Monday, September 28, 2009

Science Education by Press Release

Futurity was officially launched on September 15th.
As an online research magazine, Futurity highlights the latest discoveries from leading universities in the United States and Canada.

Who is Futurity?

Duke University, Stanford University, and the University of Rochester lead a consortium of participating universities (see list below) that manages and funds the project. All partners are members of the Association of American Universities (AAU), a nonprofit organization of leading public and private research universities.

Futurity aggregates the very best research news. The content is produced by the partner universities, and submitted to Futurity’s editor, Jenny Leonard, ( for consideration. The site, which is hosted at the University of Rochester, covers news in the environment, health, science, society, and other areas.
We're talking about press releases. Most of the information comes from press releases written by the "leading" universities. Does anyone see a problem with that?

Carl Zimmer does. He rightly points out that universities and reasearch hospitals have a vested interest in promoting the work done at their institutions [Apocalypse Via Press Release].
What Futurity does do, however, is allow universities and research institutions to go straight to the reader. Originally, press information officers at these places wrote press releases, which, as the name implies, were things intended to get the attention of the press in the hopes that they’d cover something you’re doing. Futurity calls what it publishes “news,” but it’s still being written by employees of the organizations that are the subject of that news.

I have great respect for some public information officers; the stuff they write is, in some cases, wonderfully clear and informative. There’s good information to be had on Futurity. But I always treat press releases as a starting point. I do not, for example, assume that a piece of research is actually important just because a press release says it is. Imagine a press release with the headline, “Minor study published that is really not all it claims to be.” Such things just don’t exist.
This makes a lot of sense. I really like the fact that Carl is speaking out against the excesses of bad journalism and the gross misunderstandings of science education. He's exactly right about university press releases. They are entirely one-sided—don't look for balance from a PR department.

Not only that, most press releases are horrible. I think it's fair to say that many of the worst examples of science journalism come from university press offices. That's not to say that they're all bad. I've seen some pretty good examples from my own university and from some others, but they are the exceptions, not the rule.

How soon we forget. Remember The Darwinius Affair?

You can't blame science journalists for getting their science wrong if they get it straight from the horse's mouth, right? Wrong! Read Carl Zimmer and learn how real science journalist should behave. They should investigate a story to see if the hype is justified.

Investigative science journalism is the subject of yesterday's posting by Bora Zivkovic over on A Blog Around the Clock. He points out that most science journalists do not investigate in spite of the fact that this is often what they claim to be doing. This is what distinguishes the average science journalist from the good ones, like Carl Zimmer.

That much we know. Where Bora and I part company is when it comes to press releases. Here's what Bora says ...
While we have all screamed every now and then at some blatantly bad press releases (especially the titles imposed by the editors), there has been generally a steady, gradual improvement in their quality over the years. One of the possible explanations for this is that scientists that fall out of the pipeline as there are now so many PhDs and so few academic jobs, have started replacing English majors and j-school majors in these positions. More and more institutions now have science-trained press officers who actually understand what they are writing about. Thus, there is less hype yet more and better explanation of the results of scientific investigation. Of course, they tend to be excellent writers as well, a talent that comes with love and practice and does not necessitate a degree in English or Communications.
That's not been my experience. Just look at the main page on the Futurity website for examples of bad science journalism. As I write this, the top story is ....
Wonder drug may treat cancer, addiction

UC IRVINE—A drug in development to treat cancer could have the added benefit of helping prevent relapse in people trying to overcome cocaine addiction.

In mice conditioned to cocaine, drug-seeking activity was inhibited faster and to a greater extent with sodium butyrate than without it, neuroscientists at the University of California-Irvine say.

"Our results are exciting because sodium butyrate taps into fundamental molecular mechanisms, providing a novel approach to understanding and treating drug addiction," says the study’s lead author Marcelo Wood, assistant professor of neurobiology and behavior....
That's sounds just like the kind of story that could come from the PR office of a political party or the head office of a major pharmaceutical company.


  1. "Wonder drug may treat cancer, addiction"

    What? They left off that it _may_ treat male pattern baldness and reduce the appearance of lines and wrinkles? I mean, it might, eh. Unless they've tested it and know it won't, but it would sure be a wonder drug if it did.

    I think any press release writer/editor who uses "wonder drug" should be asked to find another line of work.

  2. Which is why I never made any claims of my own as to the quality of itself, just at the aggressive dismissal of it in principle by the journalists (and also wondering why non-journalists were not as violent in their reactions).

  3. Bora is right: more people with real scientific background enter the market of science writing - thanks to the education bubble. And, as far as the quality of science writing is concerned, that's a good thing. Because for every 100 good writers we have maybe 5 people who understand science, yet for every 100 good scientists there are around 25 people who can write well.

    This otherwise wonderful "statistics" is contaminated with a sad fact that scientists who can write are a lot more cornered marker-wise (people whose primary talent is to write can always opt for covering Mel Gibson's next alcoholism bout). So they are, on average, more conformist. Meaning they put up more with bullshit like "treating cancer and addiction with the same magic bullet". And since societal demand for bullshit journalism is steadily increasing, we witness a situation where the quality of scientific journalism remains about constant.

  4. The way I see it, there is no solution other than a scientifically literate public magically popping in to existence.

    You have a majority of science journalists doing very poor job of accurately reporting the science. This, assuming there will still be science journalists in the future, which it not at all certain, will not change because the relevant qualities for this to happen are not among the ones actively being selected for in the process of becoming a science journalist.

    And if you skip science journalists altogether, you will end up with the bias reporting from scientists and university PR departments, another thing that won't change, for obvious reasons....

  5. DK says,

    Because for every 100 good writers we have maybe 5 people who understand science, yet for every 100 good scientists there are around 25 people who can write well.

    There's more to it than that. For one thing, you are making the implicit assumption that a large proportion of those 100 "good" scientists will understand science. That's not been my experience.

    I encounter many science journalists who have science backgrounds according to their CVs but the quality of their science reporting doesn't seem to be superior to that of other science journalists. If you think about it, you'll realize that they have to write a lot of articles that are well outside their areas of expertise.

    Furthermore, I encounter lots of practicing scientists whose understanding of science leaves a lot to be desired. Some of the worst press releases, for example, are completely accurate when it comes to reporting on the opinion of the scientists who just published the work. It's just that those opinions are worthless.

    That's why Carl Zimmer says you have to investigate and confirm what you read in press releases.

    You can assume that a large percentage of science journalists are good writers but you can't assume that a large percentage of scientists understand science. That's sad, but true.

  6. Carl Zimmer himself is a great example of the right balance. Consider that in spite of not having a science background, the man has written a textbook on evolution that is going to come out on October 15.

  7. There's more to it than that. For one thing, you are making the implicit assumption that a large proportion of those 100 "good" scientists will understand science. That's not been my experience.

    Whether it is large or not is 100% irrelevant. The assumption that I make (in fact, a straightforward statement that should be self-evident) is that, on average and with other things being equal, people with scientific background understand science better than those without it.

  8. Larry: Not all of us who cover science and research from universities support Futurity. You can do a Google blog search on "futurity" and "earle holland" and quickly see the objections I've raised. And you can take a look at some of the offerings we post on our research blog [] and quickly see the opinions we have on science communications from universities, including Darwinius.