Science Journalism Should Follow the Science Not the Funding

Posted By Bruce Boyle on January 28, 2015

Assume that you are speaking with a journalist about scientific research as a representative of a company that makes GMO seeds, artificial sweeteners, pesticides or any one of the thousand food-related products.

A specific question will be asked and it is at that very point that you should abandon all hope that your company will be treated fairly.

The question is ‘Who funded the science?’

If your answer is ‘industry,’ rather than a government entity, foundation or other non-profit you can be assured that whatever the validity of the science it will be dismissed as inherently corrupt.

It is a lazy and deeply offensive way to color a story and is every bit as absurd as asking a reporter whether or not he or she can be trusted, given that the journalist’s compensation is dependent on advertising. Yet it is such a routine part of the interview process that executives, industry scientists and issues management professionals accept the question without raising objection. They should.

They should because to raise no objection to that question will result in a story that will pay lip service to credible science while extolling competing ‘independent’ research that may be almost worthless. 

They should because, unwittingly or not, journalists who question the validity of science only by identifying its funding source feed the social media notion that companies, scientists and regulatory authorities are engaged in a vast global conspiracy to do us harm in the name of profit.

They should because a journalist playing to the audience of bloggers, tweeters, fear mongerers and ‘comments’ authors by not asking relevant questions is cowardly.

These are not questions that require the expertise of science reporters at The New York Times or The Scientific American.

Here are a couple of the simplest questions to compare science from any funding source, using a food additive as an example:

Did your testing closely mimic the way a human being would consume this additive as to dosage, temperature, and other factors?

Was the testing done under Good Laboratory Practices (GLP)?

Have the results been replicated anywhere else or has anyone done similar research that contradicts your results?

Have you done research before or since that you have abandoned or not published because it appeared the research would not support your hypothesis?

Have you established correlation without establishing causation?

Since there are fewer and fewer actual science reporters in mainstream media, the simplest questions about the actual science are abandoned in favor of a belief system that says industry science is profit-driven and supports an industry hypothesis almost all the time.

It is a belief system that ignores spectacular examples of academic fraud or the idea that chasing grants offers the same temptation as a corporate check.

It is a belief system that allows the demonization of companies and every single person who works in certain industries. I don’t know, for example, a single person at Monsanto, a large global producer of GMO seeds. Yet, if I accepted some distortions of flawed science as reported in media and inflamed in social media I’d be pretty well convinced that they are all going to hell.

It should trouble journalists to see the way science stories badly reported turn into social media firestorms and how the words cancer, diabetes and autism, for example, are shamelessly attributed to the things they’ve covered, with liberal attribution to their brands.

It may be that there is no longer time or space or inclination to asking the right questions. Or worse, that reporters see the cost of asking real questions.

When you read outstanding science journalism where reporters carefully follow the science, rather than the funding, you learn quickly that food is as polarizing a subject as politics.

Reporters who dare to suggest that popular myths or widely repeated anecdotes about food may be in error, based on real science, are in for social media criticism that is often anonymous, vicious, obscene and threatening.

For the vast majority of us, our failure to appreciate real science journalism when it comes to food hasn’t made us any healthier, physically or intellectually.