Another science churnalism row

Eric Steig at posted last week a mild rant about a couple of articles published recently in the British press. The targets of Steig’s ire are the silly and sometimes outrageous claims that occasionally arise in science reporting.

Steig focuses on an article in the Independent by Michael McCarthy which discusses research into the effect of climate change on British insects, birds and bats. Actually, the science concerns shorter-term weather variations rather than climate change, and therein lies the problem.

Attributing the current suffering of British wildlife to climate change may have been off the mark, but the fact is that McCarthy’s article is a pretty accurate reflection of a press release from that paragon of environmental virtue the National Trust. McCarthy’s article quotes are taken directly from that release, as are the contextual references to climate. The science itself is interesting, but the press release could have been better worded. I do not know whether McCarthy spoke with the researchers to seek clarification and original quotes for his piece.

The “row” referred to above concerns an article in the Daily Telegraph by science correspondent Richard Alleyne. The piece bears the headline “Greenhouse gases could have caused an ice age, claim scientists”.

Alleyne’s article is referred to by Steig in his RealClimate rant, but it is the Guardian’s Bad Science columnist and darling of the blogosphere Ben Goldacre who really goes to town on this one. On his blog today, Goldacre gives the Alleyne piece a jolly good fisking, and not without good reason.

Goldacre says that scientists have “good grounds to be extremely cautious, and some entities and journalists could quite fairly be blacklisted.”. That I do not doubt, but I must say that over the past few years I’ve had cause to have blacklisted a number of scientists and science PRs. Hype that borders on deliberate falsehood does not go down well in my book, and neither do researchers who demand copy approval, or following publication realise that what they said was not quite right, and attempt to cover their tracks with attacks on the messenger. Jobbing scientists are every bit as human as the rest of us.

In the case of Alleyne’s article, I would say that Goldacre is justified in going on the attack. It is quite disgraceful that the newspaper refused the allegedly misrepresented scientist Ian Fairchild a right of reply, and this reflects very badly on a publication once highly regarded for its coverage of science. At the same time, however, I think that the issues involved are a little more complex than portrayed by Goldacre.

The problem here is that Alleyne’s piece is very close to a press release issued by the University of Birmingham. Was Fairchild misrepresented by Alleyne? I shall leave that for you to judge for yourselves. Is Alleyne guilty of churnalism (defined as the uncritical rehashing of press releases)? My immediate impression is that he is, but I’m quite open to convincing otherwise.

Churnalism is often the result of laziness, but frustration arising from uncooperative or just plain uncommunicative interviewees, and editors demanding copy with menaces, can lead to otherwise diligent journalists rewriting press releases.

Is the Birmingham press release at fault? Yes it is, based on my reading of the science presented by Fairchild both on his departmental website and in the journal paper. That Alleyne rewrote the press release does not in any way absolve him when it comes to the content of the Telegraph article. As for the headline, this was almost certainly written by an overworked and scientifically illiterate subeditor, not Alleyne himself.

In order to placate Ben Goldacre, Ian Fairchild and others indignant at these two most heinous examples of science churnalism, I suggest that the offending Telegraph subeditor be taken out and summarily shot, pour l’encourager les autres. And then a hundred lashes each for the PRs, to be administered by yours truly. Oh yes.

Hat tip: Bob Ward (via PSI-COM)