Monday, January 18, 2016

Misrepresentation: A Two-Fold Problem

 I specifically chose to read the Vox pieces and the Economist article to be familiar with how misrepresentation in science is perpetuated by popular journalism. The Belluz article introduces the hyperbolic nature of popular journalism as it muddles the field of drug discovery while suggesting a couple of likely culprits for these misleading exaggerations. Belluz suggests medical overyhype as endemic in propagating the "breakthrough" culture of journalistic writing but also highlights that 55% of these misappropriations are generated by the journalists themselves. The difficulty in replicating many publications proposed in the Economist piece should not go unheard, but I posit that the scientific community will always experience a degree of misrepresentation and scrutiny when a non-scientist is asked to relay the meanings of advanced research. I find this suggestion especially relevant in Belluz's focus in the latter half of the article where despite acknowledge a majority of linguistic hyperbole is journalistic in its source she retains her focus on medical overhype while languishing over the medical community's smaller, but admittedly relevant, implication in causing these exaggerations. To me, this gap in relaying scientific writing into journalistic writing is just as important in reducing the pressure on scientists to discover "breakthroughs" in an increasingly competitive and unforgiving environment, let alone to muddle the true nature of a scientific discovery through polarizing rhetoric that is already rampant in popular journalism.

But to address the important points raised in the Economist as well as the Berg opinion piece, I feel that a greater sense of self-scrutiny must be present in the scientific community. If submitted manuscripts to large journals such as PLoS ONE fail the simple requirement of having a sound methodology then it becomes obvious that not only are requirements set so low to where significant discoveries might become increasingly insignificant, but that the barometer of what the scientific community (or a part of it) accepts as a threshold for contributing to work in your relevant field is alarmingly low. The utility of the PubPeer forum analyzed in the second Belluz piece presents a small solution to increasing the stringency of published work in a peer to peer manner. Complaints about its potential gateway to slandering sound work is understood as a risk, but the alarming numbers concerning current publication irreproducibility warrant this risk until journals themselves exert stricter requirements both in their review process as well as in their submission requirements.


  1. I definitely agree with the argument that there need to be more people involved in scientific writing in order to ensure that the general population understands the true expectations of scientists. Do you think that more scientists should part-time write or that more scientists should make it a career?

    I also believe that it is important for scientists to hold themselves and other fellow scientists accountable in order to guarantee that everyone is being as honest with their research as possible. PubPeer seems to be doing just that. I wonder if there is an even better way to get this done rather than anonymous comments online? It seems to be doing just fine on its own anyway.

    1. The optimal solution is to have media outlets either hire in-house scientific consultants or two have outside consultation by hired individuals to oversee the dispersal of information that a layman may have minimal experience reporting on. I mean look no further than what some large news outlets do in having a "chief medical correspondent" who report on their relevant issues but when it comes to basic research there's a great dearth of personnel that have directly engaged in this field. I would look at it like any other communications profession: when a news outlet needs a field expert on race, politics, sports, etc. they reach out and hire an individual with that background in their first-hand work or extensive experience reporting that news in a separate setting. I appreciate that each news agency has financial limitations but the backlash from misleading research (like in the Wakefield-Vaccine scandal) warrants this sort of investment in order to keep public opinion completely up to date and informed.