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Issues in science writing

The problem with using p-values

P-value graphs projected on screen

Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus put a common statistical test under their microscope, quoting scientists who think it's overused: "Getting statistics right is difficult — and requires careful thought, not just slapping on a p-value and calling it a day. It wasn’t always this way; p-values are only about 350 years old. They’re not the laws of physics. That doesn’t mean we could or should throw them out — although some have — but it means we can make them work better for us."

A call to ban the word "controversial"

JFK quote on controversial books

Mary Chris Jaklevic writes that the term "controversial" and its cousins "contentious" and "hotly debated," which journalists sometimes use almost reflexively, should be banned from science and medical reporting: "Calling something 'controversial' in a headline or lead doesn’t just turn science into clickbait — it’s also potentially harmful, because it can color consumers’ perceptions before they’ve learned the facts."

How men and women pitch stories

Baseball pitcher

Jane C. Hu presents the results of The Open Notebook's survey on pitching habits of men and women: "Our results show that men and women in many ways pitch similarly — but when men push back against a rejection, they are more likely than women to do so by proposing an alternative angle. Our data also suggest that pushing back after a pitch has been rejected may yield different results for men versus women."

On science writing and science literacy

Glass vials

The Trump administration's trial balloon about vaccines prompts Rachel E. Gross to write that science journalists need to step back: "Common wisdom suggests that the remedy for these incorrect beliefs is to simply provide more reporting on the science. If we could just explain the science better, louder, and with more authority, then everyone would agree. Or so the thinking goes. The problem is, studies have shown time and time again that this strategy doesn't work."

Is this hated embargo practice ending?

FDA sign and building

The Food and Drug Administration's outgoing media chief Jason Young tells the Association of Health Care Journalists that his agency has banned "close-hold embargoes," Felice J. Freyer writes: "Asked in a phone interview what assurances reporters have that the FDA won’t violate the policy as it has in the past, especially with a new administration taking office, Young noted the agency has committed to the rule in writing." More from Ivan Oransky.

Climate reporting in the Trump era

Norway glacier

When Exxon's CEO is poised to take over the State Department, it's easy for a journalist covering climate to grow despondent, Andrew Freedman writes: "In part thanks to Trump and his allies, facts are even becoming less meaningful in today's society. It's no longer enough to just get more facts out there, and hope for the best. It's a tough reality to face as a journalist, and it's also going to take some getting used to."

Science and the fake news problem

Cancer headline

Science journalism and science itself might be especially vulnerable to the fake news phenomenon, Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus write: "The real trouble with fake news is when there’s a kernel of truth in the pile of garbage. That’s especially problematic in science: scientists continue to dress up weak findings in flashy clothes, all the better to publish with. Then their universities often bolster this flimsy work with frothy press releases that journalists fall for."

A review of news release exaggeration

British and Australian researchers reviewed 534 news releases from major journals and found exaggeration doesn't pay off, Matt Shipman writes: "Taking into account the smaller number of releases that included exaggerations of either kind — limiting the sample size — the most cautious way to interpret these numbers is to say that exaggerations in news releases don’t seem to make much of a difference one way or the other on whether reporters will cover the research."

Making the case against embargoes

Newspaper front page

Ivan Oransky reviews the EurekAlert hack, the FDA's manipulation of reporters, and other news to argue that embargoes are just plain bad: "It’s clear that a lot of the power of embargoes would go away if journalists stopped believing they had to publish a story or post a blog the minute a new study came out. Sure, I get the value of a news peg. I used to run a wire service, Reuters Health, that covers health. But it warps the public’s understanding of how science works."

Can medical reporting make you sick?

Laptop and stethoscope

Alan Cassels reviews some studies of the association between reading medical news and developing stress-related medical problems, and concludes that what you read just might make you feel bad: "At the end of the day, health fear-mongering is bad for you and you should do what you can to immunize yourself from its pernicious influence. Journalists (and readers) need a better tuned fear-mongering radar to detect elements that are more likely to scare than inform readers."