Science by press conference: a modern scourge


In 2004, I started a Wikipedia article on science by press conference, one of the most irresponsible abuses of science. In it, I mentioned the canonical example: Pons and Fleischmann's press conference to announce their discovery of cold fusion, and the clueless journalists who uncritically published their sensationalistic claims. More recent examples include the Felisa Wolfe-Simon/NASA Astrobiology Institute announcement about the "GFAJ-1" arsenic-loving bacteria strain, and the announcement about the Gliese 581 g extrasolar planet. These stories got a lot of traction in our "First Post!" world, where everyone clamors to be the earliest reporter of this or that scientific claim, whether it's true or not. This was never more evident than in the December 2010 Twitter trending topic "HIV cured," where the media was complicit in dumbing down a complicated news story about Timothy Ray Brown, aka the "Berlin patient," to the point that average people ran with a grossly inaccurate version of the medical facts. This week, it's the "elaborate fraud" perpetrated by Andrew Wakefield for nearly a decade regarding vaccinations and autism. In 2001, the media were falling all over themselves to report Wakefield's claims: he was heralded as the "MMR Warrior" (MMR=measles, mumps, rubella, three potentially deadly childhood diseases that can be prevented through vaccination). Wakefield found an audience in people looking for something to blame for autism, and he sparked an anti-vaccination movement that got further traction through celebrities with access to the media. While journalists have a responsibility to report new findings, they also have a responsibility to make sure that these new findings are reported accurately and in a manner that is not sensationalistic. PROTIP: If someone is convening a press conference to announce their scientific discovery, whether it's a perpetual motion device or the first human clone, it's advisable to ask why they seem more focused on publicity than science. In the meantime, thanks to the media, "vaccination rates have hit record lows here in America, and measles rates have skyrocketed accordingly."

Vaccine-Autism Link Not Only Wrong, But an "Elaborate Fraud"

Image: Pons and Fleischmann, garnering money and fame for their 1989 press conference announcing their discovery of cold fusion. (via Wikimedia Commons.)


  1. Well, not ALL the media. Most of it, though. Ben Goldacre certainly raised concerns…but all he got was lawsuits for his trouble. Now he gets to enjoy a great big slice of Schadenfraude Pie and a full glass of “I TOLD YOU SO”.

    1. @WizarDru: Indeed, Ben Goldacre is a voice crying in the wilderness, and one of the very few truly skeptical science journalists. The Knight Science Journalism Tracker is another fine source of analysis and criticism of science journalism:

      1. “While journalists have a responsibility to report new findings, they also have a responsibility to make sure that these new findings are reported accurately and in a manner that is not sensationalistic.”

        I’d posit that in contemporary journalism (this includes the online medium) the first part of this statement is true, but the latter has no bearing on the vast majority of information peddlers and handlers. In fact, this isn’t a new at all in human history let alone US history, but since we’ve become an information society post-dubya-dubya-two and the advent of marketing news as an impartial information dispenser has been waning in to the nth degree.

        Again this isn’t something new, see Yellow Journalism, and the media does occasionally honor its largely ignored code of ethics and produce a story of such magnitude and impact that we’re left in awe by these David versus Goliath revelations. Honesty, sincerity, neutrality and morality take a distant backseat to entertainment, ad revenue and public opinion.

        If I’m not mistaken, in the US isn’t extremely difficult — if not impossible — to hold an information medium accountable for misinformation no matter how flagrant except in cases of liable. Also, I unfortunately can’t remember the particular case (sorry), didn’t a US court of law determine that News programs can’t be held accountable for their news reporting in the classic since of journalism because they are considered entertainment. My two cents.

  2. It was a journalist, Brian Deer, who exposed Wakefield’s conflict of interest–several years ago now. The Lancet retracted the paper and eventually Wakefield was banned from practicing medicine.

    However, this all took place years ago, suggesting that the subject’s current viral status is a result of the same “First Post!” world you criticize.

    1. @teufelsdroch: The current round of news stems from conclusion of the British Medical Journal review, announced this week. The problem is that the retractions are rarely as splashy as the initial publicity push. The initial reporting usually makes headlines, and the retractions usually get buried by comparison.

  3. The subject’s current status is that it is now fashion and faith that propel it, the latter being why whenever it is mentioned on, say, the Guardian, they’ll always be at least one poster getting very, very angry at those who dare point out Wakefield was wrong.

