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Issues in science writing

Why it's so hard to get science right

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Christie Aschwanden uses a clever interactive graphic to explain why so many scientific studies don't hold up under further scrutiny: "I could pontificate about all the reasons why science is arduous, but instead I’m going to let you experience one of them for yourself. Welcome to the wild world of p-hacking." Aschwanden's graphic shows how an insignificant result can be turned into a significant one by manipulating a few of the handful of variables in the analysis.

The Hippocratic Oath and journalism

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From Dr. Oz to Sanjay Gupta, Rita Rubin discusses physicians who practice journalism and the hazards they face, from NBC's Nancy Snyderman being criticized for violating her self-imposed Ebola quarantine to CBS's Jennifer Ashton wearing a pink ribbon while reporting on breast cancer: "These situations highlight what one journalist, who also is a physician, calls the potential 'minefield' of navigating two professions that have different ethical standards and goals."

Some psychology terms to avoid using

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Ted Scheinman writes about a recent Frontiers in Psychology article listing 50 misused terms from psychology and psychiatry, and suggests that reporters who write about them may want to shun them as well: "This list is also potentially troubling for science journalists, many of whom are circulating the Frontiers piece this week. Some seem grateful for the corrective, others a little paranoid about it. (What if you misused 'empiricism' in that feature last fall?!)"

How the vaccine issue harms reporting

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Julia Belluz suggests reporters may be going too far when they bend over backwards to avoid fueling anti-vaccine sentiment. So far, in fact, that they pass up legitimate stories on vaccine side effects, such as a link between a swine flu vaccine and narcolepsy: "I've sometimes shied away from writing about uncertainty in vaccine science for fear that my stories might have horrible consequences for public health. It seems other reporters may have been doing the same."

Science writers and the Scopes trial

Anti-evolution league storefront

Clarence Darrow had some help from reporters for a fledgling science news service in his defense of John Thomas Scopes, who was on trial for teaching evolution. Kimbra Cutlip writes: "Watson Davis took charge of lining up expert witnesses for the defense. On his train ride from Washington to Dayton, he telegraphed a list of scientists to Darrow and his defense team instructing them to invite the scientists to testify. He also took it upon himself to send the invitations."

How reporters spread misinformation

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California's new vaccine law drew throngs of protesters to Sacramento, and journalists struggled to write about their views without equivocating on the discredited link between vaccinations and autism, Danny Funt writes. Funt offers advice on how to strike the right balance: "The testimonials of individuals should be accompanied by an authoritative explanation of scientific research. Without it, reporters seeking to describe dissent are more likely to spread confusion."

Should disclosure rules be relaxed?

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Two decades after agitating against conflicts of interest, the New England Journal of Medicine has now run a three-part series that seems to advocate relaxing disclosure standards, while in the rival BMJ three former NEJM editors object, Tara Haelle writes: "Why does all this matter to journalists? If NEJM does back away from their policies and other journals follow suit, it becomes more difficult for journalists to assess these commentaries and review articles."

Give us your notes, a company says

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In defending against a lawsuit brought by unhappy shareholders, the biotech firm Amgen is trying to force a newsletter reporter to disclose how he learned about negative clinical trial results for one of the firm's products, Ed Silverman writes: "As Erik Gordon of the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan notes, the newsletter 'got dragged in because the shareholders are quoting it saying there was important information people weren’t aware of.'"

The rising fear of screwing up

In the wake of the Rolling Stone debacle, Monica Guzman surveys journalists about what keeps them awake at night, and finds that the answer is fear. And with the pace of journalism growing ever faster, thanks to tweets and blog posts and comments, the risks of making a career-ending error are growing too, dangerously so: "In journalism, as in life, some fear is necessary. But too much fear is paralyzing. Are you too afraid to do good journalism? Or not afraid enough?"

How false balance confuses readers

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Reporters often struggle with how to handle dissenting views on subjects where the science is settled, such as climate change or vaccinations. Should the opposing viewpoints be included with an explanation that they aren't considered valid? Maybe not, a blog post by Matt Shipman suggests. Summarizing recent research, Shipman writes that "introducing a second viewpoint makes the first scientist seem less credible – even if the second viewpoint is clearly discredited."