Saturday, January 11, 2014

Fake science and fake news

Recently I've come across a number of articles dealing with the often-specious claims of poorly-conducted science and journalism.  I've also come across a few illustrative examples of just such poor science and poor journalism.  I wanted to share both with my readers.

First off, here is an article from a virologist named Latham decrying the lazy reporting that often occurs in science journalism.  He uses the example of reporting on new genetic engineering breakthroughs, because this is indeed an area in which most reporting is pretty bad.  Essentially Latham claims that much of what passes for reporting on biotech issues really just consists in a journalist's receiving claims from the researcher or the company responsible for the research and then directly pasting those claims in an article.  There is little critical analysis of these claims, which are usually overblown and wishful.  The end result is that we the readers are always hearing about the revolutionary potential of this or that new genetic engineering event, but we don't hear about when that potential doesn't pan out.  Again, this is a problem with most science reporting for the general public.  Good science occurs through small discoveries that result in conservative, well-delimited assertions.  If you hear about a single scientific breakthrough that will have far-reaching effects, it's usually rubbish.  The insertion of a gene to produce provitamin A in one variety of rice is indeed a big deal, but a responsible headline would be something like "An important step to improving vitamin A intake", not "New rice will eliminate child blindness".  The first headline leaves room to discuss the remaining hurdles, such as possible gene silencing for vitamin A production under certain field conditions, or the need to cross the vitamin A trait into high-yielding, tasty varieties of rice that people will actually plant, or the possibility that without a high-fat diet, the vitamin A will not be absorbed by the human body.  The second headline is pure boosterism--irresponsible reporting that heralds something the science can never live up to.  And the end result is that media in this case is not serving its duty to inform the public, but rather serving the agenda of private companies that want to control the public's knowledge so as to inculcate a positive feeling toward a particular industry.

An example of just such irrational, boosterish pseudo-journalism comes from Dr. van Montagu, this year's winner of the World Food Prize.  In this opinion piece, he flits about in a self-righteous fury, mixing a bit of scientific fact and lots of heavy-handed moralizing.  His major tactic seems to be to juxtapose real problems, such as the population projections for the future, or the increasing need for stress-tolerant crops, and then make it seem as if genetic engineering is the only or even the principal means for addressing these problems.  The writer's histrionics even overflow into his writing style, which is sloppy and unclear.  Granted, he's not a native English speaker, but this carelessness seems to me to be indicative too of his scientific claims, which are not the precise, humble claims of good science, but rather megalomaniac, world-changing claims.  Sometimes his claims turn into outright lies:  "It is proven that GM crops result in much higher yields per hectare ... In order to obtain the same kind of yields for conventionally bred maize or soybean, even more land ... will be needed".  I am not aware of any study consistently showing that GM corn and soybeans are higher-yielding than conventionally-bred crops.  In all fairness, van Montagu is not a journalist, and this is just an editorial.  But the magazine that chose to print this editorial is presumably run by journalists who should have known better than to publish a poorly-reasoned, sloppy editorial that serves only to promote a given product and not to inform or educate the reader.

Here is another, less egregious example of sloppy biotech boosterism.  The article is purportedly about biotech regulation's impact on global agriculture, but it is really just about how regulation affects profits for agricultural biotechnology companies.  I consider this a less egregious oversight, because it comes from AgriNews, which is clearly set up mainly as a mouthpiece for big industrial agriculture, so no one should be expecting a critical, overarching look at world food security issues from this news source.

Lastly, here is a long but excellently written treatment of a popular medical book.  The article looks at how popular books proposing radical diet changes come out regularly, and why these books do not represent good science.  To me the proliferation of weird, unnatural diets in the US (raw food, vegan, Paleo, Atkins, high-fat, low-fat, etc.) is perhaps the most visible and far-reaching symptom of the type of thinking typified by lazy science journalism.  We as a society are not equipped or willing to undertake careful, well-thought analysis of scientific facts and claims, so we swing recklessly, fecklessly from one fad to the next.  We suffer from a sort of postmodern disregard for objective fact, instead clinging stubbornly (and ever-changingly) to the latest arbitrary idiosyncracy that has caught our attention.  We are dying from our caprices, especially when it comes to diet.

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