Bad Science Journalism: Is it Fake News?

Science journalism has really started to develop into something very possibly decent in the last few years from something decidedly not. It was/is an emerging field and its only been in the last few years that it ever was really very good. There are still instances of terrible cases or older science type reporting out there but the field has come a long way. I don’t think that I’m alone in being terrified by the prospects of fake news stories out there. I’m not talking about partisan political stories but rather the silencing of the press and really, undeniable fake news stories out there. Thinking people know that a free press can be the last real check on power regardless of political stripe or the party in power at the time. As such the press has incredible power, as they should but that power can also be misused. But that line is getting really blurry and sometimes it’s legit hard to tell the difference. 

Recently someone who I know is really smart and just the right amount of suspicious sent me a link to a science article from the BBC of all places that was actually so sketchy it was pretty much fake news and it got me thinking. I know he would have scrutinized it a bit extra before sending it to me and it got past him no problem, probably also the editor at the BBC and maybe even the reporter. So we’re going to dissect that link and then talk about why it matters but first we’re going to do a couple of other things because I’m nothing if not long winded. It’s been a crazy last week for journalism and science journalism in particular. First a white house press member got his credentials removed and then reinstalled by the courts essentially for asking a question someone didn’t like. But we’re just going to mention that really important thing and not focus on that but also a major study on climate change had it’s authors back peddling after a BLOGGER pointed out some calculation errors. So we’ll talk a bit about the peer-review process as well. But first we’ll talk a little about why fake news matters, what I do about it in my life and how science journalism used to be.

Why fake news sucks for everyone and what I do about it

Let’s start by saying I’m Canadian and yes we know about all they crazy lock her up, lie counter and fake news spitting stuff going on down south. This isn’t about that. I also ignore that (and often unfollow or unfriend) those people in my social feeds if I see it but I call people out publicly on the the other stuff. If you are posting stuff on social media you are literally holding the internet and it’s not hard to find out if it’s fake. I just find the ‘truth’ page online (usually snopes.com) and leave it at that. For example someone posted a link to an artile with a picture claiming the man was jailed for killing his daughter’s muslim refugee rapist and he was a veteran to boot. The thing is none of it was true and the man’s supposed name was in there. The thing is it never happened besides the obvious stirring up muslim refugee hate which I think is a bad thing but it also paints the man in the picture and the man who’s name was used as a murderer. If either or both of those men have daughters it also says unfairly that they have been raped. Not cool. So even though it sometimes causes problems for me IRL I still do the shame thing in these cases.

How science journalism used to be

In a few words its not that well covered and it’s really cool that this is changing. Dr. Sanjay Gupta for CNN was really the trailblazer on this one. But in the olden days about 10 – 15 years ago there wasn’t much in the way of science journalism at all. Major journals would put out press releases about big articles on Thursdays and sometimes the regular media would pick up a blurb on Friday, which wasn’t great timing in the news cycle. When scientists write a paper it’s divided into many sections the last being the discussion which explains the findings of the paper over a couple of pages. The very last paragraph is what I call the ‘fund me more’ paragraph it’s where you make some big, true but reaching, conclusions about the importance of the research. Mine went something like this; This paper explains that heat shock proteins are pivotal to the maintenance of diapause in brine shrimp (sea monkeys). If diapause could be disrupted in a similar manner in they life cycle of specific pest insect species it would have wide reaching implications in forestry and agriculture. Using RNAi to knockdown Heat shock proteins in these species is an economically important next step. As the breakdown of heat shock proteins is important in the course of human aging diseases this research also has implications in the fields of cancer, Alzheimer’s and vision research.

Now the thing is all that is true but that last sentence is quite the reach. It’s really there so that the next time I apply for a grant there is a human connection to the research. Really you can pretty much ignore that sentence. Invariably if your paper gets picked up my the mainstream media it’s quoting this paragraph and more often than no that very last senate and the headline would read something like this. “Sea monkey protein holds the key to treating cancer!”

While I was starting grad school the research group across the hall had a similar thing happen to them. They studied fish stocks and had a great track record and published in Nature on the regular, for the record that’s like the Vogue of science journals. Fish stocks have only been measured rigorously staring in the 1970’s which is fairly limiting. Their paper took historical descriptions into account and assigned uncertainty to those numbers which they then used statistical models to project fish stocks into the future using that information. Though the real message was there is a lot of variability in the predicted model this sentence “ We observe declines in eight out of ten ocean regions, and estimate a global rate of decline of ,1 % of the global median per year” lead to headlines that said “world’s oceans to be empty by 2016!” It was a crazy thing to watch up close.

How it is now

So here we’re gong talk a little bit about the peer review process but first science journalism today. Most major news organizations now have real life scientists with masters degrees or PhDs in the field (of science) on staff. That’s really big because they have produced peer-reviewed scientific research in getting those degrees. That’s a big deal because they actually understand the process, the impact factors, the ins and outs of research and can hopefully sort the good from the not so great.

The other thing they know is the better educated you are the more you realize how little you know about. The idea is that as you become a real true expert in your field, the diapause of sea monkey’s and some insects perhaps, the more you realize how much work it takes to truly understand the deepest parts of anything complex. So these journalists do some digging but are presenting other’s research and not experts in every field. But they might have a background in any number of fields like physics or chemistry but a popular choice is biology since so much news is human focused. So sometimes they are all out of their element but these folks now do a pretty good job. Even the weekly lady on our afternoon local CBC drive home program regularly knocks it out of the park!

