What’s Wrong with Science Journalism in the U.K.?

The state of the universe.
May 29 2012 6:45 AM

Dodgy Boffins

What's wrong with science journalism in the U.K.?

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

For a few hours last week, I'd planned to write a column about the "five-second rule." Scientists at Manchester Metropolitan University in England had released a study showing that some foods (ham, cookies) were safer to eat than others (dried fruit, pasta) after being left on the floor to collect germs. The Huffington Post picked up the story, as did Gizmodo and Good Morning America and the TODAY Show. But the research—if that's even the right word to use here—was rotten from the start.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

The first warning sign was the subject matter: The five-second rule has been tested, explained, and at least partially debunked over and over again, for at least as long as I've been a journalist. Most notably in a 2006 study by Paul Dawson of Clemson University, who published his findings (that germs can hop right onto a slice of bologna) in the peer-reviewed Journal of Applied Microbiology, but also the following year by a couple of undergraduates at Connecticut College, and then once more by a seventh-grade science-fair project in 2008, and did I mention the 9-year-old in Kentucky? "A lot of bacteria grew on the cheese," explained little Courtney Mims to a science correspondent for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

More damning was the story's overseas origin. The five-second study arrived in the American press by way of the Daily Mail, which explained in its own coverage that the work had been funded by a manufacturer of cleaning products, and then advised readers to replace their mop heads every three months so as to "minimize risk" from dangerous bacteria. When I contacted Manchester Metropolitan University for more details, I learned that the "researchers" and "scientists" described in media reports amounted to one person—a lab tech named Kathy Lees, who did not respond to my inquiries.

Let's not single out the Mancunians, though: Industry-funded science fluff litters the whole of the British Isles. Also in the past few weeks, the U.K. press fawned over a comely chip-shop girl from Kent who was found by a national television network to possess a scientifically validated, perfect face, while the British version of HuffPo reported on a mathematical formula for the "perfect sandwich"—produced by a University of Warwick physicist in collaboration with a major bread manufacturer. Spurious mathematical formulae concocted at the behest of PR firms compose their own journalism beat in England: In recent years, we've seen the perfect boiled egg, the perfect day, the perfect breasts, and many more examples of scientists getting paid to turn life into algebra. As a naive magazine intern, I once took an assignment to write up one of these characteristically English equations—a means of calculating the perfect horror movie, in that case. The team of mathematicians behind the research turned out to be a couple of recent grads from King's College London, who'd watched some movies and gotten drunk on vodka on behalf of Sky Broadcasting. "We only spent a couple of hours doing it," one of them told me, "and didn't put all that much thought into whether it works or how accurate it is."

I'm not the first to notice this trend—see Ben Goldacre's excellent "Bad Science" column in the Guardian, for example—but it has started to worry me. A great garbage patch of science journalism has been forming across the Atlantic, and bits of flotsam are washing up on our shores. What makes the Brits so susceptible to these ginned-up studies and publicity stunts? And what happens when their faux research starts drifting across the Internet?

This sounds like jingoism, I know. Vince Kiernan, a veteran reporter who now studies the history and practice of science journalism at Georgetown, doesn't see much difference between the coverage in Britain and America. Science journalism is globalized, he told me, and U.S. businesses employ their own set of PR shenanigans. Maybe he's right: Even the New York Times makes a practice of letting companies tout their self-serving, unpublished research from time to time in its opinion pages. But it seems to me the Times would never run the shameless labvertisements that get play in the British press. More to the point, I don't think you'd find these cash-for-science stories even in our smaller, less scrupulous newspapers. (Television news may be a different story.) And I can't remember ever seeing a product-sponsored mathematical formula that showed up first in the American press. Why not?

I posed this question to a few of my favorite science journalists in both countries and got some vague answers. Not all British newspapers operate according to the same (low) standards, my sources told me, but even at the best venues it can be a struggle to stay out of the gutter. "When I was at The Times [of London], I judged my success as much by what I kept out of the paper as what I got into it," said Mark Henderson, former science editor and author of The Geek Manifesto. (He also claims to have taken a hard line on dodgy formulae.) The Telegraph, now one of that nation’s most egregious purveyors of junk science, by all accounts maintained a solid reputation until a few years ago, when two of its best reporters left the staff.

British journalists also tend to see themselves as tradesmen rather than professionals. They learn on the job. They're more interested in storytelling and entertainment than they are in balance and standards. As a result, some of them don't give a crap. Journalists might indulge in a shameless bit of pseudoscience for the sake of a little fun. They’re just having a laugh.

I'd been hoping for something more specific, so I asked Vince Kiernan to speculate. It could have to do with the history of science coverage in both countries, he said. American journalism started to professionalize in 1934, with the formation of the National Association of Science Writers. "Then in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, the empire strikes back." As the scientific establishment grew in wealth and influence after World War II, its leaders began to push their own, conservative agenda on the members of the NASW. They doubled down on the idea that only "legitimate science"—that is to say, studies that were peer-reviewed and published in academic journals—should be reported to the public. The real science news, they said, was Big Science news. American journalists learned to follow their rules. Could things have developed along a different path in Britain?

While mulling this over—and chanting U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.! to myself in front of the computer—I noticed something about all these lousy British science stories that had escaped my attention. Yes, they described fake studies conducted by disreputable scientists, and they used the data promote a product. But they were honest about it. Almost every story announced its lack of quality without shame or serious effort at deception. Scientists at Manchester Metropolitan University studied the five-second rule; a cleaning-supplies company called Vileda paid for the work; and now for a message from our sponsor …

But when the stories drift to the United States, via aggregator sites and blogs and TV news programs, that transparency can boil right off. The five-second rule has "long been considered an old wives' tale, but now actual scientists are actually testing it," said a reporter on Good Morning America—with no mention of the cleaning supplies outfit that sponsored the research. Neither did HuffPo or Gizmodo point out the conflict of interest. That's the danger of receiving this crap from overseas: Once it gets here, we repackage it in the self-serious American style. What starts out as entertainment ends up looking like real news.

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