April Fool’s: Reading Science News Wisely

Episode: 
128

Have you ever been fooled by something you read on the internet? Or that a friend posted on Facebook? It happened to me. I was giving a public lecture, and in the Q&A that followed, I casually mentioned a story about a stunningly beautiful woman whose husband was suing her for having ‘ugly children.’ He claimed she had deceived him about the cosmetic surgery she had before their marriage. I didn’t take the time to verify this urban legend, and I was fooled.

It happens to the scientific world as well. In 2005, Dr. Hwang Woo-suk claimed to have successfully cloned human embryos and extracted their stem cells. The paper had to be withdrawn because most of the data and stem cells were faked. Five years later, he again published a paper claiming to have cloned human embryos and extracted their stem cells, this time with high efficiency. That paper fooled the reviewers at Science magazine.[1]

In past episodes, I’ve talked about problems with scientists falsifying data,[2] and problems with how the media frame scientific news.[3] These two unhealthy aspects of publishing medical and biotechnological research combine to mislead the public, over and over. Then, factor in the 24-hour news cycle, which adds relentless pressure on media sources to generate high-impact stories. Multiply that by the power of social media, where Twitter’s 140-character limit undermines thoughtful analysis, and you have a recipe for misinformation.

So, take care when you read headline news about the latest breakthrough in medical research. If you read it online, follow the hyperlink to the underlying study, and see what the real story is. It may be that the reporter left out an important fact, such as neglecting to mention that a recent stem cell research study involved human cloning and embryo destruction.[4]

It happens to us here at The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity. We highlight news in our Bioethics Weekly email roundup. But some of those reports are later retracted. A story we posted in January about a new technique for reverting stem cells back to an embryonic-like state was retracted in March.[5] (By the way, if you would like a free subscription to the weekly email, go to our website at cbhd.org.)

Even high quality sources, such as Science magazine or Lancet can get it wrong. That is why we at the Center seldom issue rapid fire responses. As tempting as it is may be to blast off a comment, it is better to wait and weigh the evidence. Hold both your enthusiasm and your vitriol.

Taking the time to read carefully, to think, to discuss, and to wait may not be as exciting as being quoted by the press, but it is better to be wise than to be wrong. We don’t want to be fooled, and neither do you.



[1] “A Cloning Scandal Rocks a Pillar of Science Publishing,” New York Times, July 7, 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/18/international/asia/18clone.html?pagewanted=2.

[2] “Scientists Behaving Badly: Part 2 (Publish or Perish),” Everyday Bioethics, on The Morning Ride, February 12, 2013. WMBI.

[3] “Media Framing of Bioethics Stories,” Everyday Bioethics on The Morning Ride, March 5, 2013. WMBI.

[4] Compare the press release with the underlying study. See, “OHSU Scientist Breaks New Ground in Embryonic Stem Cells,” Oregon Health & Science University, March 26, 2014. http://www.ohsu.edu/xd/about/news_events/news/2014/03-26-ohsu-scientist-breaks-ne.cfm. Letter, “Nuclear Reprogramming by Interphase Cytoplasm of Two-cell Mouse Embryos,” Nature, March 26, 2014. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nature13134.html.

[5] Hiroko Tabuchi, “One Author of a Startling Stem Cell Study Calls for Its Retraction,” New York Times, March 10, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/11/business/one-author-of-a-stem-cell-study-calls-for-its-retraction.html?hpw&rref=business&_r=1

 

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