lot of interest, because somewhere in it, the paper mentioned “bisexual philopatry”, which when translated out of jargon means  “males stay near where they were born, AND females stay near where they were born” – nothing more or less than that.

‘Quite a lot of interest’ is one way to put it. ‘Idiots crawling out of the woodwork’ is another. Here’s the headlines of four stories that were written about this paper:

Dolphins ‘resort to rape’: Dolphins appear to have a darker side, according to scientists who suggest they can resort to ‘rape’ to assert authority. [The Telegraph]

Male dolphins are bisexual, US scientists claim. [news.com.au]. (Note that this is an Australian website, and Bill is Australian).

Male bottlenose dolphins engage in extensive bisexuality. [zeenews.com]

And by far the best of the lot (guess who it’s from?):

The dark side of Flipper: He’s sexual predator of the seas who resorts to rape to get his way. [That’s right, The Daily Mail].


Are you kidding me? If the ‘writers’ of these articles had read the paper, they would have noticed that it contains nothing about the sexual behaviour of the dolphins they studied, bisexual or otherwise, aside from brief mentions of the possible consequences of social networks on reproductive success. It certainly didn’t mention anything about bisexual behaviour, homosexual behaviour, or rape. Now, it’s well known that dolphins engage in homosexual behaviours, and I’ve seen papers arguing that they use sexual coercion as well (Rob Brooks confirms this). But these topics have nothing to do with this paper at all. Even a cursory glance through the original source would have killed these headlines – and the first few paragraphs of the Mail story – which aren’t just a miscommunication but border on outright fabrication. The articles themselves are weird mixes of sensationalist headline with a regurgitated paraphrasing of the much better Discovery News piece that they are treating as the primary source. Here’s the problem, though: it’s Discovery News that makes the original mistake about ‘bisexual philopatry’, interpreting it as bisexual behaviour (hot male dolphin-on-dolphin action, as it were). A reporter who had read the original source could have corrected that mistake fairly easily, or could even have been driven to ask further questions. Without that, however, the press cycle grinds mercilessly forward to Flipper the bisexual rapist.

For my part, I was happy to see that James Randerson’s informal survey of science and health writers showed that many of them do read the original papers. And the kind of people who write things about science that I trust, whether they’re professionally trained in science or not, are not the sort of people who do boneheaded things like this. Ananyo might retort that ‘asking questions’ is enough (he suggested as much in his comment above). Matt Shipman said much the same thing in the piece that Ananyo was commenting on. Yet of all people, Ananyo should be wary of this answer, with his focus on investigative science journalism. A scientist writing an email or doing a phone interview can tell you just about anything that you want to hear; a press officer can write a terrible press release; a wire service will probably distort what comes down the line. But a scientific paper is the One, True Source. It is a public record of what was done, and it is the first and best place to start for answers about a study or a scientific topic[3].

Don’t mistake my criticism of Ananyo’s position of reading scientific papers as a general attack on scientific journalism. I think that there’s a lot of great science journalism out there, and that there are even more great science journalists and communicators. Despite the perennial swirl of internet discussion on the topic, I don’t actually think that the whole field is hopelessly broken like some seem to. I just happen to believe that scientific papers, the products of our time and energy as researchers, form an integral part of the process of talking about science (and it’s part of the reason for my support for Open Access publishing). And I think that disgraceful trainwrecks like the reporting on Bill’s paper are a perfect illustration of the need for these papers to be a part of that process.

[Update: Rob Brooks has also discussed this issue over at TheConversation].


[1] Because of Twitter’s space constraints, this was misconstrued to mean that I was agitating for all science journalists to have a Ph.D. in a scientific discipline. Though I wouldn’t be upset if this happened, that’s not what I meant: it is more than possible to have a deep love and knowledge of science without having a degree in a scientific field. Hell, Carl Zimmer probably knows more about viruses and evolutionary biology than I do, and his only training is an undergraduate degree in English. My argument is only that having scientific training increases the probability of a writer or journalist having a good grasp on how science works, not that it’s the only way for that to happen. I will continue to argue, though, that those having a love of science (professional or amateur) will, on average, produce better science writing and science journalism than those who don’t.

[2] He also claimed that most of the people asking journalists to read papers are biologists and medical people, who write easier-to-understand papers. I would have to turn this back on him: if biology and medical papers are so easy to understand, why shouldn’t journalists read them every time?

[3] Yes, there’s no guarantee that what is written in the paper is true. But the chances of detecting fraud are essentially zero if you don’t read the paper to begin with, and if you’re a journalist looking to catch the next Stapel, chances are that you’ll have to wait for the scientific community to find him and tell you about it anyways.

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Science communication? I wish it were that easy…

Image representing Twitter as depicted in Crun...

Image via CrunchBase

Over at Scientific American, Christie Wilcox has written a provocative piece making the argument that every scientist should blog, be on Twitter, and otherwise throw themselves into the social media revolution.  Why?  Because average people just don’t get it, and as scientists, everything will be better if we just all show up on Twitter and talk science.  As she says:  “it is first and foremost the scientist’s job to share his or her research with the broader community. That means it is the scientist who is ultimately to blame when their research isn’t communicated well.”

