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There’s a reason we need good science journalists

It’s because the bad ones are appalling hacks. Here’s an ad for The Sun looking for a scientist to give them the answer they want.

Media outlet: The Sun Freelance journalist: Matthew Barbour Query: Further to my last request, I also now urgently need an expert who will say tattoos can give you cancer. We can plug any relevant organisation, give copy approval, and pay a fee. Please get back to me asap if you can help.

Media outlet: The Sun

Freelance journalist: Matthew Barbour

Query: Further to my last request, I also now urgently need an expert who will say tattoos can give you cancer. We can plug any relevant organisation, give copy approval, and pay a fee. Please get back to me asap if you can help.

May I suggest that Matthew Barbour ought to be drummed out of journalism, and that any “expert” who is cited in his article promoting lies for cash ought to be similarly ridiculed?

If anyone sees this article appear, let me know.

Comments

  1. says

    I work in computer security, and my experience has been that hack journalists virtually always get something wrong in their coverage, or overlook important points in their quest for “OMG teh world is gonna END!” articles. And one day I was talking with a friend who’s a biologist and he said it’s the same in his field. Then, the physicist chimed in…

    … The conclusion was that journalists don’t get ANYTHING right, really, except for who is dating who and who is pregnant. And even then, they get it wrong fairly often.

  2. says

    There was a spot on NPR (I think it was) about the new computer-generated news reporting. Apparently there are chunks of software that you can throw a few facts into and they’ll churn out a piece of robohackwork that is pretty much indistinguishable from a real human hack journalist. Perhaps that means that the ecological niche for hack journalists is going to narrow further, which means the population will drop — except we’ll need software to detect robohackwork and block it, because otherwise “news” will get bigger and bigger since now you can have an infinite amount of it for free – just turn the crank.

  3. calgor says

    Twitter comment says it’s via private eye. Just need to measure time until it becomes a real advert…

  4. AsqJames says

    @4,

    Private Eye took it from (and acknowledged it came from) Response Source

    From the link: “ResponseSource gives journalists, broadcasters and bloggers fast access to reliable stories and information.”

    Yeah, okay.

  5. Friendly says

    @calgor: If this is a snapshot of a page in Private Eye magazine, which loves to report actual stupid quotes and activities, I doubt this is a spoof; the magazine seems to be indicating that this was, in fact, a real ad (or at least a real request) posted on ResponseSource.

  6. Rich Woods says

    Yes, it’s this week’s Private Eye, on page 7. It’s in an adjacent column to this gem:

    —-
    “Please remember, all email and other electronic communications can end up in the public domain. Never assume that emails or any other electronic communications are private and confidential” – Newly issued guidelines for staff at Rupert Murdoch’s News UK, former publisher of the News Of The World. They are also advised that they should “never look the other way” if they suspect something dodgy is going on at work.
    —-

    News UK also publishes The Sun, of course. A decision about changes to press regulation is due to be made in the next few weeks, I think, yet here they are, carrying on as normal.

  7. george gonzalez says

    Almost every time I see a story about some area that I know something about, be it aviation, energy, software or hardware, I go Huh? There usually are one to several large gaping leaps of logic.

    Particularly bad are the sciency breakthrough reports from each and every university’s PR department. The stories are at least 95% pure bull droppings. You can set your watch (remember, anyone, when you had to set watches?), MIT or Stanford will have a PR release about some breakthrough in genetics, solar cells, nanotechnology, or photosynthesis, at least once a week. Eight paragraphs, and the lead investigator gets maybe a 8 word quote where they say this could be a big breakthrough. Hardly ever a caveat about how this might just only work in a lab with 99.99% pure erbium electrodes and not be scalable to usable size. I’m thinking maybe the U of M is not a whole lot different in their press releases.

  8. stevem says

    Reads like a “Sting” ad: they’re just trying to find an “expert” who claims, “tattoos cause cancer” so they can then show just how WRONG he is.

    My hopes are too high, just blinded by “pollyanna”. Optimism, begone!

  9. AsqJames says

    “A decision about changes to press regulation is due to be made in the next few weeks”

    This week I think (might be wrong). Seemed to me that the Mail’s “The man who hated Britain” attack on Miliband Minor’s dad, with its “Marxism…Stalinism…repressive regimes…jailing/murdering dissidents…etc” was timed to coincide with both the Labour conference and the run up to the Royal Charter decision. Hugh Grant and the McCann’s will be up for a kicking soon too.

