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Last week, the Media Standards Trust launched a fun little tool for detecting how UK newspapers regurgitate press releases – often with little further original reporting – a practice known as ‘churnalism‘.

Unsurprisingly, some old media types voiced their scepticism of the tool, saying all it did was highlight commonly used phrases such as ‘a spokesman for the company said’ and other unavoidable terms. No doubt this is true of the majority of, say, ‘important’ news items like political coverage. It’s the filler items (and unfortunately, science articles are sometimes regarded as such by certain press institutions) which are more likely to be churn.

And lo and behold! The first article I pasted into the tool was replicated by two other newspapers. An article on human papilloma virus (HPV) appeared in almost exactly the same format in the Daily Mail, the Express and the Mirror. No additional analysis or quotes were obtained by any of the papers.

In all fairness after some lunchbreak copying and pasting, I didn’t find many more articles which had been regurgitated quite so blatantly, suggesting the practice isn’t as rife in the nationals as people might think. Having said that, there were still many instances of newspapers churning out substantial quotes or phrases used in press releases – see this instance where the Times clearly couldn’t be bothered to source its own quotes.

I have often witnessed science journalists (and indeed other journalists) attributing this regurgitation to the increasing demands of the newsroom – namely that there’s no time to spend on the phone with contacts. There is a simple retort to editors – cover less, and cover better.

As a follow up from my previous post, I’ll link to this story on Engadget that was forwarded by a friend.  Broadly a bunch of audiophiles couldn’t tell the difference between a cable made from coathangers and a ludicrously expensive premium speaker cable.

Some google-fu also threw up this story, in which a review website carried out a blind test on power cables.  Result: they couldn’t tell the difference between generic power cables and premium power cables.

I have to respect this set of reviewers who carried out the blind test in response to some of their readers who didn’t believe an article extolling the virtues of a  power cable they had reviewed.  The reviewers went away and tested their beliefs and then reported back on their failure to hear any difference when using the expensive cables.


The ‘big story’

The Royal Society book prize was awarded to Nick Lane for his ‘explanation of life as we know it’, Life Ascending. One of our favourite bloggers Pharyngula reviewed the book on its publication last year:

…what enlivens the book is the biochemist’s perspective: Lane isn’t so much interested in the superficial matters of morphology, but in the emergence of new properties in the molecular machinery of the cell, and how it affects the world around us.

Judge and former Tomorrow’s World presenter Maggie Philbin explains the choice on Guardian’s science podcast this week. To the outrage of science journalists, this Royal Society book prize will be the last due to a lack of funds.

The misreporting

Sexologist Dr. Petra Boynton frequently flags up misreporting in the media around that most British of embarrassing issues – sex and sexual dysfunction. This week, she picked up on a science story (reported by many health and science journalists across the national press) which reported that women with lower sex drives have ‘different brains’.

This is a screen capture of Dr. Petra pointing out some of the flaws in these reports (read from the bottom up):

It might seem the good doctor exaggerates the harmful effects headlines like these can have. But given the commonness of sexual dysfunction (in men and women alike) vs. the lack of genuinely informative articles in the media, one sometimes questions how much the press is really out to inform.

Comment piece

A late entry from Alice Bell’s ‘Who’s the geek?’ piece for the Guardian science blog. While Bell is generally an excellent blogger, this is essentially a piece of Thursday afternoon fluff. However, this is one of the few CiF pieces which is worth reading for the comments alone. Bell’s closing question – what’s the geekiest thing you’ve ever done? My favourite:

I once cycled around all the London Monopoly board locations IN THE CORRECT ORDER. Took three and a half hours and involved more trips along oxford street than any cyclist should have to endure in a week, let alone a day.

If you’re ever tempted to try it be aware that the house-hotel properties are mainly in the West End but the stations are in the City. The low point was having to go from Bond Street to Park Lane… via Liverpool Street station.


Slightly quirky/interesting article

A slightly meta reference this week – an interesting thought in New Scientist with one of those pieces-of-research-wot-everyone-knew-already-but-hadn’t-proved: should students be typecast into science? Students who choose science subjects tend to be introverted/shyer, more conscientious and emotionally stable. A great quote from one of the researchers:

“There’s a feeling that science students have nerdy characteristics,” she says, “but we were surprised to see it in our results, and to see it as early as age 15.”

I was noodling around what little of the Times was available online the other day. Plenty to keep the average science geek happy, as it transpires. Look at this gem from 1919:

For the first review of Darwin’s the Origin of Species, a collaboration with Gugliemo Marconi and other such historical awesomeness, see this list from the Times Archive.

This is 5 day old news to anyone who follows the left-wing bloggers like Sunny Hundal and Left Foot Forward, but some of us only have time to follow stuff up on the weekends.

