Since September, I’ve been teaching in MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing. So far, it’s a wonderful experience — about which more in the weeks to come.
Over the past week, we’ve been talking about two intertwining themes: A journalist’s proper relationship with a source and the ways in which the Internet can foster important discussion and debate. PLoS Blog Network aficionados likely know where this is heading: Straight to “Trine Tsouderos on This Week in Virology: When do you fact-check article content with sources?,” which David Kroll posted on Take as Directed on September 19. Some very quick context: TWiV is a podcast hosted by Columbia University virologist Vincent Racaniello, who also runs Virology Blog; Tsouderos is a science reporter for the Chicago Tribune. I’ll let David take it from there:
…what got a Twitter discussion going last night and this morning was Trine’s discussing her practice of sometimes running quotes, paragraphs, and even full articles past scientists she’s interviewed for fact-checking purposes. Particularly in cases where she is interviewing someone about complex original research literature, she expressed her motivation as the desire to get it right ‘because you can’t retract 300,000 newspapers.’ (Trine, please correct me if I misrepresented what you said.)
Well, the response to this little Twitter banter leads me to think it may be valuable to bring the discussion out to more than 140-character bursts. For example, I know that Maggie Koerth-Baker, Science Editor at BoingBoing, has proposed a ScienceOnline2012 session on the problem of journalists growing too close to their sources as stimulated by her reading of the book, Wrong.
David’s post got such a voluminous response that six days (and 110 comments — and counting!) later, he posted a follow-up titled “How do scientists view fact-checking by science writers?“; that, in turn, sparked several dozen more comments, along with a handful of considered (and, um, less considered) responses, replies, replies, retorts, RTs, and rejoinders. Included among those was a Sept. 29 story in The Guardian by Nature online editor Ananyo Bhattacharya titled, “Scientists should not be allowed to copy-check stories about their work.” Alistair Dove, a senior scientist at the Atlanta Aquarium (also known by his nom-de-Twitter, @para_sight), didn’t agree with Bhattacharya’s logic; one of his first tweets about the Guardian story began with this succinct assessment: “What a poor argument.” Within a few hours, Dove had mined his and Bhattacharya’s (Twitter handle: @Ananyo) back-and-forth for a post on Deep Sea News titled “Getting on the same page as science journalists.”
So, to recap: You have a Columbia University researcher (Racaniello), who, as it happens, is something of an evangelist when it comes to making science accessible to the public. When he runs into one of the country’s best, and most fearless, science reporters (Tsouderos) at the International Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy, he decides to interview her for his podcast. Much tweeting ensues; soon, the chair of the pharmaceutical sciences department at North Carolina Central University (Kroll) writes up a post about some of the chatter. The result is a freewheeling, deeply considered discussion between some of the smartest and best science writers working today, folks like Ed Yong and John Rennie and Deborah Blum and Maryn McKenna and Carl Zimmer. A direct response to all these back-and-forth results in a debate between a marine scientist (Dove) at what is perhaps the country’s preeminent aquarium and an editor (Bhattacharya) at what is arguably one of the most respected scientific publications in the world.
If that doesn’t make you proud to let your geek flag fly, I don’t know what will. It’s an open-sourced master’s class in the intersection between the scientific and journalistic processes, conducted by some of the most exciting and engaged thinkers around. So you can imagine my excitement yesterday afternoon, when I saw this tweet from @Open_Notebook (another great and valuable resource for science writers/science writing):
“Someone was having trouble with argument development here.” More on the should-scijournos-copycheck fracas bit.ly/p4I1dF
That link leads to a post on Emily Willingham’s The Biology Files, which, in turn, critiques a new Guardian story about the whole quote-check imbroglio. Emily’s piece is typically excellent. Unfortunately, that’s where this particular run of incisive commentary ends; the Guardian piece, “Scientists should be allowed to check stories on their work before publication,” is a jaw-dropping mixture of ignorance and arrogance.
Now, as I’ve hopefully made clear, I think there are many strong, even persuasive arguments for why journalists should check quotes and information with sources; there are also many strong and persuasive arguments on the other side of the ledger. The Guardian piece — written by Petroc Sumner, Frederic Boy, and Chris Chambers, all of whom are psychologists at Cardiff University in Wales — contains what just might be the single worst argument in this whole debate:
If journalists were to allow governments or companies to vet their stories, it would surely destroy the credibility of the press. Why should science be treated differently?
Science is different for four reasons, one categorical, three of degree. The categorical difference is the process of peer review. Every research article in a reputable scientific journal has been through a process in which between two and five independent experts (normally anonymous) have made extensive comments.
These ‘reviewers’ are looking for flaws and are often extremely critical. … This process typically goes through two or more rounds, with the revised article returned to the reviewers for further comments.
This system of expert critical scrutiny doesn’t exist for most other types of journalistic ‘source’ – for example, statements by politicians. So in most areas journalists are the review process (or a crucial part of it), and independence is paramount. But in science journalism…the essential role of critical review has already been performed.
Wow. Even if I hadn’t spent the last three years writing about the repercussions of Andrew Wakefield’s potentially fraudulent, ethically unsound, scientifically bankrupt Lancet study — a study which faced “expert critical scrutiny” before it appeared in print — the notion that reporters should rely on the peer review process as a substitute for their own critical evaluation is myopic at best and dangerous at worst.
And with that…we break for an actual class. More on this later today…
* Edit, October 18, 11:29 pm: The end of this headline originally read, “…publishes exercise in idiocy.” In a comment, reader (and writer) Matt Carey correctly pointed out that terms like “idiot,” “moron,” and “imbecile” are insensitive and insulting. I should have known better and I apologize for my choice of words.