Issues in science writing

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Cynthia Graber and Katharine Gammon report on an effort to gauge whether men get more science bylines than women and the answer is yes: "For short articles, women’s bylines typically equaled and in some cases outnumbered men’s. But for longer front-of-book or back-of-book pieces, where writers have an opportunity to showcase their writing style and establish credentials that could lead to opportunities to write the more prestigious feature articles, men outnumbered women."

Sharon Begley writes about what's wrong with a lot of reporting on medical issues — too many writers who take the easy route in reporting on "breakthroughs" uncritically: "Somehow, medical writers forget (or never learn) that they are supposed to be journalists, not cheerleaders, and that to serve their readers or listeners they need to bring as much scrutiny, skepticism, and critical thinking to their field as the politics reporter brings to a candidate’s tax plan."

Referencing the Flint water crisis, Tara Haelle explains why reporters are justified in ignoring or discrediting fringe commentators who suggest that news about lead in drinking water is overblown: "They’re even entitled to say it, just as anyone can claim the Earth is flat, the moon landing didn’t happen, the sun circles the Earth and cavemen rode dinosaurs. But the facts reveal a real crisis that every other politician inside and outside Michigan is taking seriously."

Two months after raising questions about plant scientist Kevin Folta and his ties to Monsanto, Brooke Borel posts on the differences between science communication and science journalism]( "Should political journalists stick to positive profiles of politicians? Should business writers only consider the positives from a company’s actions? Should those who write about literature ignore the intent of the pieces they cover? Of course not. And the same goes for science."

The president's climate rhetoric is offset by a lack of transparency, Dawn Stover writes, citing stories on a Keystone pipeline briefing that "quoted a 'senior State Department official.' Perhaps a more accurate description would have been 'Senior State Department Official Number One, who spoke at a press conference but declined to be identified by name or to give a reason for requesting anonymity.'" More on Paris coverage from Cristine Russell.

Even scientists have trouble explaining, in plain English, what a p-value is, Christie Aschwanden writes after posing that challenge at a recent statistics conference: "To be clear, everyone I spoke with at METRICS could tell me the technical definition of a p-value — the probability of getting results at least as extreme as the ones you observed, given that the null hypothesis is correct — but almost no one could translate that into something easy to understand."

More than six months after Health News Review began reviewing press releases, managing editor Kevin Lomangino writes about what it's finding and how PR people are reacting: "In several cases, public relations officials have written to us privately to say, 'But the researchers signed off on what we wrote!' To which we reply: 'That’s not good enough.' … But we’ve also had many terrific interactions with press officers who’ve been open to our constructive criticism."

Carlos Lozada writes about the fabulist's latest credit, ghostwriter on a new book by UCLA behavioral economist Shlomo Benartzi, The Smarter Screen: Surprising Ways to Influence and Improve Online Behavior: "Of course, Lehrer is far better known than Benartzi, but when fame turns to infamy, this is what you get. Jonah Lehrer has been reduced to a 'with' — a prepositional demotion." Also, Stephen Glass repays Harper’s for one of his articles.

With even presidential candidates spouting anti-vaccine views, one might think that science communicators are to blame for the public's poor science literacy. Rick Borchelt disagrees: "What little evidence we do have is that science communication and other informal science learning are at best of marginal value to boosting adult scientific literacy — way, way, way behind such factors as years of total educational attainment and number of college science classes taken."

Harold DeMonaco reviews a recent commentary on cancer drug costs and concludes that journalists should do better: "The good news is that newer drugs can prolong lifespan and improve the quality of life of cancer patients. The bad news is that these drugs are rapidly becoming unaffordable to the average American. In many instances, health care journalists don’t seem to be telling their readers about the rising cost of these drugs and what that trend means for patients."