Longtime climate sceptic and Mail science editor (there’s an alarming combo) Michael Hanlon wrote an experience piece this week from Greenland, where he underwent the following realisation:

I have long been something of a climate-change sceptic, but my views in recent years have shifted. For me, the most convincing evidence that something worrying is going on lies right here in the Arctic.

Read the rest of this entry »

Who the hell is Gillian McKeith?

This lady. You know, the ‘nutritionist’ who analyses poo, and creates gravestones out of the amount of chocolate her prey supposedly eats, and similarly awful things:

This kind of behaviour on TV prompted scepticism in the science blogosphere, which promptly got on the case and discovered that her PhD, famously, is from an institution which is also happy to give an accredited qualification to a dead cat. Pretty sure you wouldn’t catch Warwick doing that kind of thing (although I can attest they will give pretty much anyone an English degree). She was subsequently taken to the ASA and had to drop the title of ‘Doctor’ from her show. And her books. It’s not that she hadn’t written a thesis. It’s just…more of a mockery of a thesis.

Why has this come up again?

She’s actually been on Twitter for a while, judging by her 1000+ tweets, but it seems like the science community only took note this morning (see the Guardian science man Adam Rutherford’s response). Presumably having noticed a Google Alerts/done a search for her own name – McKeith attacked one Bad Science reader Rachel Moody for this. Which then prompted this. And this and this and this. There are several things wrong with McKeith’s @ replies. This is a quick list:

  1. Oh Lord. Is she so arrogant she monitors the entire web/Twitterverse for mentions of herself? Presumably to tackle legal threats. Not like it works anyway. Read the Goldacre post I referred to above.
  2. I shouldn’t have bothered posing the above point as a question. I just looked at some of McKeith’s subsequent tweets. Viz: CLOSER MAGAZINE just gave a great book review on my new book, Women’s Health. It is truly a great book!!!. May I refer you to Terry Pratchett’s law of multiple exclamation marks.
  3. That was one tweet from Rachel Moody commenting on McKeith’s PhD. How does that morph into ‘anti-American bigotry‘?
  4. Speaking of legal threats, isn’t this, um, potentially libellous to Ben Goldacre?

You can also read Rachel’s plea for support on the Bad Science forums. Cue outrage across the science blogosphere – which can, admittedly, be a giant echo chamber but in this case the approach was justified.

Despite being active across various social media networks (across which she has, astonishingly, remained unscathed. Or she deletes negative comments, I don’t know), McKeith has declined to comment on the more recent aspersions being cast on her qualifications.

Maybe it’s time constraints. But then again, she seems to have found the time to block Goldacre.

Update: 13th July

Gillian McKeith (still failing to understand how social media works) has now deleted all of her semi-abusive tweets. Luckily, Ben Goldacre screengrabbed her tweets here yesterday, so scroll down to see the deleted tweets.

Image courtesy of comedy_nose at Flickr

Humbugs: tasty but inaccurate

As a physics grad I don’t know a huge amount about modelling the Earth’s climate.  Nevertheless the previous post got me thinking about a couple of the common objections that frequently get trumpeted by the climate “sceptics” and why they strike me as somewhat fishy just from a general science perspective.

Although there are many flavours of climate humbug, the two arguments I’ll look at in this post seem to boil down to “we don’t need no stinking computer models – that’s not real science” and “your computer model doesn’t include an allowance for [], therefore we can’t trust its results”.  I’m leaving aside variants of “it was cold today therefore global warming doesn’t exist” comments as too asinine to contemplate further.

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On Tuesday evening, two journalists from well-regarded media institutions accused the academic science community of remaining locked up in ivory towers during a panel discussion on climate change. The basis for this accusation was ‘Climategate’ (sigh, I’ll keep the scandal+’gate’ rant for another post), where UEA scientists were accused of manipulating climate research data to hide flaws. Not only did scientists refuse to answer FOIs, but hid in ‘ivory towers’ as the scandal broke, they said. (I wrote more about this here).

Impossible, they said, to keep the stories balanced because scientists were so reluctant to communicate. Ironically, the one actual scientist scheduled to appear on the panel didn’t turn up.

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Amit Ghosh does mathsy things for an actuarial firm. He read Physics at university, and they even let him loose in the Cavendish laboratory one summer on a research project. He is @bexleylister on Twitter.

Shona Ghosh read English, then did an MA in Journalism. She knows nothing about science. She wishes she did though, so she sometimes reads New Scientist and tries to make Amit explain quantum physics to her, preferably through the medium of pictionary. She is @shonaghosh on Twitter.

They combine their thoughts on this blog.

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