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    "When many cures are offered for a disease, it means the disease is not curable" -Anton Chekhov

    ''Once you tell people there's a cure for something, the more likely they are to pressure doctors to prescribe it.''
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    Monday, February 13, 2006

    Stop the Hype: In the wake of the South Korean cloning fabrication, science reporters say they're more skeptical of the latest research:

    But the editors of Science were not alone in telling the world of Dr. Hwang's research. Newspapers, wire services and television networks had initially trumpeted the news, as they often do with information served up by the leading scientific journals.

    Now news organizations say they are starting to look at the science journals a bit more skeptically.

    'My antennae are definitely up since this whole thing unfolded,' said Rob Stein, a science reporter for The Washington Post. 'I'm reading papers a lot more closely than I had in the past, just to sort of satisfy myself that any individual piece of research is valid. But we're still in sort of the same situation that the journal editors are, which is that if someone wants to completely fabricate data, it's hard to figure that out.'

    But other than heightened skepticism, not a lot has changed in how newspapers treat scientific journals. Indeed, newspaper editors openly acknowledge their dependence on them. At The Los Angeles Times, at least half of the science stories that run on the front page come directly from journals, said Ashley Dunn, the paper's science editor. Gideon Gil, the health and science editor for The Boston Globe, said that two of the three science stories that run on a typical day were from research that appeared in journals.

    It's probably expecting too much to think that skepticism alone would have picked up Dr. Hwang's fraud. His false photographs of cell cultures would be difficult to catch, since one cell culture pretty much looks like any other. And it's true that we can't expect a science reporter to be an expert in every field. We can, however, expect them (and their editors) to take a couple of steps to make their reporting better.

    First, they could hold off on reporting a paper for a few days after it's been published, rather than the same day it appears in print. This would give them time to properly vet their stories with the "experts" in the field - the ones who didn't write the paper the story covers. The way things are done now, it often seems as if the experts they consult haven't had a chance to actually read the papers they're asked to comment on. Of course, the problem is that any paper that waits a couple of days finds themselves scooped by the other papers. But, wouldn't it be better to present a responsible story a few days later rather than a quick, inaccurate one?

    The second and most important step they can take is to stop reporting every paper and latest research in such a breathless manner. Too often the stories are nothing more than regurgitated press releases with all the original researchers' positive spin intact. "Cure for cancer around the corner," and all that. It wouldn't take a Ph.D. to exercise a little restraint in enthusiasm.

    posted by Sydney on 2/13/2006 11:12:00 PM 2 comments


    As a former journalist, I can tell you there is a huge drive to be first with any news. To be out-scooped by a competitor is a badge of shame on many papers, at least when I worked in the field.

    Newspapers are in the business of making money, and medical news does sell papers.

    Medical journals are often more right than wrong, and it is a natural thing to place credence in a peer-reviewed journal. Having scientists check papers is more credible than calling up a scientist friend who may not be familiar with the field.

    Don't blame the media on this. How more fool-proof can you get than relying on a peer-reviewed journal? You want me double-guessing the JAMA or NEJM?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:38 PM  

    You should be as skeptical of them as you are of any other corporation/spin factory. The journals print the papers, but the spin that goes out in the press releases is pure hype, as is the spin put out by the researchers who published the papers. They're no different than a CEO of a company trying to put their product in the best possible light.

    By Blogger sydney, at 9:19 PM  

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