Fake news has become a hot topic recently. As we have focused on the news reporting and dissemination, it has become clear drawing a line between fake and authentic information can be a challenge. Even ivory tower science has spawned its own versions of less-than-objective public outreach.
How many times have we seen stories of breakthroughs and possible cures for dread conditions like Alzheimer’s disease? This is not necessarily fraud, but may be due to exuberance and a tendency to extrapolate a few positive results with extreme optimism. Scientists are working to achieve goals and they can get excited when it seems their efforts are succeeding. Cutting edge work often demands substantial financial support and obtaining publicity can be an important factor in keeping the money lifeline open. When you get something good you exploit it.
The publication of scientific results serves a dual purpose; dissemination of knowledge and demonstration of competency. Scientists are judged by their output, their future research proposals will be based on it. Public relations professionals know it pays to play up accomplishments.
It is important to recognize that in addition to being enthusiastic about their work, scientists may have direct vested interests in its implications beyond the next paper or grant funding proposal. Cutting edge work may be translated into highly profitable enterprises and academic scientists sometimes found or advise corporations seeking to exploit breakthroughs. Universities may claim a share of the patents and intellectual property created with their backing. Not long ago Noble laureate Paul Berg expressed reservations about the growing corporate influences in the academic research community (1). Some of his concerns seem to have now come to the fore as we face the challenges posed by new technologies.
A new gene manipulation technology known as CRISPR-Cas9 has leaped into the news. Its promise seems immense, its ethical complications are equally daunting. Some of the news about it has been accurate and unbiased, but the tangled situations are almost as complex as the science itself. While their scientific credentials are unassailable, some of the high-profile commentary and news articles featuring these experts are not always explicit about potential conflicts of interest (2). CRISPR is the most recent issue, but corporate influences are now intricately intertwined with scientific research. Biotechnology is big business and concerns have been raised that some members of the National Academy of Sciences panel charged to evaluate and make recommendations for its use have direct vested interests (3). As Dr. Berg envisioned it is getting hard to find honest brokers in the academic community.
Academic scientists, institutions and corporate entities may all have vested interests in the news they present to the public. We are unlikely to be expert enough in scientific matters to challenge much of the material published in various news sources, so how can we possibly evaluate it critically? Steve Innskeep (4) has provided some guidelines that will also help to size up science news.
- Consider the source and possible additional interests in the matter at hand.
- Check to see if the article includes a disclosure of potential conflicts of interest.
- Are contrary views represented?
- Are reference citations provided to enable interested parties to confirm the writer has done a reasonable job presenting the basic content?
Science news is just like any other news. Your best bet as a consumer is to evaluate it and the viewpoint of its providers carefully.
(1) P. Berg. 2008. Meetings That Changed the World: Asilomar 1975: DNA Modification Secured. Nature 455:290-291. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v455/n7211/full/455290a.html
(2) A collection of articles on CRISPR biotechnology is available here. See if you agree that full disclosures are sometimes overlooked. http://www.nature.com/news/crispr-1.17547
(3) S. Strom. 2016. National Biotechnology Panel Faces New Conflict of Interest Questions. The New York Times, 27 December 2016. http://nyti.ms/2hr2oQs
(4). S. Innskeep. 2016. A Finder’s Guide to Facts. National Public Radio, NPR, 11 December 2016. https://n.pr/2hcAXKx