The behind-the-scenes work of science journalism isn’t nearly as glamorous as I’d like. Rather than playing with tiny frogs and hanging out in rocket ship labs, most of the day-to-day of editing and writing involves grinding through scads of press releases to determine cool new research is coming down the pipeline and which scientists are worth talking to. The truth is that a whole lot of new reports are simply too dry or niche to be palatable for a regular readership, even one as savvy as mine.
I mean, a study sitting in my inbox that “shows the hormone adrenomedullin plays significant role in tubal ectopic pregnancies” is certainly fascinating, and may prove valuable in medicine, but it’s hard to translate the effects of hormonal cascades on rare abnormal pregnancies into a great story. I don’t mean to pick on that study in particular, it’s just to highlight the fact that there are thousands of papers published every year that don’t translate well outside of the authors’ specific disciplines. Sorry, adrenomedullin.
University PR squads, who have the unenviable position of getting the wild, esoteric ramblings of the nerds out into the non-academic world, generally try to frame their press releases to make research as digestible as possible. The best releases rival full-on articles, with myriad quotes, diagrams, and copy that introduces and develops new findings with a good pace. Others are terrible, because they either don’t describe the research well at all (not too big of an issue if one reads the actual paper, which any self-respecting science writer should) or because they copy and paste snippets of the research paper that have little or not context. Still, those aren’t the worst out there.
The goal of a release should be to inform writers clearly what research is about, so that they can decide quickly whether or not it’s something worth discussing in detail. PR teams know this, which means science press releases are filled with the type of SEO clickbait that the Huffington Post dreams of. As annoying as that can be, sometimes they’ll even stretch the truth — or outright make up stuff — to help push the research they’re supposed to be presenting.
Ivan Oransky runs Embargo Watch, a blog dedicated to tracking just the kind of hogwash ‘truthiness’ that floats around in the science presser world. He jumped on a recent report about resveratrol, the chemical that many have argued is the key to red wine’s supposed health benefits. The report has been widely reported, largely because editors know readers love learning about a scientific reason to slug back booze. But, as Oransky notes, there are a whole lot of problems with the study as presented by the release:
Take a press release from Elsevier’s Cell Press about a Cell Metabolism study of the red wine compound resveratrol in mice. The headline is enough to make you want to get drunk:
“Study resolves controversy on life-extending red wine ingredient, restores hope for anti-aging pill”
“Resolves controversy?” This, of course, is the compound whose trials Glaxo Smith Kline stopped after paying $720 million for a company developing resveratrol called Sirtis. The release is cagey about why those trials ended (hint: kidney problems).
Oransky goes on to note that the release states George Vlasuk, Sirtis’ CEO, was not “involved with the study,” before sharing a positive comment from him. That’s already a red flag — why should a guy with a vested interested in the positive results of the study be reached for comment on it? Of course he’s happy about the results — but Oransky points out that, while the release implies that Sirtis, via Vlasuk, was not involved with the study, lead author David Sinclair founded the damn company.
Let’s break this down: a study comes out that says red wine is good for you. In a release, it’s packaged with a headline that editors love, because readers love it: “Feel okay about getting shitfaced on red wine! Study proves it’s healthy!” Then it gets passed off to writers and spread around like crazy. The only issue is, it’s not science at all — the whole damn thing is an advertisement.
If this is how we’re stuck selling science, science reporting is officially dead.
This is hardly the first time that something so egregious happens. Last December, I wrote about a study that showed a potential correlation between violent video games and neurological changes. (Note to aspiring writers: never write about video game studies. They’re all terrible.) I jumped on this study because something or other seemed novel about it, and it seemed worth of discussion. Discussion is what I received, as a reader pointed out I clearly missed the fact that the study was paid for by a fucking anti-video game political group.
Whether or not the study was good — I understand that research funds have to come from somewhere — having a group with a political interest pay for a study automatically makes it untouchable as far as I’m concerned. But, thanks to a wonderful “Violent video games alter your brain!” headline on the release, I dove into the study without reading the asterisks.
