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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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« Remind Me Not to Do This Again | Main | It Pours on Ligand »

September 12, 2005

". . .And to Furbish Falsehoods For a Magazine"

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Posted by Derek

I couldn't resist linking to this article, part of a series in the Guardian. I'm afraid that he's pretty much on target for most science stories in the news:

"Science is done by scientists, who write it up. Then a press release is written by a non-scientist, who runs it by their non-scientist boss, who then sends it to journalists without a science education who try to convey difficult new ideas to an audience of either lay people, or more likely - since they'll be the ones interested in reading the stuff - people who know their way around a t-test a lot better than any of these intermediaries. Finally, it's edited by a whole team of people who don't understand it. You can be sure that at least one person in any given "science communication" chain is just juggling words about on a page, without having the first clue what they mean, pretending they've got a proper job, their pens all lined up neatly on the desk."

As he points out, there are only a few templates available for science-based stories in the popular press - "Big Breakthrough!", "What You Thought You Knew is Wrong", and "Those Crazy Scientists" are the ones that get used the most. And let's not forget "Scientific Confirmation of (insert pre-existing bias here.)"

But, to be depressingly fair about it, there aren't many more templates for reporting any other subject. Just look at how many stories are whacked with mallets until they fit the Brave Feisty Underdog story line, or some of the others that might as well be run in italics above the stories in the newspaper or in the corner of the TV screen: Babies In Danger, How the Mighty Are Fallen, Lowlifes on Parade, Sanctimony Unmasked. There are more. Those are merely some of the non-ideological ones.

Comments (9) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Press Coverage


1. Petros on September 13, 2005 2:47 AM writes...

The Gaurdian generally manages to publish some reasonable commentaries on science.

The previous week an article by Richard Dawkins (URL given) had laid waster to the scientific nonsense of Inteeligent Design

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2. Spitshine on September 13, 2005 3:00 AM writes...

The most apparent short coming of science coverage in the mass media is the consistent lack of a reference to the paper or the press release.
No scientist and no blogger would ever get away with it - however, professional journalists do not consider this as part if their agenda.
The most apparent reason is the limited space but even the online editions are not linked, let alone the use of the DOI.

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3. Peter Ellis on September 13, 2005 3:29 AM writes...

You forgot "Young Woman Has Breasts"

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4. daen on September 13, 2005 8:56 AM writes...

On the subject of "Feisty [Limey] Underdogs", am I allowed to mention cricket here, with appropriate references?

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5. John Novak on September 13, 2005 10:43 AM writes...

I think you forgot a major story template:

"Promises applications in BLAH!" where BLAH may include, but is certainly not limited to:

1) Cancer therapy
2) Hydrogen fuel cells
3) BetterStrongerFaster computers

Those are the big themes running through the press releases that filter through to sci.nanotech, where I'm beginning to roll my eyes every time I approve an article. With a bunch of materials science discoveries in the last six months, I'm beginning to expect solar sails and beanstalks to rise in popularity.

I'm beginning to expect that the interviewers have 3x5 cards with pre-made questions on them. "Will this cure cancer? No? Could it ever? Does it interact with cancer cells? Ever!? C'mon, Joe Scientist, work with me here!"

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6. PsychicChemist on September 13, 2005 5:55 PM writes...

Ah, the English cricket team finally wins the Ashes. It must have been hard to get knocked around by the Aussies for two decades.

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7. Plasmid on September 13, 2005 6:14 PM writes...

As a science writer for a mainstream daily newspaper, I confess I've committed some of the sins of which you speak.
But I'm learning. I keep up with the main journals. I make a tremendous effort to educate myself about your research before I call you. And once I've written a rough draft, I send you the technical bits for your corrections. I DO mention your papers in my articles. On my new blog,, I link to your abstracts, and occasionally, your press releases.
When you're frustrated with the media, keep in mind how long it took you to gain the depth of understanding in your field. Remember that we're lucky if we have a week to come up to speed. Remember that most of us earn half or less what you earn. Remember that taking time to understand your research requires a commitment from our editors, and that's something we fight for, simply because we respect what you do and enjoy learning and telling others about it.
It's always amusing to poke fun at the poor stupid media, but let's be honest: Without the people who pay the taxes that fund your grants, there would be no research - or at least, very little.
If we in the mainstream media don't understand what you're doing, take the time to help us learn.
We both need each other.

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8. Derek Lowe on September 14, 2005 10:01 AM writes...

Plasmid, you've already distinguished yourself from the kind of science journalist that the Guardian writer (and I) are complaining about. Just calling back to check the technical details is enough to break you out of the herd, much less linking to the actual papers. You have to admit that that's very uncommon indeed, and I congratulate you for it.

It's just that many of us have seen stories mangled beyond recognition, either by the original writer or by the editing process. An incomprehensible (or comprehensible, but wrong) story is worse than none at all - people are confused enough as it is.

Oh yeah, one other thing - your point about grant money is well taken in academia, but I'm an industrial guy. Between taxes and price controls, I'm a net government donor.

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9. rob cyran on September 16, 2005 6:51 AM writes...

I'd like to point out one thing in our defence (I cover pharma).

Speed. When a biotech puts out a press release on the results of an important clinical trial, I have to publish an article within three hours (wire services have to work even quicker!) Combine this with the number of drugs in trials, it is hard to make an informed analysis.

Finally, don't forget that PR statements often are full of spin. I don't know how many times I've heard of how a drug is wonderful on an a sub-group of population (that wasn't pre-specified at the start of the trial - yet this isn't clear in the release).

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