SCIENCE Magazine: Sloppy Reporting
Guest Essay by Kip Hansen
I once ran a web site titled the Bad Science Times — I wrote about bad and poor science and science journalism. It was the still the heyday of online bulletin boards and web sites were the “new” thing. I used it as a proving ground for my burgeoning web skills and my writing skills. It was a major part of my resume when I applied for a position on the premier web team on the planet at the time — the IBM Olympics and Sports Internet Team.
I mention it because bad, sloppy and ill-reported science is still a major interest of mine. Much of the bad science reporting comes from the hyping, sexing-up, and exaggeration of research findings not by the researchers, but by their academic or institutional media relations departments via Press Releases (the more modern term now being Media Releases) written so as to garner more attention and, hopefully, headlines in mainstream mass media. I wrote last week about Dissolving Starfish — something that isn’t happening but makes eye-catching headlines — Google lists eight news outlets carrying the story featuring: [you guessed it!] dissolving starfish.
In that essay, I also referenced a recent study that the media claimed said that “coral reefs will dissolve”. Of course, the study said no such thing. The original study involved there is “Coral reefs will transition to net dissolving before end of century“ and is really about coral sediments shifting to net dissolution as the aragonite saturation state reaches a projected value of 2.92 ± 0.16.
Can we blame this on lazy or gullible media journalists? Not really — a Media Release from Southern Cross University, where the lead author, Professor Eyre, teaches, led the charge misrepresenting the research, but the “coral reefs will dissolve” story was headlined by Science Magazine in this piece:
“Ocean acidification is causing coral reefs to dissolve” written by Matt Warren, who is a news intern with Science and is a professional journalist with some experience.
Warren wrote this wildly misleading line in his brief report: “Writing in Science, the researchers predict that with increasing levels of acidification, most coral reefs will be gradually dissolving away by the end of the century.” Science Magazine is “the peer-reviewed academic journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and one of the world’s top academic journals.” (Wiki) [Opinions vary, of course.] The coral reefs story was brought to my attention by a highly respected Reef and Oceanic Acidification researcher who pointed out to me how just incorrect the Science story was and how far the false narrative had spread via the media in so short a time. This researcher told me, via email, “the paper in science last week regarding coral sediments dissolving was reproduced in many media outlets stating “coral reefs will dissolve”, which is completely different to the findings of the paper.”
[NOTE: Sea water carbonate chemistry, of which aragonite saturation state is only a part, is a complicated and complex topic, see this essay and the nearly endless argument of several chemists on the subject in comments.]
How, one wonders, does an error of such magnitude happen in one of the world’s premier science journals? They have professional journalists with science backgrounds, they have trained editors, many of the original studies they write about are published in their own publication.
A recent example explains this to some degree.
[TRIGGER WARNING: This Science magazine article unfortunately is somewhat political and deals with the sitting President of the United States, Donald Trump, but is not really about him at all. I sincerely hope that readers are mature enough to focus on the intended topic of this essay which is Science Journalism.]
Here is a cropped screenshot of the Science Magazine online article:
Now, for non-journalist’s, let me point out the salient features: At the top is the
“Masthead” declaring this to be Science magazine (online) with some navigational links; on the left are the ubiquitous social-media sharing links; the image is the featured story “art” (in this case, it is difficult to tell if it is a photograph or an artist’s conception, it is not specified — story art could be a drawing, a chart, even a YouTube) with caption.
The bold-faced larger print below the image is the story “headline”. “A headline’s purpose is to quickly and briefly draw attention to the story.” The headline in this case reads:
“Scientists rally to save research laser that Trump has targeted for closure”
I include in the cropped screenshot the story “lede” [pronounced as is its alternate name “lead paragraph” — lede is more traditional.]. The lede is the first sentence or paragraph of a news story and is expected to, and should, summarize the story and/or contain “the most important, interesting or attention-grabbing elements of a story”. In our example case, the lede is:
“Physicists and politicians are rallying to the defense of the Omega laser at the University of Rochester (U of R) in New York, an iconic facility in the search for fusion energy that President Donald Trump has proposed defunding.”