More recently, there was a huge hullabaloo over some report that came out that supposedly showed that space dinosaurs (!) likely exist. It was a hype monster; just look at Google News, where scads of articles discuss hyper-intelligence space dinosaurs. The only issue? The paper wasn’t about dinosaurs at all. Author Dr. Ronald Breslow actually discussed the chemical structure of the building blocks of DNA, and then he added in some wild speculation about how “advanced versions of dinosaurs" might “elsewhere in the universe," and that we "would be better off not meeting them.” Wait, what?
Perhaps he added the space dino bit because he knew discussions of homochirality in organic compounds wouldn’t get much traction, or, as Sam McDougle argues, perhaps he added it in jest. I have no idea, because I don’t know Breslow, but I’d definitely be amused to be perusing a dense paper and find a gem about space dinosaurs.
In either case, Breslow’s chemical research naturally fell by the wayside for favor of the attention-grabbing killer-space-dino-geniuses angle. Motherboard’s Ben Richmond discussed the surprising hoopla around very dense biochemistry:
[The paper is] quite interesting, albeit a bit dry, so it looks like a PR team tried to help him out. There’s a real disparity between Breslow’s paper, titled “Evidence for the Likely Origin of Homochirality in Amino Acids, Sugars, and Nucleosides on Prebiotic Earth,” and the Journal of the American Chemical Society press release’s headline, which asks “Could ‘advanced’ dinosaurs rule other planets?”
Calls to the journal were not returned, so it would pretty hypocritical to do the hyperbolic thing and call this a shameless grab at SEO or extra page views by a pretty dry and academic publication. But come on.
Seriously though, how could some PR flack take a structural biochemistry paper, whip it into a story about space dinosaurs, and argue that it wasn’t a whole load of hooey that (very successfully) pushed out a paper that otherwise would have gotten little to no coverage in the popular press? Whether or not Breslow intended the whole bit as either an inside joke or as a ploy to get more coverage, it was released by PR folks exactly to fulfill the latter purpose. McDougle mentioned in a chat that it’s unfair to assume that the public would look at Breslow’s paper and believe that space dinosaurs exist.
I don’t disagree with that necessarily, but when the paper is specifically packaged to highlight the space dinosaur thing, and few (if any) of the people that wrote it went in-depth enough to find the non-dino story (and the potential headlines from that, why would they?), then by the time the story gets to the public it’s nothing more than a click-worthy title, a few paragraphs of the crazy chemist who talks about space dinosaurs, and a few pithy comments on DNA structure. How is that helping anyone?
In the comments to McDougle’s story, Discover’s Ed Yong makes that point well:
Non, and I might add, sense. If you are forced to mislead in order to communicate and/or educate, then you are a piss-poor communictor and/or scholar.
Sure, getting people interested in science is hard. But scientists and science writers have to work with what we’ve got. The minute
we say the situation is so dire that the only way we have of making people interested in a topic is to baldly make shit up, then we have already lost.
I’ve already admitted that I rely on science releases regularly, and, truly, they’re incredibly useful. It’d be impossible to keep up with the publishing of every journal out there, and even if I could, it’d be stupidly costly to try to get copies of papers on my own. But there’s a strikingly real danger for goofball spin in releases that don’t need it. We’re not talking about an oil company’s PR squad trying to mitigate the backlash against some horrific spill; these releases are supposed to showcase real scientific research, which ideally would be free from bias.
Of course, that’s not the case, which is why we should hope that news outlets’ science departments are staffed with people that actually care about research, rather than a bunch of hack rewriting the press releases that come pre-packaged to score pageviews. At the very least, not buying into bullshit press releases shows a modicum of respect for science-loving readers. Final question: the headline of this piece feel frustratingly misleading? Welcome to my world.
Follow Derek Mead on Twitter: @derektmead.