  4. The “Secret of Stradivari Rediscovered” headline pops up about every three years. Journalists never bother to research to see if it’s happened before, nor do they bother to ask anyone in the violin making community if the discoverer or his discovery are credible, or repeat offenders before they breathlessly report the exciting new news.

    But why should we be surprised at any of this? Is contemporary mainstream news anything more than an extension of what the old National Enquirer used to be, combined with an advertising mouthpiece for whatever lies the government chooses to shove into the sheeples’ brainless skulls?

    There are no journalists today, only brainless repeaters.

    1. …”the sheeples’ brainless skulls”…

      1. They are people, not “sheeple”, you asshat.

      2. People are NOT “brainless” – that’s simply YOUR value judgment, asshat.

      3. People are not reducible to their physicality – they are far more than “skulls” or “bodies” – except in the eyes of a criminal.

      4. Do you really expect to insult people into agreeing with your political views? Or are you actually working for your putative “opposition”, at an emotive level?

      IMHO, that last question contains the germ of the truth.

      1. Ugly Canuck, your comment against insults would go down a whole lot smoother if you hadn’t punctuated it with the term “asshat”.

        1. My attempt at a ‘self-illustrating’ comment, inspired by Futurama’s Prof. Farnsworth’s self-heating electric frankfurter, sung about here:

      2. 1. They are people, not “sheeple”, you asshat.

        “Sheeple” is an insult, not a reference to biological species. It’s intended to denote sheep-like herd-following behavior and lack of independent thought, as illustrated by anti-science morans who jumped on the “vaccines cause autism” bandwagon and whose collective delusion has probably lead to a bunch of children dying who wouldn’t have otherwise.

        2. People are NOT “brainless” – that’s simply YOUR value judgment, asshat.

        “Brainless” is an insult, and does not refer to the actual absence of said biological organ. When someone acts really stupidly, as illustrated by the “vaccines cause autism” gang, it can be cathartic to call them names like “brainless”.

        3. People are not reducible to their physicality – they are far more than “skulls” or “bodies” – except in the eyes of a criminal.

        Cartesian dualism! I don’t know about you, but me I’m just a humble collection of subatomic particles (or a pattern of information encoded in those particles, if you prefer. No ghost in the machine here, anyway).

        4. Do you really expect to insult people into agreeing with your political views?

        Probably not, he was probably just venting anger at the “vaccines cause autism” gang by insulting them. Insulting people who are not only wrong but pigheadedly and destructively wrong (like neoconservatives, people who endlessly argue that global warming is a hoax, etc.) can be fun, you should give your superego the day off once in a while and try it. Of course you already kind of did with the “asshat” stuff, but then you had to come up with some superego rationalization that you were just doing it to be all “meta”. C’mon, be human, join the Dark Side! There must be some people you’d agree are actually deserving of insults, like Hitler or Dick Cheney or something (or even me since I’m being kind of snarky, it’s all in good fun though since I can’t really hate on a fellow Futurama fan)

        1. The politics of insult leads directly to the death camp gates.
          Insult was Hitlers idiom: and Stalin’s too.

          In fact, it is the idiom of every tyrant justifying their depredations.

          Insult politics is well on the way to destroying America.

          Insult politics is the politics of hatred.

          I’ll have NONE of it.

          1. The politics of insult leads directly to the death camp gates.
            Insult was Hitlers idiom: and Stalin’s too.

            Certainly those guys liked to insult their enemies, but correlation is not causation, and if you look at the history of any democracy insulting language for political opponents has always been used quite routinely. Do you think Thomas Nast’s political cartoons were a first step towards fascism? Perhaps you have been reading David Neiwart and are interpreting the stuff about “eliminationist language” waaaaay to broadly, but saying some group is made up of idiots or sheep is not the same as saying some group are subhuman vermin who should be shot (plus I think it’s rather different when regular people use insulting language about political groups than when powerful politicians who actually have power to oppress these groups use such language).

          2. “….look at the history of any democracy insulting language for political opponents has always been used quite routinely…”

            Just because something is so, does not mean that something ought to be so.

            Insult remains suspect as a political tactic; and even if innocuous, is of questionable efficiency in convincing anyone (but one’s own supporters) of any political proposition whatsoever.

            Insulting one’s opponent s won’t convince me, at any rate, that the one hurling the insults has any sort of a valid point to make, as to how things ought to be done….which latter is, after all, the point of political argument or debate.

    2. The idea that “today’s” media is some terrible brainless institution–worse than ever before–reads to me as a similar form of sensationalism the original post is trying to call out.