  10. boskerbonzer says

    I am seeking a reputable journalist who will tell my story about how cancer will cause tattoos. I am living proof! I’m hoping to find numerous case studies of people like myself who survived cancer and decided a tattoo was the perfect way to celebrate. Well, one of the ways to celebrate. The findings will be used to get people who don’t approve of tattoos to shut their stupid pieholes.

  11. moarscienceplz says

    This is nothing new. I owned a video store during the ’90s and when Star Trek 7 was released I was contacted by a local TV news guy who wanted me to parrot back to him his pet theory that all odd-numbered ST movies were bad. I told him I didn’t really accept that, but I’d be happy to talk on-camera about it. He came and asked me if it was true that all odd ST movies were bad. I said no, I thought #3 was good. He asked me that same question again. Again, I said no, #1 & #5 were bad, but for different reasons (which I gave) and thus one couldn’t make such a sweeping generalization. He asked it yet again. This time I softened my response, yes 1 & 5 were bad and 3 wasn’t the best, but we should have an open mind about 7. He wrapped it up and left at that point. Needless to say, my performance did not make it to air.

  12. Rich Woods says

    @AsqJames #10:

    Hugh Grant and the McCann’s will be up for a kicking soon too.

    Yup, that’s usually the way it works. Although I’d tend to think the fix is already in, that none-too-subtle suggestions will have been made to various politicians about non-executive directorships (worth a hundred grand a year for one day’s work per month, if Blunkett’s recent non-renewal of contract is anything to go by) after they get kicked out of office in the next election.

  13. says

    This sort of thing is why I don’t read newspapers or watch TV news anymore. Especially not for anything science-related. The internet may be a crapshoot overall, but at least I can find competent journalism when I do a search.

  14. cubist says

    My evil mind tells me that there could be an opportunity for Sokal-style hoaxing. Some hack journo says they want a Real Scientist™ to support the conclusion that, oh, eating 5 pounds of sugar makes you immortal? No problem! I laserprint myself a diploma from the Very Famous School Of RectoProctology, and before the paper cools down, I churn out 4-6 pages of utter bilge for the nice hack journo. It needn’t be well-written; it needn’t even be coherent; it could just be a sequence of words selected by PRNG from the SOWPODS wordlist, with a paragraph break every once in a while. As long as it’s got something in it about “why, yes, eating 5 pounds of sugar does make you immortal”, the hack journo is happy. And I get paid, so I’m happy.
    Happy happy joy joy! Everyone can agree that we need more happiness in this world, right?

  15. says

    I invoke Goldacre’s Law, after something Ben Goldacre said at the first TAM London:

    “There is no proposition so fuckwitted that I cannot find you a person who is a doctor or PhD who will defend it to the death.”

  16. Robert Hirsch says

    Well in my effort to be a total dork, tattoos CAN give you cancer. I realize that is not the point of this post.

    It depends on where the colors come from. It used to be that yellow was from cadmium based inks. Other colors like red came from mercury based inks. Further, only about 10% of the original ink, regardless of its makeup stays in the scar that holds the tattoo, the rest ends up in your body. Up until recently the inks were largely unregulated and there was no real way to know what you were getting.

    So while they can, I dont think they really do anymore, but I havent looked into this for years. I used to work on an erasable tattoo ink, so I was pretty familiar with the market.

    Hey! maybe I can make a few bucks!

  17. Robert Hirsch says

    Meh, now that I am looking at the literature, it looks like I’m going to have to change my mind. When I was working on erasable ink, the dermatologists we worked with claimed that the cancer rate for those people who got full back tattoos was very high. There was never a worry about little tattoos.

    But it looks like there is large agreement now that there really isnt a risk. I’m not sure if that has to do with the recent regulation over tattoos or if the science just got better since then. So, mind: changed.

  18. marcoli says

    Although it is ‘iffy’ to fish for an expert to refer to for an article linking tattoos to cancer, a simple google search for tattoos and cancer turns up lots of positive hits, citing studies of a possible link. So the journalist could just be looking for someone to refer to in the article. They are not necessarily trying to scare up some hysteria about a non-existence risk.

  19. says

    Although it is ‘iffy’ to fish for an expert to refer to for an article linking tattoos to cancer, a simple google search for tattoos and cancer turns up lots of positive hits, citing studies of a possible link. So the journalist could just be looking for someone to refer to in the article. They are not necessarily trying to scare up some hysteria about a non-existence risk.

    I can understand wanting to be charitable, but I’ve gotten pretty cynical. If I were the one writing the request, I’d go for more neutral phrasing, like “discuss a suspected link between tattoos and cancer.”

