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Medicine The Media Science

Scientists Themselves Play Large Role In Bad Reporting 114

Hugh Pickens writes "A lot of science reporting is sensationalized nonsense, but are journalists, as a whole, really that bad at their jobs? Christie Wilcox reports that a team of French scientists have examined the language used in press releases for medical studies and found it was the scientists and their press offices that were largely to blame. As expected, they found that the media's portrayal of results was often sensationalistic. More than half of the news items they examined contained spin. But, while the researchers found a lot of over-reporting, they concluded that most of it was 'probably related to the presence of ''spin'' in conclusions of the scientific article's abstract.' It turns out that 47% of the press releases contained spin. Even more importantly, of the studies they examined, 40% of the study abstracts or conclusions did, too. When the study itself didn't contain spin to begin with, only 17% of the news items were sensationalistic, and of those, 3/4 got their hype from the press release. 'In the journal articles themselves, they found that authors spun their own results a variety of ways,' writes Wilcox. 'Most didn't acknowledge that their results were not significant or chose to focus on smaller, significant findings instead of overall non-significant ones in their abstracts and conclusions, though some contained outright inappropriate interpretations of their data.'"
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Scientists Themselves Play Large Role In Bad Reporting

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  • by Advocatus Diaboli ( 1627651 ) on Thursday September 13, 2012 @08:29AM (#41322273)
    I remember writing a post about this phenomena about a year ago. The short version of the story is that over the last 30-40 years, universities and research institutes have increasingly recruited "scientist" with strong tendencies towards showmanship, fraud, lying and bullshitting. This change is largely due to changing nature of incentives as well as methods of evaluation and promotion in these institutions. Peer reviewed research and grants are probably the biggest culprit. Here is the link: []
  • by Joe Torres ( 939784 ) on Thursday September 13, 2012 @09:13AM (#41322639)
    They define spin as: "“spin” (specific reporting strategies, intentional or unintentional, emphasizing the beneficial effect of the experimental treatment)" They also mention: "We considered “spin” as being a focus on statistically significant results ... an interpretation of statistically nonsignificant results for the primary outcomes as showing treatment equivalence or comparable effectiveness; or any inadequate claim of safety or emphasis of the beneficial effect of the treatment." (emphasis added) I understand the last two, but the first point doesn't make any sense at all. You can't really make conclusions (you can, but scientists will not believe it) about statistically insignificant results. "Spin" can be good in some cases (maybe not at all in clinical research): a research group that studies DNA repair might state, "Our findings on the function of the yeast homolog of SLHDT in dsDNA break recognition may represent a novel target for cancer therapeutics." In this case, the research group doesn't study cancer at all and have no business at all (from their results) mentioning it, but this might convince a cancer researcher to consider reading the paper and possibly looking into doing a quick/cheap experiment targeting SLHDT and testing this claim.
  • Parable (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday September 13, 2012 @09:39AM (#41322925)

    A congressman was touring his district when he came upon a bunch of people in a big field with bows and arrows. They were all firing arrows in all different directions.

    "What are you doing?" asked the Congressman.

    "We are shooting arrows," said the archers.

    "But there is nothing to shoot at," said the Congressman. "Those arrows are provided at taxpayer expense! How dare you waste them in this way?"

    "Well," said the archers, "as you can see, we are very skilled archers. We can shoot arrows so far that they go over the horizon and we can't see them any more. We think there are targets out there over the horizon that we can hit, even though we can't see them yet."

    The Congressman said, "Very well. But how do you know where the targets are?"

    One archer said, "We just have to fire in random directions, because we don't know where the targets are."

    Other archers agreed with the first one.

    But then one of the archers said, "I have a different strategy. I am pretty sure that there is a target roughly in this direction, so I am shooting towards it. In fact, I think I may have already gotten a bullseye or two."

    "You don't know that," said the others. "You've never been over the horizon to see whether there is a target or not. You have no more idea than the rest of us"

    "Stop arguing," said the Congressman. "All of you lot, give all your arrows to this gentleman here. He is clearly the only one who has a concrete plan for hitting a target. I can't have you wasting any more taxpayer money shooting arrows at nothing."

    "Wait!" said another archer. "For all I know, I might have gotten a bullseye also! I don't know where the target is, but it is possible, you have to admit!"

    "Hmm," said the Congressman. "Give this lady some of the arrows too."

    "Ah!" said another archer. "You know, the same thing is true of me!"

    "Yes," said another. "And me!"

    Pretty soon all of the archers had explained to the Congressman that they, too, could possibly have hit a bullseye, and had all been allocated arrows.

    "There," said the Congressman at last. "Now the public can have confidence that their money is allocated to worthwhile projects. Keep up the good work, but don't let me catch you wasting taxpayer money like you were before." And he walked off, while the archers resumed firing arrows in the same directions as before.

"I have not the slightest confidence in 'spiritual manifestations.'" -- Robert G. Ingersoll