  5. They may not have gotten cold fusion, but that picture looks like evidence of significant progress on time travel. The guy on the right looks a lot like the future version of the guy on the left. Did he come back from the future to help his former self? Seems like they should have skipped the cold fusion part and played up the time travel aspect.

  6. I don’t think “HIV cured” is in the same league as those other examples of breathless, inaccurate reporting. The HIV is an example of a treatment that works–and a real scientific advance, but is currently too risky for widespread use. However, it is a valid cure and holds promise for the future, especially as the technology for allogenic bone marrow transplant improves and risk of graft vs. host disease decreases. As well, new treatments for G vs. H are being developed. Given all of that, the HIV cure story is *very* exciting. All new medical breakthroughs start out as experimental therapies that need development to become widely available.

    1. Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey broke up, igpajo. You’ve obviously been neglecting your TMZ (or your anti-vaccine news).

  7. Add all string theory news releases into this category, until someone actually tests the theory.

  8. Mind you, most of the time time mainstream media screws up science news beyond all recognition even without help.

  9. So, no love for H.Pylori? Peer review is a shibboleth.

    Ms. James, perhaps the topic is more complex or nuanced than your journalism here reflects. ^_^

    Personally, I agree with Daemon (except I’d probably remove the doubled “time” and the “mainstream” qualifier from his comment).

    1. “Ms. James, perhaps the topic is more complex or nuanced than your journalism here reflects.”

      Yes, as anyone who has ever played “telephone” could tell you.

  10. Years ago, when i was in high school trying to decide what to “major in” in college, i briefly considered journalism, but because of my low self-esteem, i told myself i wasn’t bright enough to be a journalist. And yet, over the years, whenever i’ve read journalists writing about one of the few topics i know alot about, i’ve noticed they get about 40% of the facts wrong.

    I’ve gotten to know some journalists, and of course there are a few brilliant ones, and the majority are a bunch of fucking mediocre hacks.

  11. Wikipedia likes citations. Most of the hits for “science by press conference” now point here or to Wikipedia itself. Usually this is a red flag for “original research” which is verboten on Wikipedia, and especially ironic in this instance.

    “Original research” used for political obfuscation is something I’m particularly peeved by, and I would think, by the subject matter, that Ms. James would be too.

    Happily, I am finding some acceptable pre-web uses of the phrase, and should be able to add them as cites sometime today. But this really should have been done sometime between 2004 and your posting on BoingBoing today, don’t you think?

    1. I’m not sure why we would expect “pre-web” citations to this given that it is a modern phenomenon. Yes, the cold fusion debacle was pre-Web, but at the time this was a new thing and the science community was shocked by Pons and Fleischmann’s horrible breach of scientific etiquette. Nowawdays, while scientists are understandably skeptical of announcements in press conferences, they more or less expect press releases and conferences for all high profile findings. Certainly many bloggers have used the term, not just Wikipedia.

      1. You’ve previously insisted on peer-reviewed articles in modern journals when people were discussing the science of hundreds of years ago, so pardon me if I disregard your contribution here.

        1. It’s exactly the reason that I think peer reviewed science is the way to go that I find science by press conference so deplorable. And the bloggers I’m referring to as popularizing the term “science by press conference|release” are people like Jonathan Eisen and T. Ryan Gregory, both of whom have published dozens of peer reviewed papers, so it’s not as if they don’t understand the value either.

    2. That is a fantastic post. Throw in a quick appeal to notability, and you will be everything that is wrong with Wikipedia. Self-absorbed rules-lawyering, twisting rule interpretation to suit one’s personal crusade, passive-aggressively implied accusations, that post really does have it all. WP:KUDOS to ya.

  12. The National Press Club, a reputable organization, rather frequently has all sorts of crooks, liars, conspiracy theorists, UFO believers and similar ilk holding press conferences in their rooms, using the positive reputation of the Club as a means to make their claims somehow looks “officially sanctioned” and thus add perceived truth and validation to it, while in reality anyone can rent/lease a room there and hold a press conference “at the National Press Club” pretty much regardless of the topic or how much water it holds. Sensationalist rubbish routinely makes it into the papers that way.

  13. If someone is convening a press conference to announce their scientific discovery *** it’s advisable to ask why they seem more focused on publicity than science.

    If that were true, I’m sure someone would have announced it at a press conference.