Okay, I’m being unfair, but I’m being unfair for a reason.  Christie makes some good points in this paper, such as finding ways to break through “the jargon wall”, and she is right that there is a problem with the acceptance of scientific truths (especially in the US).  But in her rush to promote the virtues of social media, I think she inadvertently throws a few people under the bus.

Even worse, scientists pass the buck when it comes to communicating science. We write the papers, but then hand them off to journalists and say “here, explain this to everyone else.” We hand what we’ve committed years of our life to over to a writer that may have little to no science training and even less passion for the discipline as a whole. Then, we gripe and moan when the science is shottily explained or, worse, completely misinterpreted.

If I were a science writer or journalist, I’d be pretty upset at Christie’s portrayal of my profession.  I’d be especially upset if I was someone like (the brilliant) Ed Yong, who she praises but who himself has said that “after leaving university with degree in hand, I made an abortive foray into research before realising that I much prefer to talk about science than to actually do it.”  Because though I doubt she meant to sound that way, Christie’s words suggest that most journalists / science writers are just mouthpieces who get in the way of real science communication;  years of training and/or experience in writing and communication of news are useless in the face of science, which can only be properly handled by scientists.  In particular, she points to an example of bad science reporting from Brian Anderson, which she herself trashed, about a Science paper reporting chemosignals in human tears (I haven’t read the original paper, myself).  But Christie misses a big point here:  Brian Anderson writes for msnbc.com, which gets millions of hits a month.  When Brian Anderson writes a crap piece, a lot of people see it.  When I write a crap piece on this tiny little blog – according to my site stats – 3 people see it.  If you gave every scientist the reach and audience that Brian Anderson has, I’d say that you’d be in danger of getting just as much crap writing about science (ahem).

The fact is, scientists who blog and tweet and othersuch right now are a self-selected bunch, and most of them do it either because they want to get better at science communication, or because they’re already good at it.  Christie writes as if  “all scientists have to do is get a Twitter account and a blog and magic will happen” (4. profit!!), but writing and communicating well is a difficult art which requires effort and time to master.  She herself has obviously put time into it;  the slides she links to from her post show visual design and presentation skill that is far better than most talks you will see by scientists, be they at a conference or a public event.  And I know how hard it is to make visually interesting talks and present well, because it’s a hobby horse of mine and something I’ve been evangelizing about to my peers for a few years now to a mixture of excited questions and blank stares.   The fact is that not everyone is good at communication;  they do good science, but they make for terrible speakers.  That’s why we have science writers:  not everyone wants to obtain these skills!  Some people just want to do research, not everyone wants to have a thousand followers on Twitter, and some scientists just want to use Facebook to (gasp) talk to friends and family.  They shouldn’t have to apologize for it.  (I’d honestly be happy if more scientists could be convinced to learn how to give talks to their peers that didn’t put entire rooms to sleep;  perhaps we can teach “writing a popular science book” in next semester’s class.)  How about this:  instead of giving every scientist a Twitter account, how about we work to make science writing and scientific journalism a field with more respect, and encourage people in undergraduate and postgraduate programs to view this an acceptable option?  Instead of making more blogs, how about we make more Ed Yongs and Carl Zimmers instead?

Having said that, do I think that the acceptance of science would benefit from more scientists writing good material about science on the web?  Sure.  But I doubt very much that it’s as straightforward an equation as Christie would have us believe, where more scientists writing = more acceptance of science in a linear relationship.  For example, assuming that there isn’t some sort of US specific deficit in this matter, countries vary widely on how much they accept the word of scientists on topics like climate change and evolution.  Is Christie claiming that the number of scientists on Twitter or quality of science writing in the newspaper completely explain the differences between Iceland and the US (of about 40% of the population!) in acceptance of evolution?

Her argument also suffers from its own premises.  In her slides, she suggests that you should be on Facebook because there are 3 million links shared per hour, on Twitter because there are 200 million tweets per day, and Google+ because it’s reached 20 million users in record time. And if we follow her advice?  Well, then we just add to that flood of information.  But science communication is a two- way street, with a producer and a consumer.  We can’t just increase the number of people writing about science without finding some way to convince the public to tune in and read this stuff, to watch the videos, and follow scientists on Twitter.  Christie’s argument suggests that if we increase the amount of communication, resistance to science will go down.  I’d argue instead that this is a system locked in a feedback loop that must be addressed on both ends.  You can shove more science down the pipe, but if you don’t change the culture and widen the pipe to allow that quality material through, you’re just wasting everyone’s time.

I know that I’m being hard on this piece, but it’s not because I think it’s a bad piece of writing.  I’m actually pretty impressed with her writing and enthusiasm and I’ll be keeping an eye on her RSS feed from now on. She’s right to encourage scientists to get better at communicating their work, and I would be happy if everyone followed her advice. I just don’t think it’s realistic to assume that everyone will, or that doing so won’t create nearly as many problems as it solves.  If scientific communication and acceptance of science is going to get better, it’s going to require a concerted effort on the part of scientists, science writers, journalists, educators, politicians, and everyone else who plays a part in driving our society towards accepting, understanding, and using the fruits of our scientific labour.

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