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Science journalism blows it, dolphin rape edition.

A few weeks ago I got into a discussion on Twitter with Ananyo Bhattacharya, online editor of Nature News and writer for The Guardian’s science section, after he put out a call asking for ways to improve science journalism. During that conversation, I argued that one way to do this is to create a culture of journalism that values scientific knowledge and expertise as a core value[1]. Ananyo seemed unimpressed with my viewpoint, and suggested that the main point of science journalism was to pry into the dark corners and root out biases, fraud, and the like in science. He views scientific communication and scientific journalism as two distinct things (and thinks that journalists doing ‘PR for science’ is ‘drippy’). Indeed, when asked directly during a Royal Institute forum on science journalism whether journalists should read the original papers behind the stories that they write, he dismissed the idea:

“If the question is ‘must a good science journalist read the paper in order to be able to write a great article about the work’ then the answer is as I said on Tuesday ‘No’. There are too many good science journalists who started off in the humanities (Mark Henderson) – and some who don’t have any degrees at all (Tim Radford). So reading an academic research paper cannot be a prerequisite to writing a good, accurate story … So I stick to the answer I gave to that question on the night – no, it’s not necessary to read the paper to write a great story on it (and I’ll also keep the caveat I added – it’s desirable to have read it if possible).”

He further suggests, in the same comment (original source), that if journalists had to read original papers than no one could report on particle physics[2].

I’m not going to try and hide my bias here: I don’t like Ananyo’s viewpoint on this. I don’t think that it will lead to good writing, either of the communication or journalistic variety, but more importantly I think that forcing journalists to read the papers before they write an article might have stopped stupid @#$@ like what happened today from happening at all.

The story: I received an e-mail this morning from Dr. Bill Sherwin, a member of the Evolution and Ecology Research Centre (E&ERC) here at my current institution, the University of New South Wales. Bill is one of the authors on a new paper coming out in the Proceedings of The Royal Society (B), entitled ‘A novel mammalian social structure in Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops sp.): complex male-male alliances in an open social network’. The paper is a nice little exploration of the characteristics of social networks in dolphins found in Western Australia; in essence, they were testing whether two hypotheses about the nature of these social networks were tenable given the data they’ve observed. In particular, they tested whether dolphins show signs of engaging in ‘community defence’, where higher order alliances of dolphins form to patrol and defend a larger community range, similar to chimpanzees, or if it follows a ‘mating season defence’ model where male groups shift their defence to smaller ranges or sets of females when it’s mating season. The comparison to terrestrial species with complex social cognition (such as primates and elephants) is an interesting one, because it provides yet more insight into the relationship between the development of complex cognitive faculties and social relationships.

So far, so good. Bill gave a simple explanation of the paper in an email that he was sent out to the E&ERC this afternoon:

We put out a paper that said “dolphin male alliances are not as simple as other species”, but it has stirred up quite a lot of interest, because somewhere in it, the paper mentioned “bisexual philopatry”, which when translated out of jargon means  “males stay near where they were born, AND females stay near where they were born” – nothing more or less than that.

‘Quite a lot of interest’ is one way to put it. ‘Idiots crawling out of the woodwork’ is another. Here’s the headlines of four stories that were written about this paper:

Dolphins ‘resort to rape': Dolphins appear to have a darker side, according to scientists who suggest they can resort to ‘rape’ to assert authority. [The Telegraph]

Male dolphins are bisexual, US scientists claim. [news.com.au]. (Note that this is an Australian website, and Bill is Australian).

Male bottlenose dolphins engage in extensive bisexuality. [zeenews.com]

And by far the best of the lot (guess who it’s from?):

The dark side of Flipper: He’s sexual predator of the seas who resorts to rape to get his way. [That's right, The Daily Mail].

……..

Are you kidding me? If the ‘writers’ of these articles had read the paper, they would have noticed that it contains nothing about the sexual behaviour of the dolphins they studied, bisexual or otherwise, aside from brief mentions of the possible consequences of social networks on reproductive success. It certainly didn’t mention anything about bisexual behaviour, homosexual behaviour, or rape. Now, it’s well known that dolphins engage in homosexual behaviours, and I’ve seen papers arguing that they use sexual coercion as well (Rob Brooks confirms this). But these topics have nothing to do with this paper at all. Even a cursory glance through the original source would have killed these headlines – and the first few paragraphs of the Mail story – which aren’t just a miscommunication but border on outright fabrication. The articles themselves are weird mixes of sensationalist headline with a regurgitated paraphrasing of the much better Discovery News piece that they are treating as the primary source. Here’s the problem, though: it’s Discovery News that makes the original mistake about ‘bisexual philopatry’, interpreting it as bisexual behaviour (hot male dolphin-on-dolphin action, as it were). A reporter who had read the original source could have corrected that mistake fairly easily, or could even have been driven to ask further questions. Without that, however, the press cycle grinds mercilessly forward to Flipper the bisexual rapist.

For my part, I was happy to see that James Randerson’s informal survey of science and health writers showed that many of them do read the original papers. And the kind of people who write things about science that I trust, whether they’re professionally trained in science or not, are not the sort of people who do boneheaded things like this. Ananyo might retort that ‘asking questions’ is enough (he suggested as much in his comment above). Matt Shipman said much the same thing in the piece that Ananyo was commenting on. Yet of all people, Ananyo should be wary of this answer, with his focus on investigative science journalism. A scientist writing an email or doing a phone interview can tell you just about anything that you want to hear; a press officer can write a terrible press release; a wire service will probably distort what comes down the line. But a scientific paper is the One, True Source. It is a public record of what was done, and it is the first and best place to start for answers about a study or a scientific topic[3].

Don’t mistake my criticism of Ananyo’s position of reading scientific papers as a general attack on scientific journalism. I think that there’s a lot of great science journalism out there, and that there are even more great science journalists and communicators. Despite the perennial swirl of internet discussion on the topic, I don’t actually think that the whole field is hopelessly broken like some seem to. I just happen to believe that scientific papers, the products of our time and energy as researchers, form an integral part of the process of talking about science (and it’s part of the reason for my support for Open Access publishing). And I think that disgraceful trainwrecks like the reporting on Bill’s paper are a perfect illustration of the need for these papers to be a part of that process.

[Update: Rob Brooks has also discussed this issue over at TheConversation].

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[1] Because of Twitter’s space constraints, this was misconstrued to mean that I was agitating for all science journalists to have a Ph.D. in a scientific discipline. Though I wouldn’t be upset if this happened, that’s not what I meant: it is more than possible to have a deep love and knowledge of science without having a degree in a scientific field. Hell, Carl Zimmer probably knows more about viruses and evolutionary biology than I do, and his only training is an undergraduate degree in English. My argument is only that having scientific training increases the probability of a writer or journalist having a good grasp on how science works, not that it’s the only way for that to happen. I will continue to argue, though, that those having a love of science (professional or amateur) will, on average, produce better science writing and science journalism than those who don’t.

[2] He also claimed that most of the people asking journalists to read papers are biologists and medical people, who write easier-to-understand papers. I would have to turn this back on him: if biology and medical papers are so easy to understand, why shouldn’t journalists read them every time?

[3] Yes, there’s no guarantee that what is written in the paper is true. But the chances of detecting fraud are essentially zero if you don’t read the paper to begin with, and if you’re a journalist looking to catch the next Stapel, chances are that you’ll have to wait for the scientific community to find him and tell you about it anyways.