    On the other hand, if I had done my own research into the scientific publications and came to believe the evidence was solid, I’d try to add something specific, like mentioning a carcinogenic chemical in common tattoo inks (at sufficient doses) or a particular study that found a strong correlation. At least if I was wrong, a scientist who reads the ad would have an idea where I was coming from.

  20. cnocspeireag says

    I don’t know anyone in the UK who would describe the Sun as a newspaper nor anyone who writes for it a journalist.

  21. zenlike says

    marcoli @24

    They are not necessarily trying to scare up some hysteria about a non-existence risk.

    It’s for The Sun. Of course they are trying to do that.

  22. chrislawson says

    A link between tattoos and cancer? Easy. Tattoos carry a risk for hepatitis B and C transmission. Hep B and C cause cancer. Both of these statements are supported by mounds of reliable evidence.

    However, the risk of Hep B/C transmission in tattoos is almost entirely associated with (i) tattooing in prisons or at home, and not with professional tattoo premises, and (ii) people who have tattoos who also have behaviour patterns like injecting drug use (that is, the tattoo is likely a confounding variable and not the cause). Which means the actual risk to the average person who decides to get some tattoos done by a professional is very small, probably less than their risk of dying in a car crash on the way there.

  23. unclefrogy says

    I just read this sentence in a Huffington press piece and am not sure what it means or how they know.

    “When the Higgs decays to other particles in the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, Europe’s particle-physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland, it would occasionally form dark-matter particles that could not be detected.’

    uncle frogy

  24. congenital cynic says

    In my experience, as a university prof, journalists I have interacted with always get things wrong. And those things don’t even have to be difficult things. They “reword” and without knowing shit about the topic, or without caring about accuracy, they misrepresent. In my experience it’s not as deliberate as the case cited here. It’s just scientific illiteracy, plain and simple. I have only ever had ONE interaction with journalists in which they did NOT get it wrong. In every other case there was some mistake, or some nonsense. It’s sad. So simple to get the text vetted before you go to air. I could have fixed every one of the mistakes. In the end, I’m not sure they care enough to get it right. And if they do care, then they are just so pathetically ignorant of the facts that they don’t know when there’s a possible issue to get resolved. And this ignorance and the concomitant errors are transmitted to the public.

  25. Ariaflame, BSc, BF, PhD says

    Unclefrogy haven’t read article so just guessing that maybe energy balance doesn’t add up

  26. Aaron Williams says

    I believe I’ve found his Twitter feed, and it’s astonishing to say the least, especially this one, asking for sufferers of Morgellons disease to contact him for an article. A fee is promised.

    For those who don’t know, that’s a fictional disease where “sufferers” are under the delusion that wires, threads, plastic, etc. is growing out of their skin. This is often accompanied by a belief that they were infected via nanomachines, nanoparticles, or some other nefarious technology from the CIA, NSA, contrails, NASA, or any other boogeyman you’d care to name.

  27. Nemo says

    @moarscienceplz #14:

    Again, I said no, #1 & #5 were bad

    I actually liked 5. I know, it’s a lonely opinion. But, I’ve seen more than a few atheists quoting “What does God need with a starship?”. I always wondered if that wasn’t part of 5′s bad reputation — that it was just too close to being overtly anti-religious for some people’s tastes.

  28. JAL: Snark, Sarcasm & Bitterness says

    34
    Aaron Williams

    I believe I’ve found his Twitter feed, and it’s astonishing to say the least, especially this one, asking for sufferers of Morgellons disease to contact him for an article. A fee is promised.

    For those who don’t know, that’s a fictional disease where “sufferers” are under the delusion that wires, threads, plastic, etc. is growing out of their skin. This is often accompanied by a belief that they were infected via nanomachines, nanoparticles, or some other nefarious technology from the CIA, NSA, contrails, NASA, or any other boogeyman you’d care to name.

    Um, no. Here’s the Wiki. While yes, it maybe mass hysteria contracted by the Internet, if the NEWSPAPERS* on it are right, however doctors on the hand seem to have a different theory. There have been people who thought their condition was Morgellons, when it’s actually Delusional parasitosis. It’s a delusional disorder, not a fictional one and there are actual sufferers. It’s a cry for help, not at chance to sneer. This goes beyond believing in chemtrails.

    If someone says they have Morgellons, education and offering help is better than the shit you pulled. You know why? Because you can’t tell if someone actually has delusional parasitosis or not, and if you go in assuming they are lying you cause harm to all.

