A little more than a year ago, I wrote in these pages (these pixels?) that the public radio show On the Media was not paying much attention to science coverage. It covers Hollywood, and politics, and the web, and a variety of things–and it covers them with intelligence and good humor–but it rarely ventures into science coverage.
I was happy to hear that it did so over the weekend, with a report on coverage of a French study said to link genetically modified foods to cancer. Last week, the author and science writer Carl Zimmer wrote on his Discover magazine blog, The Loom, of the unusual way in which the study was released. Reporters who wanted an advance, embargoed copy of the story to read, report, and write up before the release time were forced to sign a confidentiality agreement saying they would not show the paper to anyone else before it was released. (Deborah Blum covered this for the Tracker.)
The distribution of advance papers on a confidential basis is standard practice, but reporters are generally free to discuss the results with other researchers to get a reading on the importance and significance of the paper. It's customary to consult one or more "outside experts" who can say whether they think the paper is important, and is sound, or not. Reporters could not do that with the French study, Zimmer reported. "The strategy was clear: prevent science writers from getting informed outside opinions, so that you can bask in the badly-reported media spotlight," Zimmer wrote.
Brooke Gladstone of On the Media interviewed Zimmer, and he explained that while the paper did seem to find a lot of cancer in rats exposed to genetically modified foods, it was judged by others not to be very well done–or significant. Zimmer tells her that the paper does not show whether an increase in cancer in the rats was statistially significant.
"You have to be able to check with other scientists…to see whether the results hold up," Zimmer said.
Gladstone didn't push Zimmer much; she mostly let him talk. Which, in the case of Zimmer, is an excellent strategy; he's a smart guy.
On the Media can still do much more. On the web page for the Zimmer piece, it lists "related stories." Only one of the three mentioned is a story from On the Media; the other two were done by The Takeaway. If On the Media can find only one related science story to link to, that, in my view, is proof that it needs to do more. (No, this conclusion is not statistically significant. It might not be significant at all. But at least it's yours without a confidentiality agreement.)