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.)