Faculty of 1000

Post-publication peer review

Strange news from a distant star

Posted by rpg on 18 September, 2009

Clive Cookson over at the Financial Times reports on Wednesday night’s têteà-tête between Lord Drayson, the UK’s Science Minister, and writer/broadcaster/medical doctor Ben Goldacre. Goldacre is behind badscience.net and is somewhat outspoken in his opinions. I didn’t sign up to see the debate, seeing as I’d been invited to a movie: which I’m convinced was more fun and better for the soul (I also said I’d review it for LabLit.com). I have to be in the right mood for Goldacre, and that happens rarely.

The subject of the debate was science journalism, which is often said to be in a parlous state, especially by people like Goldacre and his acolytes. Intriguing, then, to read that ‘Drayson had the better of the argument’.

Drayson maintained that the quality of science journalism has improved over the past few years – comparing the reporting of BSE, the MMR vaccine scare and GM crops with the better recent coverage of the Large Hardon Collider, hybrid embryos and swine flu.

Clive says that Drayson also advocated sensationalism in science reporting, which no doubt annoyed the ‘elitist’ (in a surprising reversal of characters) Goldacre. The latter’s comment, ‘Science journalists are very marginal figures in the coverage of science in British newspapers’ would no doubt have pissed off not a few editors and journalists.

I don’t know. Science reporting, in the tabloids at least, is generally wrong (in my experience). But then, much of the other news is also wrong: I have read stories where, from insider knowledge, at least half of the ‘facts’ aren’t. On the other hand, the Telegraph covered a story about money and well-being rather well (we know: we released the story).

And therein lies a tale. The Register got all huffy and sarcastic yesterday because the research was published four months ago, saying things like ‘offering this as an example of its own brilliance in keeping its subscribers bang up to date.’

Which sort of illustrates my more general point about journalism. We (f1000) don’t necessarily claim to be the first with news (although we can be surprisingly quick): rather, we concentrate on the science that is influential, important, and that might otherwise be missed. That’ll be why our Hidden Jewels sections are so popular (and yeah. People pay for this). But perhaps you wouldn’t expect the hacks at the Register to grasp something so subtle.

So there was a vote on Twitter on who ‘won’ the debate. Naturally, all Goldacre’s acolytes voted for him, but I was pleasantly surprised by the number of votes for Drayson. It looks like he did win, after all. That’s not to say science journalism can’t improve, but maybe things aren’t quite as bad as we thought?

And seriously, Clive, your photo scares me.

Update: Could this be the cause of all Ben Goldacre’s woes?


4 Responses to “Strange news from a distant star”

  1. Jennifer Rohn said

    If the Register was so offended by news being four month old, then why did they pick it up? It’s a pity their own reporters aren’t more alert.

  2. […] Strange news from a distant star […]

  3. […] of interested specialists, and we like to bring it to a wider audience. (Sometimes this attracts criticism from talentless hacks, but hey, it’s all good). Besides, if six month-old ‘news’ […]

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