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It's not just politics: 2016 was an epidemic year for fake news in science, too

One of the watchwords of politics in 2016 was the epidemic of “fake news” — a catch-all term encompassing propaganda, misinformation, disinformation and hoaxing — impinging on the presidential campaign. But let’s not overlook its spread in the spheres of science and medicine.

That point is made in a recent article by Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus. Both are journalists and Oransky is also a physician, and together they’re the co-founders of the website Retraction Watch, which ranks among our leading correctives to fake news in academia. 

Oransky and Marcus cite several dubious findings that were published in scientific journals that purport to engage in peer review, but may not always be as reputable as they seem. These included a conspiracy-mongering claim that the vapor trails behind jet planes contain toxic materials, not merely ice crystals; another hugely questionable study linking vaccines to autism, a long-debunked connection; and a “whopper” asserting that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS. All were eventually retracted by their publishers, but that only raises the question of how they got published to begin with.

The No. 1 episode of scientific fake news must be what Oransky and Marcus termed the “cage match of credulity” staged by that noted purveyor of pseudoscience, Dr. Mehmet Oz, and then-presidential candidate Donald Trump in September. The encounter was billed as an inquiry into Trump’s health. But it was a grotesquely misleading program in which Oz judged Trump’s medical condition based on a few scattered test results and the subjective answers to a few routine questions. It’s unimaginable that a reputable physician would have participated in such a public charade, but we are talking about Dr. Oz. 

Common in the popular press are medical claims made by celebrities, typically associated with their own personal experiences or promoted by companies selling the nostrums, or both. Patient advocates and other promoters recognized early on that “using celebrities to endorse scientific or health claims gives the claims the veneer of authority,” Marcus says. 

The leading bird-dog of such fatuous claims is Gary Schwitzer’s Health News Review, which blew the whistle this year on celebrity endorsements by Ben Stiller and the singer/songwriter Sheryl Crow, among others. 

Stiller wrote in October that the PSA test for prostate cancer “saved my life. Literally.” But his essay skated over the reasons that the PSA blood test has fallen out of favor as a routine screen for prostate cancer: It’s vulnerable to a rate of false positives, and therefore the chance of dangerous and unnecessary treatment, with incontinence and impotence the known risks; and prostate cancer shows a wide range of aggressiveness, from those mandating quick treatment, to the majority, which indicate monitoring, but not necessary, treatment. 

“The vast majority detected by screening are not aggressive and screening does more harm than good in these men,” argued a physician contributor to Health News Review.

Crow spoke out in favor of 3D mammography screening as the celebrity spokeswoman for a company that markets, yes, 3D mammography equipment. Her campaign relied on “blatant abuse of statistics and misleading guidance about the appropriate role of mammography screening,” according to the review’s panel of professional sources. Her blunt advice to women to “get screened” runs counter to guidelines from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force and the American Cancer Society. “It can’t be ignored that this simplistic message happens to dovetail nicely with the interests of the company she’s being paid to promote,” Health News Review noted.

The celebrity endorsement genre relates to the chronic problem of so much reporting on science — that readers and editors demand stories with pizzazz — and that means hype. “Readers have an unslakable thirst to have things be immediately newsworthy and cut-and-dried,” Marcus told me. “Most scientific discoveries are incremental, but they’re reported as if they’re definitive.” 

University publicity officers, whose job is to polish their institutions’ luster, also know that “nuance doesn’t get much attention,” Marcus adds. So they tend to report every incremental result from their researchers as a breakthrough. Rushed and overworked science writers accept these overheated reports as gospel, and they end up in print.

The tendency becomes magnified, says Oransky, to “treat every single study as critical and life-changing, when it’s just a single study.” That’s especially worrisome because of mounting recognition that it’s common for experimental results to be unreproducible — a survey of 1,576 researchers by Nature last year found that 70% had tried and failed to reproduce another scientist’s research, and more than half had tried and failed to reproduce their own findings. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the results are the product of fraud, but may be artifacts of poor technique or erroneous interpretation.

What may be most dangerous about the wholesaling of shallow science — whether anecdotes offered in heart-rending medical success stories, endorsements by celebrities, or publicity-seeking universities — is that it leaves the public unable to distinguish well-grounded findings from fluff. Climate change deniers and vaccination opponents gain much of their credence because their views are often presented in the media as just another element of a wide-open debate, even though the reality of climate change and the safety of vaccines have been established by the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence. Science is losing its credibility along with other social institutions, Oransky observes, but credulous reporting doesn’t help. 

The remedies for fake news in science will have to come from several sources, Oransky and Marcus say. They point the finger at scientists and universities, which “continue to dress up weak findings in flashy clothes, all the better to publish with” (and be published about). But journalists often are the last gatekeepers standing between overhyped research reports and the public. “Journalists who don’t fact-check deserve criticism, whether the topic is politics, entertainment or science,” they write. The political press is grappling with how to tell fake news from real, and make sure readers and viewers are made aware of the distinction. The scientific press needs to conduct the same soul-searching.

Keep up to date with Michael Hiltzik. Follow @hiltzikm on Twitter, see his Facebook page, or email michael.hiltzik@latimes.com.

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