    Here’s the quote from the DP link:

    Morgellons

    The term “Morgellons” was introduced by stay-at-home mother Mary Leitao in 2004 to describe a skin condition characterized by a range of cutaneous (skin) symptoms including crawling, biting, and stinging sensations; finding fibers on or under the skin; and persistent skin lesions (e.g., rashes or sores). A majority of health professionals, including most dermatologists, regard Morgellons as a manifestation of other known medical conditions, including delusional parasitosis[13][14][15] and believe any fibers found are from textiles such as clothing.[16] The Morgellons Research Foundation, a non-profit advocacy organization, believes that it is a new infectious disease that will be confirmed by future research.[17][18] “Other health professionals don’t acknowledge Morgellons disease or are reserving judgment until more is known about the condition”.[19] Separate, large-scale studies into the proposed diagnosis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)[20][21] and the Mayo Clinic[9][10][22] failed to find an infectious cause of the symptoms and confirmed that Morgellons is a variant of delusional parasitosis. The term “delusional infestation” has been suggested to account for Morgellons’ patients as well as standard delusional parasitosis patients.

    *Note the quotes on the internet section for the Wiki: it’s the LA Times, Dallas Observer and Washington Post Magazine, who say it’s spread by the internet. The quote from the American Journal of Psychiatry is from a paper titled Delusional Parasitosis Facilitated by Web-Based Dissemination, which says (though it’s not quoted in the wiki)

    since current medical opinion considers the phenomenon to be delusional parasitosis”

    and talks about changing the idea that ” a belief is not considered delusional if it is accepted by other members of an individual’s culture or subculture”.

  29. Aaron Williams says

    JAL: Snark, Sarcasm & Bitterness:

    While yes, it maybe mass hysteria contracted by the Internet, if the NEWSPAPERS* on it are right, however doctors on the hand seem to have a different theory. There have been people who thought their condition was Morgellons, when it’s actually Delusional parasitosis. It’s a delusional disorder, not a fictional one and there are actual sufferers. It’s a cry for help, not at chance to sneer. This goes beyond believing in chemtrails.

    That’s a bit pedantic and glosses over my point entirely. Unless this guy is going to write his article on what people are calling Morgellons as the symptom of another disease, I’ll give you three guesses as to how it’s going to play out and the first two don’t count.

    If you’d rather I go on about how those who think they have this “disease” are the victims of mental disorders, I could post links to countless articles and YouTube videos that demonstrate that quite clearly to the point that some are posting self-inflicted “surgery” to remove what they think is the source of their affliction. I’m quite aware there’s something deeper that needs to be addressed.

    And the delusional definition is a clinical one that doesn’t address the topic at hand (science reporting). Is person X delusional? Well, not if they live in a community that shares the same delusion. A man who thinks trees speak a hidden language isn’t delusional if his entire town has that as a cultural mainstay for the purposes of analyzing whether he’s mentally ill or not. That doesn’t, for the purposes of this post, change the non-existence of Morgellons nor the apparent bent of the shady practices of the journalist involved.

  30. JAL: Snark, Sarcasm & Bitterness says

    37
    Aaron Williams

    That’s a bit pedantic and glosses over my point entirely.

    And you apparently missed the point of mine. Not to mention, you’ve apparently decided “Oh, sure there is something more going on here when people are cutting themselves open” but don’t give a shit about your sneering quotes around sufferers and the dismissal you placed by calling it a “fictional disease”. When you say fictional instead of delusional, it isn’t just pedantic, it has a completely different connotation. It signals that not only is the name made up but the entire thing from symptoms to accounts of suffering are all faked. Like something found in a fiction novel, instead of someone having a mental disorder. Coupled with your “sufferers” bit, you come off as ablist.

    Unless this guy is going to write his article on what people are calling Morgellons as the symptom of another disease, I’ll give you three guesses as to how it’s going to play out and the first two don’t count.

    Right, hence my asterisk about asshole reporters regarding Morgellons from Wiki.

    change the non-existence of Morgellons

    It’s just clinically diagnosed as something else but the symptoms and sufferers are very real. Unless you’re actually fighting the ignorance around Morgellons, like say linking to actual DP disorder, you’re coming off as an ass for dismissing a group of suffering people as non-existent. Because if you don’t link to the clinically diagnosed disorder, it isn’t clear you don’t just dismiss the name common on the internet.

  31. JAL: Snark, Sarcasm & Bitterness says

    Also,

    And the delusional definition is a clinical one that doesn’t address the topic at hand (science reporting). Is person X delusional? Well, not if they live in a community that shares the same delusion. A man who thinks trees speak a hidden language isn’t delusional if his entire town has that as a cultural mainstay for the purposes of analyzing whether he’s mentally ill or not. That doesn’t, for the purposes of this post, change the non-existence of Morgellons nor the apparent bent of the shady practices of the journalist involved.

