I’m not talking about breathless stories about whether coffee is good (helps test grades) or bad (blinds us and grows hair on our palms). Unlike many stories that come across editors’ screens, those are harmless.
Rather, editors worry about news that affects personal health and public policy but later proves to involve hyped, flawed or fraudulent research. It’s everywhere. Bad science and medical claims are slipping into the mainstream.
A recent example was stories about Himalayan glaciers disappearing by 2035 because of global warming. Wrong. The embarrassingly wrong forecast probably was a typo in the original study but that didn’t stop it from generating headlines.
More infamous was a British physician’s fraudulent claim of a causal relationship between early childhood measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) immunization and autism.
The respected British medical journal, Lancet, published it in 1998. Given growing anxiety about autism, it was a hot story; refuse the MMR vaccination and reduce the risk of autism. Editors everywhere loved it. Frightened parents embraced it.
Too late, we learned the research was fraudulent. Embarrassed by a diligent reporter, Lancet retracted its report, but the damage was done. Unvaccinated children are suffering. The author lost his British medical license and moved to Texas.
Reporters who initiated the cascade of folly by picking up the Lancet report assumed it wouldn’t publish an invalid MMR/autism study. Editors down the line assumed reputable news services wouldn’t send them junk science. What Hemingway famously called the “crap detector” failed at every step.
The latest twist in the MMR fraud is ABC’s decision to hire Jenny McCarthy, a former Playmate of the Year and outspoken MMR foe, for its chat panel, The View, with Barbara Walters.
But back to editors who serve as gatekeepers and screen stories every minute of every day.
Few are former science and medical reporters. Still fewer are statistically savvy.
In the past, they’d ask their beat reporters whether a new study was newsworthy. No longer. Faced with falling ad revenues, traditional news media shed experienced, specialist reporters faster than wrinkled over-50 TV anchors.
Coincidentally, more authors are conning scientific and medical journals into publishing sloppy or fraudulent research. Retractions are multiplying as those journals urge reporters to tell the world what’s been learned.
This isn’t accidental. PR people promote journal articles, knowing editors especially love “new hope or no hope” stories. Often, PR releases embrace the cliche, “A new study shows…”
So I typed “a new study shows” and Google returned 30,700,000 hits. That’s one measure of credulity.
I fear that increasing retractions and clarifications reflect trouble in the traditional pre-publication peer review of studies submitted to leading scientific and medical journals. That was the crap detector. I’m not alone. Carl Zimmer at The New York Times found abundant evidence.
He said the Journal of Medical Ethics found “the number of articles retracted from scientific journals increased substantially between 2000 and 2009,” from three to 180. Fraud and scientific mistakes accounted for more than half.
Dr. Ferric C. Fang, top editor at the Infection and Immunity journal, told Zimmer that a Japanese author doctored several papers. Fang’s journal retracted six. Others retracted two dozen, accord to the blog Retraction Watch.
Zimmer said that in October 2011, “the journal Nature reported that published retractions had increased tenfold over the past decade, while the number of published papers had increased by just 44 percent. In 2010 The Journal of Medical Ethics published a study finding the new raft of recent retractions was a mix of misconduct and honest scientific mistakes.”
Fang and Dr. Arturo Casadevall of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, looked at the rate of retractions in 17 journals from 2001 to 2010. They compared it with the journals’ “impact factor,” a score based on how often their papers are cited by scientists. The higher a journal’s impact factor, the higher its retraction rate, Zimmer wrote.
Or as Fang told the Times, “It’s becoming the price of admission.” A high-profile paper can mean the difference between a career in science or leaving the field.
All of this leaves readers, viewers and listeners vulnerable to sloppy and fraudulent research unwittingly validated by respected journals and then in every imaginable medium. It’s unlikely that this will get better. If anything, it probably will get worse as researchers, corporations, institutions and media scramble for financial rewards.