September 30, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

The dangers of direct to media reporting of unpublished, non-peer reviewed science: the Higgstery case

I was critical earlier this week in a post of what I perceived to be the over-the-top reaction to the whole Higgs Boson situation and press fest.

I went so far as to call it “hysteria” or one could say “Higgstery“.

In turn, I was criticized for that blog post for being too critical and spoiling people’s excitement and fun.

What a wet blanket I am, right?

However, I stand by the post after giving it more thought.

My concern here is not whether the scientists in question found the Higgs Boson as they said (to a wildly excited, cheering audience) that their data most likely suggested.

In fact I hope they are right and they did find the Higgs Boson, yet I worry they are wrong.

But regardless that is not the central issue.

Rather, what bothers me is in a broader sense the trend of certain scientists, and in this particular case some physicists, of reporting their findings directly to the media, particularly findings that are non-peered review and unpublished.

Why is it necessary or desirable for scientists to go direct to media with their brand new data?

I can’t think of any scientifically valid reason.

To me the simplest answer is that the scientists in question want attention and have other motives beyond scientific reasons for directly reporting such data to the media.

One might argue in the Boson case that they are trying to drum up public support or a sense of justification for a very expensive piece of equipment. Is that a bad thing? Perhaps not, as I am all for scientists advocating for their research and funding support, but it is risky business to make an international event out of your data.

Indeed, the dangers of direct to media reporting of data without peer review and without publication are numerous, but two big ones stand out.

First, the most dangerous one, so well illustrated by the faster than light physics debacle due to a loose power cord, is that there’s a pretty good chance the conclusions are wrong. There has been no peer review and no skeptical eyes of other scientists totally unconnected to the project critiquing the data prior to unleashing it on the media.

Second, such reporting data directly to the press hugely raises expectations that in turn may lead to a precipitous crash.

Both of these outcomes, should they occur, tarnish scientific credibility.

Greatly compounding the risks associated with direct-to-media data reporting are scientists using language regarding the findings such as “changing our understanding of the universe”.

Gee, raising expectations a bit?

For perspective, in my field of molecular and cellular biology, it is astonishing to even imagine a scientist going directly to the press with unpublished, non-peer reviewed data.

It would be almost uniformly considered insanely risky and career-suicide for good reasons in my opinion. A great example is Dr. Shinya Yamanaka’s production of a totally new type of stem cell, iPS cells (see more about them here) that revolutionized cell biology. He did not broadcast it to the international media as soon as he got exciting results, but rather it went through peer review, he got feedback from many other scientists not associated directly with the work, he did more experiments, pondered the data, and ultimately it was published.

Is putting new, unpublished data out there for feedback via social media the same thing as throwing it like raw meat to the international media?

In most cases, I don’t think so.

Should scientists choose to “publish” their new data via social media such as blogging without peer review that is certainly quite risky as well for many reasons, but it also could be constructive if they are targeting the release of the data to other scientists with, for example, a blog post, and looking for feedback and not blowing it out of proportion.

OK, go for the jugular!

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