    Well, no shit it doesn’t change the definition of delusional. I was putting that in there for kicks or make it the topic. It was in there to clarify about the paper and how the Wiki uses it in regards to this “It’s a made up diseases spread by the Internet causing mass hysteria but there’s nothing actually wrong with those people.”

  32. JAL: Snark, Sarcasm & Bitterness says

    Correction Me at #19 that addresses #37Aaron Williams

    “…I wasn’t putting that in for kicks…”

    Previewed that and everything. All Hail Tpyos!

  33. sonofrojblake says

    Matthew Barbour ought to be drummed out of journalism

    Perhaps you missed the headline. This is how journalism works. And yes, the headline is, on one level, a joke, this being Private Eye and all. On another level – the level of depressed, cynical acknowledgement that the world isn’t going to hell because it’s already there – it’s merely pointing out the fact that this really IS how journalism works, and if you think it isn’t, you’re the one who’s delusional.

    Also, the bullshit self-congratulatory elitist back-slapping about “I don’t know anyone in the UK who would describe the Sun as a newspaper nor anyone who writes for it a journalist.” fails to point out that the Sun is the single best-selling, most widely-read newspaper in the country. Sure, you and your clever friends know it’s budgie-cage fodder, but rather the point is that these scum are peddling lies to people not equipped to spot them.

  34. says

    This is hardly a surprise. Here in the UK The Sun is considered more of a comic for adults than a proper newspaper, with its bare breasts on page 3 and ludicrous right-wing propaganda. (That said, it is I believe the most popular daily paper in circulation…Cthulhu help us!)

    I would only consider reading The Sun if the Daily Mail weren’t available – so you can see how good it is.

  35. Rob Grigjanis says

    unclefrogy @30: From the article;

    …it would occasionally form dark-matter particles…

    The key word is ‘would’. Would if the Higgs interacted with dark matter. Which is not known yet.

  36. anchor says

    “…The conclusion was that journalists don’t get ANYTHING right, really, except for who is dating who and who is pregnant. And even then, they get it wrong fairly often.”

    No, there are some who do get things right, but they are stupendously outnumbered by incompetent jackasses. In my opinion, the ones who don’t get anything right aren’t journalists. They are an emergent cultivated collection of posers who pretend to be. Unfortunately, they dominate the population in that, er, ‘profession’. Whatever it is, it isn’t journalism as I understand it (but then maybe my exposure to the deep past makes me old fashioned). 30 or 40 years ago the distinction between ‘bad journalists’ vs. competent ones made sense. But not when the field is flooded with fakes who all assume the mantle. Sturgeon’s Law no longer applies as it once might have…I wish that was all there was to it. The chronic inflammation has long since erupted into a galloping cancer. The dismally small proportion of authentic journalists actual do get stuff right, but their numbers are depressingly small compared to the tumor.

    (I’m pretty sure most everyone here can readily appreciate the cancer analogue in this context: its obvious how special interests introduce carcinogens to the body of society and then sustain the reproduction of ideological systems that exploit the body’s machinery…).

    The ‘profession’ which most everyone associates with ‘journalism’ (with hardly the slightest second thought) is dominated by people who are engaged in a popularity contest to win ratings, and therefore approval, for themselves and for their employers. (Newspapers or internet news is one thing, TV ‘news’, with all their opinionated happy-talk banter makes me want to hurl).

    What would what that activity properly be called? It resembles advertising activity more than anything else. Perhaps someone here can supply an apt identification for it. I can’t find one. (The best I could come up with is ‘mediaists’, but that’s way too clumsy, unspecific, and gives the culture of fake journalists an underserved sophistication). But whatever it is, it certainly isn’t ‘journalism’. It has almost nothing to do with reporting the facts, and even less to do with any concern for objectivity and the insights which may be distilled from it. If that seems familiar, it should. Its how science works. Its how ‘truths’ can be revealed or exposed to examination by context and comparative juxtaposition with respect to crap.

    We need to foster a scientific society, one that recognizes the crucial importance and responsibility of cultivating conceptual models that resonate with the actual reality outside of our heads, not just promote the establishment of a neutrally ‘secular’ one which gives people the impression that they are entitled to hold any beliefs without real-world consequences, right?

  37. anchor says

    Woops…forgot to attribute and contain the quote in blockquote: I was addressing the first comment by Marcus. Sorry.