Adventures in Ethics and Science

Session description: Much of the science that goes out to the general public through books, newspapers, blogs and many other sources is not professionally fact checked. As a result, much of the public’s understanding of science is based on factual errors. This discussion will focus on what scientists and journalists can do to fix that problem, and the importance of playing a pro-active role in the process.

The session was led by Rebecca Skloot (@RebeccaSkloot), Sheril Kirshenbaum (@Sheril_), and David Dobbs (@David_Dobbs).

Here’s the session’s wiki page.


Getting the Science Right: Importance of fact checking mainstream sci pubs & role scientists can/should play in it (but oft don’t) #scio10

Skloot, David Dobbs, Sheril Kirshenbaum leading fact checking session #scio10

Newspapers – readers are fact checkers; hard to make the corrections! #scio10

Writers can reach out to scientists for help; scientist:”R U going to quote me? What do I get out of this?” #scio10

Newspapers & books not fact checked excpt by author; magazines tend to have fact checking teams w some rigor #scio10

Publishing houses: “We can’t afford to do that kind of fact checking!” #scio10

Skloot hired professional to fact check her book #scio10

Ideally, checking with multiple sources #scio10

Quotes checked over the phone (“Is it accurate to say that you said that …?”), not direct quote on page #scio10

Checkers highlighted every single fact in Skloot’s book; took 8 months to check them all #scio10

Some of the fact checking may reveal, say, stuff your subject did that turns out to have been illegal, unethical, etc. #scio10

Some sources’ memories may be suspect (finding external data to fill in more accurate acct can take lots of sleuthing) #scio10

Subjects & sources can get v annoyed by repeated contact to check facts; can seem like harassment #scio10

Someone wanted to write article abt Sheril’s grad research on sea cukes; started w quote that was v off base->bad view of journos #scio10

Journos & scientists trained v differently to talk abt same subject; what do you send back to source for verification (& why)? #scio10

Turns out diff journos do it differently #scio10

My thought: might depend on whether you view scientist as source (& science as subject) or scientist as subject #scio10

On Kissing Book, Sheril went back to scientists to make sure her descr of the sci was OK, & turned to primary and 2ndary sources #scio10

Identifying “common knowledge” (on internet) that’s the result of misunderstandings, miscommunication #scio10

Repetition w/out proper fact checking entrenches “knowledge” that’s wrong #scio10

Timmer: You’ll have ppl who are convinced you’re wrong even tho you went to the trouble to fact check & got it right #scio10

David Dobbs: Writing 1st book, description of bit character in mid/late 60s… after book came out, found out she was 48. D’oh #scio10

Expensive to employ fact checkers. Something happens w rigorous fact checking->makes author more meticulous in writing #scio10

“Internal fact checker” has desk next to internal editor #scio10

Tempting to go beyond the findings & what scientist would see as supported; fact checking keeps u honest abt what’s YOUR read #scio10

Also, helps you catch where you’re totally wrong BEFORE it goes out #scio10

“If your mom tells you she loves you, verify it” #scio10

Fact checking it yourself vs. getting someone else to do it; analogous to proofreading it yourself wrt catching stuff #scio10

Tom Levenson: Show sections to ppl, whole book to other ppl. “Am I being stupid here? Please save me from myself” #scio10

Dobbs: You can get all the facts write and still get the entire story wrong #scio10

Talking Heads on fact checking #scio10

Nerve-wracking to write for a publication that *doesn’t* have fact checking. You want to be able to stand behind your work. #scio10

Fact checking a book a diff kind of task than fact checking an article or blog post #scio10

Some factual errors are not the author’s fault, but the editor’s (and sometimes writer’s can’t officially establish that) #scio10

“We did a lot of fact checking for what we had time for…” #scio10

Timescale of fact checking is big determinant of degree of verification #scio10

As newspapers are “streamlined”, fewer employees (including fewer fact checking) #scio10

J. Eisen: would help if authors & editors were transparent abt how much fact checking there was on each of their pubs #scio10

Press releases theoretically connected w facts, but often v disconnected #scio10

Could you still sell your papers & mags to readers if you disclosed lack of fact checking? #scio10

Fact checking what scientist said for story … but that scientist wasn’t an expert on the subject #scio10

Fact checking George Will on climate change? Yeah, right. #scio10

(Are Op-Eds exempt from same kind of fact checking, even when args are grounded on factual assertions?) #scio10

Some pubs won’t pay you if you don’t send them fully footnoted version of story & incl copies of papers you cite #scio10

If less fact checking, more obligation to print corrections (but doesn’t mean pubs live up to this duty) #scio10

Why the journo reluctance to send quotes to scientists you interviewed? B/c of the temptation for sources to rewrite what they said #scio10

What is legal (whether it’s quite ethical) sometimes seems to inform journalistic practices #scio10

Reading big sections, sources can also miss errors (not enough sharp attention for details) #scio10

Fact check the stuff we’re not sure abt (But isn’t fact checking how we get to certainty?) #scio10

Comments

  1. #1 Ed Yong
    January 19, 2010

    Reading big sections, sources can also miss errors (not enough sharp attention for details

    I once sent an article to a scientist for fact-checking, who failed to spot that I’d repeatedly assigned her the wrong gender throughout the piece…

  2. #2 Super Sally
    January 19, 2010

    Your mom DOES love you. Just ask your dad.

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