CJR: Do journalists have an obligation to expose scientific misconduct?

Never mind the extraordinary cases of academic fraud; journalists should "go beyond the high-profile scandals to reveal an under-reported aspect of contemporary research–the low-level misconduct that corrodes the scientific enterprise."

So writes Declan Fahy of American University in a post at Columbia Journalism Review's The Observatory. The headline and deck on the post are, "Rooting out bad science: Big scandals grab headlines, but journalists can do more to expose misconduct."

Fahy offers a very nice collection of links related to scientific misconduct, many of which are worth clipping and saving for the next time some crackpot researcher or brilliant deceiver is exposed as a fraud. He gets a bit further afield when he links to such things as the familiar John Ioannidis piece "Why Most Published Research Findings are False," which is not about deception, but scientific bias. We all have biases; we are not all liars and cheats.

Looking through Fahy's links and comments, I'm unclear about what he is arguing here. He writes that he wants reporters to understand the "problematic features of science," which I think many seasoned science writers do understand. When he argues that reporters should go beyond the scandals to examine "low-level misconduct" that "corrodes" science, my question is: Why?

Does Fahy want us to clean up scientific misconduct? That's not our job. Does he want us to educate readers about the nature of science? Also not our job, even if some stories do happen to educate readers. Does he want to make us better reporters? I think so, but this doesn't seem quite the way to do it.

Our job is to tell stories and to catch readers up on new information. Our stories should be entertaining, beguiling, useful, intelligent, and thorough. 

Fahy quotes Ferric Fang of the University of Washington who observed that scientists must be "self-promoting entrepreneurs whose work is driven not only by curiosity but by personal ambition, political concerns, and quests for funding." 

True enough. But the same might be said about reporters or university professors. Scientists are not unique in that regard.

Yes, reporters should convey something about the nature of science, but they should do so in the service of their stories, not in the service of science or society at large. Telling stories is a worthy goal in itself; we needn't burden it with agendas.

-Paul Raeburn

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