In light of recent events I wanted to take a minute to talk about the peer review process and how the recent climate change calculation snafu might have gotten past it. You might have read elsewhere that when an article is submitted to a journal if it meets the smell test from the editors it goes out to the world experts in the field of that specific area for a rigorous review by them for close scrutiny and feedback which is voluntary and not paid. That’s all true but I’m going to spill the scientific tea on the backroom stuff that happens in that process. Here is the first and most important thing those reviewers are typically the head of other research groups that are your biggest competition world wide and you’re getting an advanced heads up of what they’re up to by participating, That means that if you’re at all self-interested you might not want to see them get ahead especially if they are scooping you. Now we know our papers are likely to go to these people too but you better believe we give them a HARD look. Even if you give them a should not be published sort of review you still get to add being a reviewer to that journal to your CV, And trust me those journal editors are thorough in finding experts. I still get asked to do it even though I’ve been away for them bench for years when it includes the words Artemia, RNAi and diapause. 

The next thing is when we receive the reviewers comments, even though they are anonymous we often have a pretty good idea where they came from. One reviewer wanted me to change the italics on a protein name because that was more ‘accepted’ in the field which is a convo we literally had at every other conference with him and he was the only guy I knew about that cared. You might think this makes it even more cut through and it does but was all tend to keep it pretty colligate since it goes both ways.

So how did that big calculation error get by? It’s pretty simple and really pretty harmless. With science comes statistical analysis whether it’s error bars on qPCR, narwhal horn length, climate change data or the breeding frequency of honey toads vs regular toads. We’ve all taken some stats and math courses on basic or not that basic stuff but that might have been in the distant past. Sometimes we struggle through on our own, sometimes we recruit someone in the math department to help but then they aren’t an expert in our field. That’s likely what happened here. But the thing is there are safeguards built in.

The reason we publish at all is to share our work so it might be built on and be scrutinized by everyone. When a mistake is found, which is rare, a correction or retraction is very possible. I can see as far as I can because of the giants that came before me that I’m standing on their shoulders. Snd that could not be truer than in the field of science. I used to joke that I was like a rock star to seven people and that’s true. I actually pioneered a cost effective and robust technique for knocking down proteins in sea monkeys. When I did that I learned more about the actual functions of protiens in diapause. And three research groups are now using it to do the same worldwide. But I knew which proteins were important by many people that came before me and that you could inject theses things and they’d keep living because of a single undergrad. We all get that and that’s why we publish in the first place.

So what about this BBC piece

Well this is a case where someone dropped the ball and to the trained eye something looked fishy but here’s also how in snuck by. It’s also a sign that who ever manages the future’s desk at the BBC is firmly stuck in the past. Even reading the wikipedia page on HSV would have proved this junk. Plus raise your hand if you don’t think the BBC should be copying and pasting. Also this contains no references to anything peer reviewed.

where someone dropped the ball and to the trained eye something looked fishy but here’s also how in snuck by. It’s also a sign that who ever manages the future’s desk at the BBC is firmly stuck in the past. Even reading the wikipedia page on HSV would have proved this junk. Plus raise your hand if you don’t think the BBC should be copying and pasting. Also this contains no references to anything peer reviewed.

This isn’t the whole article, some of the body of the text has been ommited

After I got this link I wrote this message back to the sender. But the thing is it stuck with me for like 2 days after. If he could be fooled, and I see why he was, anyone could be. It really disappointed me to see this sort of thing this day in age and on the BBC no less! So I decided to write about it then and this past week all of a sudden seemed like the right time. I’ve looked into it a bit more since that message and this is what I think is going on here.. 

So what’s going on here in this specific case. Sure sometimes we find HSV1 in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients but a lysogenic virus can be found anywhere in the body. In the very distant past like the early 90’s almost 30 years ago this finding was published in a real scientific journal that the HSV1 virus was found in the degraded brain tissue of patients.

In the years since many, many more papers have found that there is no causative link. This was proven by more testing and following people who get cold sores to see if they have a higher incidence of Alzheimer’s later, they don’t. This lady Dr. Ruth Itzhaki is a professor Emeritus which is a distinction sometimes given to retired professors. Looking through her publication history she continued to work in this field long after the science came out against her early work. It looks like she wrote this article for the conversation basically as a means of self-promotion. Her work is considered a dissenting view in the literature and it’s harder to get that work published as it is unlikely to make it through the peer-peer-review process. Reviewers just need to reference larger, newer studies that have since disproved any link. Since this site doesn’t have a process like that it’s easy to get it by. Then someone, likely the author, forwarded it (or maybe noticed it) on the conversation’s website and reprinted it. The thing is that person at the BBC didn’t even put their own name on it. I couldn’t find any link to the author and the BBC beyond this piece, she doesn’t list anything other than this link related to the BBC on her website.

So I hope that you will keep all of this in mind next time you read a salacious headline. What’s the craziest science sounding headline you’ve ever read? And who is your person that you send it to for verification?

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