On science blogs this week: Jonah Lehrer again

THE RETURN OF JONAH LEHRER, SORTA. The story of Jonah Lehrer and science writing gone wrong surfaces once more, this time beginning with an Amy Wallace article in the October issue of Los Angeles Magazine.

The event has ramifications, as these things often do, and I'll get to them in a moment. But first, News of the Week.

Wallace's coup is that she pried a brief email from the elusive Lehrer himself. Or perhaps it was a subtle coup by Lehrer, trolling for a publisher, and I'll get to that in a moment too. Declining graciously to be interviewed, he disclosed that he was writing about the events himself. Of course he's writing about the events himself, as I and others forecast a couple of months ago.

In his email to Wallace, Lehrer claimed she was only the third journalist to attempt to contact him. Others jumped up in a trice to argue he was lying about that too. Joe Coscarelli of New York magazine counted at least 5 attempts by various journalists to reach Lehrer directly. Andrew Beaujon of Poynter puts the number at eight.

THE PROBLEM OF HEADLINE WRITERS AS REPORTERS. Or maybe I mean headline writers as editorial writers. Alexander Abad-Santos has an odd piece in Atlantic Wire under the hed "Jonah Lehrer Is Almost Ready to Talk." That's not, of course, what Wallace's piece said, but having myself been victimized by headline writers, I will generously assume the hed wasn't his fault. He does, however, use scare quotes to refer to Lehrer's plans for "writing." If he means to cast doubt on the idea that Lehrer will write something, he's surely wrong. Of course Lehrer will write about it. In fact, whoever wrote the hed on Josh Voorhees's recap of the Wallace piece at Slate put it this way: "Is Jonah Lehrer Angling For a New Book Deal? It Sure Sounds Like It." The Voorhees piece itself, however, didn't present this speculation.

Now, about those ramifications I mentioned in the first graf:

IN THE ELECTRONIC AGE, CENSORSHIP IS EASY. At The Atlantic, Maria Konnikova writes about the vanishing of the Lehrer book with fabricated material, Imagine. The book was withdrawn by the publisher, not an unprecedented move when the content of a book is found to be purloined or (in the case of non-fiction) invented. But Imagine has not just been withdrawn, it has been very nearly Disappeared. She reports no trace of it left at the online bookseller sites like Amazon or Barnes & Noble. It is gone from the publisher's site too, and from Lehrer's own site. Used copies are still to be had, but (except for discussions like hers), she says there is now no evidence that the ironically titled "Imagine" ever existed.

Her very scary point is to look ahead to the time when all books are e-books and censorship is easy. She points out how simple it is to alter and even erase electronic records.

There's no need of inciting mass cooperation in book-burning enterprises. No need for secret police or raids or extensive surveillance. The power to remove a book from a device, to remove all traces of it from retailers' websites, to expunge it from a publisher's online record: It would simplify the work of a would-be Soviet Union or Oceania multifold, would it not?

RECOMMENDED READING FOR SCIENCE WRITERS. It also struck me that the Wallace piece exemplified a particular sort of journalism, especially online journalism. She managed to get a readable piece out of recapping the Lehrer Downfall Story by simply cutting and pasting and commenting on other folks' comments good and bad. By good fortune her timing was such that Lehrer was ready to drop his hints about his writing plans, so she was able to crown the clips with a quote from the Lehrer email turning down her interview request. A neat, very professional job of the top-of-the-head writing so beloved of Web sites. The piece should go on the list of Recommended Reading for up-and-coming 'Net journos who are being forced to daily production and therefore don't have much time for actual research.

Wallace concludes by expressing her irritation at Lehrer for what he has done to the already-tattered image of journalism. Now, she says, readers will trust journos even less.

Sounds familiar, doesn't it? The sort of thing we say about the damage to science every time another deceitful scientist surfaces.

Which brings me to Roundup and the giant rat tumors.

WHY PEOPLE DON'T TRUST SCIENCE EITHER. This week's case in point: the European study purporting to show that rats eating the weedkiller Roundup and corn genetically modified to resist it get enormous tumors. Scicurious, a favorite here for her skill in dismembering papers, dismembers this one at Discover's Crux. Her conclusion:

while the results of the study look very drastic, there are too many issues to conclude that GMO maize and Roundup cause tumor formation. All we can really conclude is that rats who are prone to develop tumors ... develop tumors, whether they are fed GMO maize, Roundup, both, or neither.

OK, one more paper that fails to support the claims in its Abstract, ho-hum. Except that this one was accompanied by twists of special interest to science writers. The authors declined to provide advance copies of the paper, a routine practice, unless the writers agreed (in writing) not to consult other scientists about it. In addition to being very naughty, the demand perverts the whole point of getting papers in advance, which is to permit writers time to bone up on the subject and get comments — rational and fair-minded, one hopes — from scientists who haven't been part of the research.

"A RANCID, CORRUPT WAY TO REPORT ABOUT SCIENCE." For excellent accounts of of this science journalism low-water mark, see John Timmer at Ars Technica and Ivan Oransky at Embargo Watch, and many comments with both posts. For the highest dudgeon see The Loom, wherein Carl Zimmer declares

This is a rancid, corrupt way to report about science. It speaks badly for the scientists involved, but we journalists have to grant that it speaks badly to our profession, too.

It speaks badly of the writers who signed the nondisclosure agreement, certainly, but it's not clear how many of them did.

And then see NeuroDojo Zen Faulkes, who reveals the real reason the paper's authors strove for uncritical high-profile presentation of their startling findings: They had a book and a movie coming out this week.

Before I learned about these media projects, I thought they might have just done a poor experiment. The movie blows any chance the authors had of convincing me that this is an honest test of a scientific hypothesis.

Faulkes points out that the authors declared no conflict of interest in the paper, although obviously they had one. A red flag for all of us: COI statements in journals are not to be trusted because they are simply what the authors say about their COIs. In a later post Faulkes explains why he wants the COI statement changed but he doesn't think the paper should be retracted. A retraction, he says, would play into the hands of conspiracy theorists who would declare it to be evidence of the genetic engineers' plot to rule the world.

WHY BAD SCIENCE JOURNALISM IS ALL THE FAULT OF SCIENTISTS. While I'm up, let me note a new paper from PLoS Medicine that, by what I assume is coincidence, comments on these events. It tickles me that, like the Roundup-tumor paper, it is also a study from France. The paper looks for the source of spin in papers reporting clinical trials, defining spin as "specific reporting strategies, intentional or unintentional, emphasizing the beneficial effect of the experimental treatment."

The paper compares press reports of scientific papers with the papers themselves and their associated press releases. Given the media's bad reputation, which I guess I have bought into, the results surprised me a little. The study identified spin in about half of the press releases and media coverage. But it concluded

the main factor associated with “spin” in press releases was the presence of “spin” in the article abstract conclusion.

So you see, lousy science journalism isn't the journalists' fault after all. The scientists make us do it.

Sep. 28, 2012