Bad Science Communication as Defamation

Misrepresenting science does more than just spread misinformation. It hurts the scientists themselves.

Daniel Goldman
Aug 11, 2019 · 4 min read

Let’s face it. There’s some horrible science communication out there. A lot of it is unintentional, but some of it is intentional misrepresentation of studies. Sadly, media outlets do have a habit of distorting findings to make better headlines and draw in more readers. And then there are even more nefarious reasons for misrepresenting the findings of studies, including the desire to offer a specific political view on a topic.

This tendency to misrepresent scientific findings is more than a nuisance. It can be harmful. It can spread misinformation, but it can also hurt the researchers involved. The research that we researchers publish represents us, at least to an extent. While it is important to try to separate the researcher and the research, it doesn’t fully happen, and we rely on recognition of the quality of our research for our reputation and our work. When our research is distorted, it can have a negative impact on our credibility, and it can be very difficult to restore credibility once it is lost.

An Example

As an example of how the media can misrepresent research, its negative implications, and how scientists are taking issue with these actions, back in 2018, Linda Partridge, Joris Deelan, and P. Eline Slagboom published an article on aging. The media jumped on the article and misrepresented it as claiming that drinking blood can help reverse aging. According to VICE, the primary author, Linda Partridge, was “furious” about the misrepresentation. I don’t blame her. While the New York Post isn’t generally deemed to be all that credible, it is still fairly well read.

Gid M-K; Health Nerd wrote a solid piece explaining why the study did not say what the media was suggesting it did. And luckily, I don’t think too many people took it seriously. It’s true that the medical community and the scientific community probably knows better than to take news articles seriously. However most of the world aren’t part of the scientific community, and we have seen what kind of damage misinformation can do.

Beyond Misinformation

However, this kind of misrepresentation of research is more than an attack on the information itself. It is an attack on the researchers. In these instances, the media is essentially claiming that the researchers are saying something that they did not say. Outside of scientific research, if a person misrepresented what someone said, in such a way, it would likely be considered defamation. Defamation is “a false and unprivileged statement of fact that is harmful to someone’s reputation, and published “with fault,” meaning as a result of negligence or malice [eff.org].” Whether it rises to the level of being illegal is a discussion for another time. But at the very least, it is defamation, and it is unethical.

For this reason alone, we should be more critical of journalists that misrepresent the literature. We must criticize them for hurting scientific communication, but we must also criticize them for defaming the researchers. I’m not suggesting that legal action be taken, though civil action is a possibility. However, I am suggesting that we treat misrepresentation of the work conducted by scientists, as well as researchers, as a serious transgression by the media. We must also help to ensure that science communicators are better at understanding the literature, so that they do not accidentally make these kinds of errors. And finally, scientists need to continue to take science communication into their own hands, and help inform the public of their findings.

Final Thoughts

I honestly don’t know what we can do about this issue. I don’t support legal intervention, but I do think we should hold people and publishers more accountable for their misrepresentation of science. Having lists of people and publications that engage in this kind of behavior, creating white lists and black lists of scicommers, better educating future science communicators and journalists, and boycotting companies that don’t care, are all potential options to reduce the problem.

However, the biggest solution is just for scientists to take science communication into their own hands, at least for a large part. Scientists need to get out there and explain their research themselves, rather than trusting the media to explain it for them. Thankfully, there’s “Science Twitter” and now also “Science Medium.”

Further Reading

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Daniel Goldman

Written by

I’m a polymath and a rōnin scholar. That is to say that I enjoy studying many different topics. Find more at http://danielgoldman.us

The Spiritual Anthropologists

A blog dedicated to the science of alcohol and religion, as well as other related topics.

Daniel Goldman

Written by

I’m a polymath and a rōnin scholar. That is to say that I enjoy studying many different topics. Find more at http://danielgoldman.us

The Spiritual Anthropologists

A blog dedicated to the science of alcohol and religion, as well as other related topics.

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