All the text that follows (see the original Science story here) is the body of the story.
The body of the story is a pretty straight forward report about how this federally financed science lab at the University of Rochester has been surprised by the announcement that the Department of Energy’s 2019 Budget Proposal calls for a ramp-down of the Laboratory for Laser Energetics (LLE), and its associated Omega laser program, over 3 years. Of course, the local leaders of the Rochester-based lab are running down to Washington, D.C., lobbying Congressional representatives and Senators to try to bring political pressure to bear and get the labs funding restored to the budget.
So, what is the real story here?
The short form answer is “Federal Budgeting business-as-usual”. Whenever a local military base or federal laboratory or federally funded research project is scheduled to be shut down, those affected run to their local politicians and federal congressional representatives begging for relief. And in this case, to the media.
But, what about the Trump connection?
There is no Trump connection. The decision has been made by Department of Energy bureaucrats and is buried deep inside the publicly available DOE 2019 Budget Proposal documents. Only two of the four full chapters are openly available to the general public — over 1,000 pages in Chapters 1 and 4 alone. [I suspect that the other two chapters are classified as they deal with atomic energy research.]
I would personally be surprised if the President has ever even heard the words “Omega laser” or “Laboratory for Laser Energetics” — he certainly has not sat down and read the estimated 2,000+ pages of the Department of Energy’s budget proposal.
However, our professional Science journalist at Science Magazine (International) has told us expressly that “…President Donald Trump has proposed defunding” the Omega Laser, in fact, Mr. Clery told us that “…Trump has targeted [it] for closure”.
Dear readers, anyone who has taken a basics civics class in a United States high school knows that the US Federal government is divided into three branches: The Executive Branch, the Legislative Branch, and the Judicial Branch. The President is the nominal head of the Executive Branch. Which branch establishes the Federal Budget? The Legislative Branch. Oops….how then can the President have targeted the Omega Laser for closure?
Each of the branches of government have to apply to Congress for funding. That means that all the Executive Departments have to submit annual budget requests to the Legislature, via the office of the President. This combined budget request covers the fifteen Executive departments which have a employee base of over 4 million people and a dollar amount of almost 4 trillion dollars.
Who writes the budget proposal for the Department of Energy? Not the President (thankfully…). The Office of Chief Financial Officer of the Department of Energy compiles the document; bureaucrats big and small, all up and down the command chain, make all the decisions. Somewhere in that vast byzantine structure, the following decision was made (I beg your indulgence…):
“The Inertial Confinement Fusion Ignition and High Yield program will transition from NNSA operations at three major high energy density facilities to two – National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories (LLNL), Z Pulsed Power facility at Sandia National Laboratories (SNL). As part of rebalancing the ICF Program to strengthen long-term support for Stockpile Stewardship Program efforts, as well as responding to higher NNSA priorities, the FY 2019 Request initiates a three-year ramp-down in NNSA’s financial commitment to the University of Rochester’s Laboratory for Laser Energetics, including the Omega Laser Facility, resulting in the cessation of the financial assistance agreement.”
What has happened down here is that the Department of Energy, who funds this laboratory and the Omega Laser Facility, has simply decided that three major high energy densities facilities was one too many and is phasing out one of them. It is unfortunate for the lab that is to lose its financing.
But, what about the Trump connection?
There is no Trump connection. In fact, because there is no Trump connection, I emailed Dan Clery and asked him specifically:
Is it actually true that the President, Donald Trump, has personally targeted the Omega laser for closure?
If so, can you supply a reference for that — a speech or tweet or something?
Or are you just reporting that the DOE, in its proposed 2019 budget, included the cut backs?
Mr. Clery wrote back:
“Saying that Trump has proposed its closure is just a shorthand way of saying that it is included in the President’s budget request. I don’t know if he personally targeted Omega to be closed, but the budget request is an expression of his desires for federal spending so it’s safe to say he has requested the closure of Omega.”
