New Twitter account outs shoddy reporting in science stories

In this era of fake news, it’s not unusual for social media users—including the US president—to accuse journalists of doing bad work. Sadly, when it comes to coverage of scientific studies especially, there’s some truth to these accusations. Science writers do sometimes overstate claims based on research findings, and now one Twitter account exists solely to highlight a particular variety of these misleading stories.

The account @justsaysinmice tweets about stories that rely on a study of mice to make claims about human health. It’s been in existence less than a month and has only issued seven tweets as of this writing, yet it has 24,600 followers already (rising from 21,500 when I began drafting this story). The scientist who runs this feed, James Heathers, has his own Twitter account, @jamesheathers, which by contrast has only about 5,100 followers, though it’s been in existence since September 2011 and has issued more than 3,000 tweets.

Heathers is, according to his personal website, an Australian research scientist at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, where he works in the computational behavioral science lab. “I like methodology,” he writes. “I develop novel techniques for analyzing data in the biological and social sciences, and then compulsively tell people about them.”

Perhaps that’s what inspired him to start the Just Says in Mice account. In any case, he seems to be meeting a need, based on the rapidity with which he’s gathering followers and concern expressed by other researchers and academics previously.

“Let me start with an audacious assertion: A major problem confronting science journalists is that they have trouble communicating what’s true,” Sharon Dunwoody, an Evjue-Bascom professor emerita at the University of Wisconsin-Madison school of journalism, wrote in a 2014 article on Sci Dev Net. She says that reporters simply don’t know enough about all the different research they have to cover to accurately convey the implications, and suggests writers would be better off writing about the weight of the evidence instead of deciding whether a particular scientific claim is true. Journalists, she argues, should show both support and opposition to a particular hypothesis, leaving the ultimate judgment to readers.

For reporters, of course, there’s not just pressure to understand the story, get the facts right, and work on tight deadlines. Writers and editors also have to make scientific stories seem relevant to readers. That need leads to the kind of hyped-up claims that Heathers is outing on Just Says in Mice. It might not be that interesting to readers to discover that a particular development, which seems to affect rodents, is actually years away from the human research phase and even further from clinical use. So though these facts may well be revealed in a story, the headlines written to entice readers often do not make this critical distinction.

But if Just Says in Mice outs enough major publications with its damning tweets, and proves as popular over time it has been in the brief period since its inception, we may soon see the word “mice” in a lot of science headlines. And you will know why.

As for Quartz, rest assured that reporters here have long been warned to be frank about limitations in scientific studies, and that mice do feature in our headlines.

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