The year is only a couple of weeks old, but it's already been a strange one for science news. With a steady flow of coverage on a huge range of complex subjects, it's easy for things to go wrong, and for journalists to come up with material that doesn't get the science right. But a few recent cases appear to involve news organizations that have gone out of their way to get a science story wrong. The news industry tends to respond badly to cases where people make up the contents of their stories—witness Jayson Blair and the fake Bush National Guard records. But, so far, the response to the recent science news-related events has been complete indifference.
The most egregious case seems to have happened at the UK's Daily Mail, which ran an article in the Science and Technology section of its website entitled "The mini ice age starts here." In it, the author argues that we're due for decades of global cooling, driven by ocean currents that the article claims produced the last century's warming—not greenhouse gasses. These facts are ascribed to impeccable scientific sources: the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Colorado, and Mojib Latif, a prominent climatologist based in Germany. A substantially similar story, with precisely the same attributions, later appeared on the Fox News site.
There was small problem here, though: Mojib Latif is still alive, and was easy to get a hold of. When contacted, he pointed out that large portions of the report were inaccurate. A prominent climate blogger contacted both Latif and the NSIDC; he quotes Latif as saying, "I don't know what to do. They just make these things up." Referring to "facts" attributed to it by the article, The NSIDC's director said, "This is completely false. NSIDC has never made such a statement and we were never contacted by anyone from the Daily Mail."
It's not just the climate that brings out this sort of insanity. A recent review in the journal Pediatrics examined the incidence of digestive problems in children with autism. It concluded that there was no clear evidence that these problems occur at higher rates among those with autism, and absolutely no evidence that dietary interventions help autistic children. What the authors did suggest is that autistics may have dietary issues at the same rate as the regular population, but have difficulty communicating them; therefore, changes to diet can significantly improve their behavior.
It's a complicated message, which really requires a credible and authoritative source to convey. ABC News responded to that requirement by turning to actress Jenny McCarthy, who (predictably) complained that doctors weren't "listening to our anecdotal evidence." McCarthy has a long history of dismissing epidemiology, statistics, and all the other evidence-based tools we use to make public health decisions, so ABC News knew exactly what it was doing by giving her a podium. In essence, the message it sent was "we will intentionally undercut the best available science using a celebrity." Calling that message irresponsible grossly understates the problem.
If a news organization had put words in the mouth of a political figure, there would almost certainly be a firestorm of controversy. The same would occur if one had turned to a Hollywood star or sports figure for comment on, say, a Congressional Budget Office report. When it comes to science, however, the response seems to be limited to a few outraged bloggers. It's difficult not to think that there's a double standard involved in the complete indifference to accuracy when it comes to scientific information.
I'm shocked, I tell you, shocked, to find out the Daily Fail and Faux News don't fact check.
Also, wtf, ABC.