Since the rise of the “fake news” phenomenon, many see the concept as being exclusively a matter associated with political news. However, politics is not the only subject to fall victim to false information. Unfortunately, science—more precisely, pseudo-science—has also been on the rise, with many scientists and journals leaving integrity behind for the sake of fame and money.
Scientists pursue the publishing of research studies with fabricated results for the same reason many journalists and news companies publish faulty news stories: a practice known as “publish or perish.” In other words, the reason scientists constantly feel pressure to publish seemingly ground-breaking findings is to attract interest and funding, which are vital in order to stay relevant in any scientific field.
Despite biomedical research being an endeavor for the benefit of humanity, the fact is that science still is, for the most part, a career-driven field. And reputation within the world of medicine depends on ongoing financial support, which relies on the publication of scientific studies with high public notoriety. This leads scientists to fabricate results with ease for the sake of popularity alone, popularizing their “findings” in unscrupulous publications who also seek fame.
In combination with the coverage of news organizations, who may also publish news stories with the incentive of attention grabbing, scientific studies with questionable data-gathering methods and/or falsified findings can be highly-publicized on a national scale. This easily accomplished today when anyone can share any info with the click of a button.
An example of a recent, popular false study was the highly-publicized study from Northwestern University reporting that cases of advanced, aggressive prostate cancer had risen sharply from 2004 to 2013. Online articles about the study invaded the internet in July 2016, with many major news organizations reporting on the findings, among them NBC and CBS.
It was only later that some organizations who published the story edited the online versions of their articles to include comments from Dr. Otis W. Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society. The American Cancer Society challenged the findings; noting that the study’s research and data-collecting methods are not standard and were not accepted by statistics experts.
A notorious example of how easy it is for incendiary research findings to be spread by news media is the case of science journalist John Bohannon, who purposely fooled millions into thinking that chocolate helps weight loss. Fashioning himself as Johannes Bohannon, Ph.D., he conducted a “study” with a fake team of German researchers that found that people lost weight 10 percent faster if they ate a bar of chocolate every day. The “findings” made the front page of Bild, Europe’s largest newspaper, and made news in 20 countries, including various American news outlets.
Clearly, there is a huge lack of responsibility coming from some scientists and news media when it comes to the publication of scientific findings. No matter the pressures that may lead a team of researchers to not uphold the scientific method, integrity should be upheld at all times. As for news organizations, they are entrusted by the public to spread information that should be well researched by several respectable and reliable sources. Additionally, we, as consumers, also have a responsibility to be conscious of the information we’re helping spread.
By Tiana Headley