  14. Ahhh… a wonderful and refreshing article from Andrea…

    NASA is particularly suspect when it comes to this sort of thing, the GFAJ-1 microbe and the ALH84001 “Martian microbe meteorite” incident are two prominent examples. I should point out that both of these two papers were published in the journal Science which may suggest that journal editors are willing to turn a blind eye to data problems in order to get “the scoop of the day”.

  15. What are the chances that Wakefield could see the inside of a jail cell for this fraud? I think he did serious harm to public health (knowingly) and am also curious about how British law will treat him. (Although, I think he now lives in America.)

    Also, since his act in Britain was published world-wide, could he be tried in any country?

  16. Nothing is easier than shooting arrows into the backs of frontier scientists performing “original research.”

    It takes more than knowing how to use a keyboard to be a scientist or be qualified to criticize those who devote their lives, and often their own financial resources, to further the goals of true science: the ones who do the actual research, experiments, who risk careers to break with a dead-ended consensus, who too frequently achieve breakthroughs only to have government block the patent process and prohibit further development in the name of Orwellian “national security.”

    A press conference is one way to at least attempt an end-run around such barriers by making public disclosure–necessary especially with anything related to energy or health. Such disclosure is criminal after the government lays claim to the discovery. Publicity is a way to protect the breakthrough by enabling it to continue to be examined, tested, and discussed, even though it does expose the heroic “frontier scientist” to the blowback of smaller minds.

  17. good journalists could probably make good scientists, and vice versa, but nobody mentioned in the post is either the former or the latter.

  18. I hate to be That Guy, but given the subject matter, it’s probably unhelpful to over-egg the pudding to describe measles, mumps and rubella as all being “potentially deadly”. There are good reasons for vaccinating all three, but the only one that’s deadly in the manner most reading are likely to interpret it, is measles. The issue with rubella is Congenital Rubella Syndrome, which can certainly be deadly to an unborn baby if their mother contracts it, but isn’t dangerous in the wider sense. Whilst mumps is notable chiefly for causing infertility in men.

    All good public health reasons to vaccinate against all three, without any need to exagerrate it their dangers.

    As for the Wakefield debacle, I’m still astonished that The Lancet got away with that one relatively unscathed. It was clear to anyone who read the original paper that it should never have seen publication (you’d be hard pressed to find a better example of bad research), and in my opinion it’s only the Lancet’s decision to publish (and if I remember correctly, to publicise) that allowed the whole thing to snowball so horrifically.

  19. … and speaking of accuracy, Boingboing is quoting the New York magazine, which is quoting CNN, which is quoting the British Medical Journal.

    How about sticking a little closer to the sources?

    I have to admit I thought Wakefield was incompetent. I didn’t realise he was fraudulent.

  20. I’m really not OK lumping arsenic life into this group.

    The work was done, peer reviewed, and published by Science. THEN there was a press conference. After the press conference, there was some pretty serious criticism (primarily on the web), but the paper is still published and the authors are still behind the work. The discussion criticizing the work are theoretical as no one else has done work with the microbe to determine more of what’s happening.

    Other work mentioned in this post has in fact been proven wrong – Gliese 581 g and Cold Fusion, etc. Arsenic Life has not. The authors of the paper are going through criticisms of the work now (compiled by Science) and are getting responses together. Blog posts and news articles on the web simply do not discredit science. More work and more thought is all that will help get to the bottom of what’s going on with GFAJ-1.

    But fundamentally the history with Arsenic Life is paper in Science then press conference. If the press conference hadn’t happened, do you think the web would have had the same response? I really don’t think so. And if that’s the case, I think everyone should consider whether their treatment of this is warranted.

    1. I think what was most irksome was the comment from the authors of “we’ll only respond to criticisms in the literature” when they had in fact held a great big press conference. At that point the paper was not yet available, even to subscribers to Science (like myself). It is not suprising that the first reaction was from the web given the time taken to write a journal article.

      The fundamental problem with the paper (speaking as a chemist) was the enormous instability of arsenic as a “phosphate replacement” which the authors did not address. If it had been “bug thrives in arsenic” that is one thing (albeit not new), but “bug replaces phosphate with arsenate”, that is wholly another, particularly given the indirect evidence.

      Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof as Sagan once pointed out.

  21. I prefer to filter my science news by whether it can be independently reproduced or not, rather than by which group of gatekeepers has anointed it with their holy bodily fluids.

  22. Publish or perish. This is an entirely rational, if shitty, response the the unbelievable cruelty forced upon young researchers.