In other words, Mr. Clery has no idea at all, and no reason to believe, that President Trump ever even knew that this funding change was made in the DOE budget proposal. Despite this, Clery has stated explicitly, twice, in the story headline and in the lede, that “that President Donald Trump has proposed defunding” the Omega Laser Facility and “Trump has targeted [it] for closure”. Neither of which is true — at all.
The simple truth is that the wind-down of the lab “is included in the President’s budget request” — even that is overstating the President’s involvement — he has merely passed on to Congress the Budget Proposal that his office has received from the Department of Energy, along with the budget requests from all 15 of other Executive departments of the federal government.
Clery “doubles down” in his email response with this: “the budget request is an expression of his [Trump’s] desires for federal spending so it’s safe to say he [Trump] has requested the closure of Omega.”
I hate to have to say it so bluntly — this is the worst sort of journalism I have seen in a long time — but sadly not all that uncommon in the current era of unscientific science. If the original article had appeared on some trashy political blog then I would have no real objection — after all, that is what passes for logic and cause-and-effect attribution in the “Bizzarro World of US Politics Today”.
But this article appears under the masthead of Science magazine — “one of the world’s top academic journals” — and the main thrust, the “the most important, interesting or attention-grabbing elements of a story” is categorically false, a total misrepresentation of the most basic of all scientific attributes: CAUSE.
Journalism has five Ws: Who – What – When – Where – Why.
The Dan Clery Science piece badly fails even high school journalistic standards:
- It misidentifies the WHO as President Trump instead of the decision makers inside the Department of Energy.
- It does not properly identify WHAT. It mentions the three-year wind-down of the Omega Laser facility but does not mention that it is the result of a planned consolidation of the research efforts of three existing major high energy density facilities into two.
- It does not identify the true WHY – it infers personal animas or personal intention on the part of President Trump when in fact it is a pragmatic decision from within the Department of Energy based on need and direction of research efforts.
Dan Clery’s response to my query exposes the apparent disregard for the actual facts of the matter — I had hoped that he would tell me that his editors had written the headline and had supplied or modified the lede, but they did not. I find it very hard to believe that a professional journalist of Clery’s long experience could be ignorant of the magnitude of national budgeting processes.
Full discosure: I found Clery’s response so nonsensical that I was embarrassed [on a professional level] on his behalf. So embarrassed that I emailed him again, journalist to journalist, on the off-chance that he had provided a flip or brush-off reply, notified him that I would be writing this piece, and offered him the chance to supply a new, more carefully considered, answer that would allow me to ignore his first answer. He has not replied to that email.
It is difficult to state how offensive I find this situation (without ranting on and on] — if a researcher had misrepresented her experimental findings with a disregard for reality on the same level found in Clery’s report on the Omega Laser Facility, she would be guilty of egregious scientific misconduct. In this case, were it in my hands, I would report Clery to Science’s review board on a charge of journalistic misconduct — luckily, for Clery, I would not be on that board. The editors at Science magazine must either be asleep at the switch or complicit in misconduct.
I started out with examples of reporting about scientific studies, and asked:
“How, one wonders, does an error of such magnitude happen in one of the world’s premier science journals?”
From my experience with Dan Clery and his piece, it appears that regard for truth and accuracy is sadly mostly absent at Science magazine — both with their journalists and their editors.
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Author’s Comment Policy:
I know I have hit a public Hot Topic Button by mentioning even just the name Trump. I ask readers to disregard the Trump-ness of the essay — pretend it is just some President of the US — and concentrate on the violation of journalistic standards in a premier science journal.
I have been a radio journalist — and I assure you, even in the wild days of the late-1960s, my News Director would have pulled my entire show in a minute had I done any report as intellectually sloppy as the Omega Laser report in Science.
Even having finished writing this, I still cannot fathom the mindset that would allow a professional science writer/journalist to commit this sort of illogical, seemingly intentional, misrepresentation or how his editors could allow it be published.
I will have to admit, it really is worse than we thought.
[Title image “modified from original at https://www.flaticon.com”%5D
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