  23. Gliese 581g also doesn’t belong with Cold Fusion. When the press conference came out, it also came along with a paper that had been accepted for publication in ApJ, a peer reviewed journal. And, the authors in that paper themselves do note that it’s possible that the planet isn’t real. The press went a little nuts with it, but you can’t blame the authors of the paper for doing things wrong the way you can blame Pons and Fleishmann. The paper itself is absolutely fine.

  24. There just seems to be less and less science and more and more “journalism”. Maybe someone should study the correlation between the lower public funding for science and the number of science related press conferences. Follow the money.

  25. @Andrea James #36

    Hoped to find the time to, as I said, but it was an outdoor day for me. I started looking for refs, but the BoingBoing & Wikipedia articles rapidly buried the results for the phrase… making it that much harder to research.

    Looks like you and another editor have been at it today, so I took the “original research” and lack of refs tags off.

    @Jonathan Badger #33

    “I’m not sure why we would expect “pre-web” citations to this given that it is a modern phenomenon”

    I’m not sure it’s so modern, considering all the 19th century engineering magazines I’ve been reading. I’m suspicious of “many bloggers” using a term being free of manipulation. Did you follow my link about the nonsense-word that replaced “gender equality” for six months? Bloggers were picking up on it as kewl, but it deliberately obscured actual discussion. Personally discovering a source of disinformation on the site and watching its speed and effectiveness was pretty sobering.

    @Beezlebuddy #35

    Plus, it’s ironic when someone makes a passive-agressive accusation passive-aggressively. As for myself, I was just being plain old aggressive.

    Your laundry list of Wikipedia’s troubles only scratches the surface of the reasons I cut back editing there so much.

    But I thought that I was on-topic for a post about going to press before you had done your research. They used to say “show your work” in math class. Not “wait for a stranger to show your work”. It’s still a good idea; references are what make Wikipedia at all useful, imho.

    Happy 10th Anniversary, Wikipedians!

  26. Strictly speaking this isn’t a great example of this, since the scientists as far as I know didn’t sensationalize their own findings, but this makes me think of that study that found a correlation between overweight people and drinking diet soda. Of course the media proclaimed that diet soda caused obesity, but it was a simple correlation, and the researcher’s own claim was that it was most likely that obese people were more likely to consume diet soda as an effort to lose weight. Correct me if I’m wrong, it’s been a while since this went down and I haven’t brushed up on it lately.

    One thing I wonder is whether academics are complicit in these sorts of public misunderstandings of research findings because for the most part Joe Shmoe can’t hop on the internet and read the original study (although scientific/academic literacy is enough of an issue that it might not matter anyway). I know one of the things I miss most about college is being able to read in its entirety any study or experiment that made the news, or just that I heard of in general.

  27. Oh, I thought the pictures were one of those me-in-the-same-pose-at-the-same-place-some-number-of-years-later sets.

  28. It is easy to blame journalists for this type of sensationalism, but we scientists need to be more aware of how our research is being viewed/interpreted and not put it all on journalists to do this interpretation for us. I always thought it would be a good step forward if (in addition to the abstract normally published along with research articles) we were required to also publish a “layman’s summary” of what the research entails. These types of things are often required for grant applications, so I don’t see how it would be so far fetched for publication.

    The public also needs to be more aware that what journalists write and what the primary research actually means are not neccesarily the same thing. I try to plant the seed of skeptism in all of my non-scientist friends, but the problem is that a lot of the time they don’t have the background needed to read and understand the primary literature. Again, making *real* science more accessible to the public seems paramount.

    1. The layman’s summary is an excellent idea.

      I think it is safe to assume that meaning WILL change as the science story is passed around among people.

      I’m surprised that people are surprised ideas change as they interact with our physiologies (which are complex, limited, and prone to error).

  29. OTOH, in the context of science and scientific debate (to return to the topic at hand), I suppose that the use of insult as a debating tactic has subtly different aims, and different results….that is to say, in contrast to its use in run-of-the-mill civic politics (to which my previous comments were directed). For in scientific debate the question or argument is not so much over how (or what) is to be done, so much as it is simply, “what is”.

    Nevertheless, insult remains a questionable tactic for use in the effort to persuade.

  30. I posted on this same topic. Lucky for me, I got comments from a guy who enjoys telling people cold fusion is a fact. I’m fairly certain he just cruises the internet trying to convince people cold fusion is still viable. He didn’t get the point I was trying to make about rushing to publicize…

    But it is true that cold fusion is used as a case study of how to screw up your scientific career.

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