Why don’t journalists link to primary sources?

March 19th, 2011 by Ben Goldacre in bad science | 66 Comments »

Ben Goldacre, The Guardian, Saturday 19 March 2011

Why don’t journalists link to primary sources? Whether it’s a press release, an academic journal article, a formal report, or perhaps (if everyone’s feeling brave) the full transcript of an interview, the primary source contains more information for interested readers, it shows your working, and it allows people to check whether what you wrote was true. Perhaps linking to primary sources would just be too embarrassing. Here are three short stories.

This week the Telegraph ran the headline “Wind farms blamed for stranding of whales”. “Offshore wind farms are one of the main reasons why whales strand themselves on beaches, according to scientists studying the problem”, it continued. Baroness Warsi even cited it as a fact on BBC Question Time this week, arguing against wind farms.

But anyone who read the open access academic paper in PLoS One, titled “Beaked Whales respond to simulated and actual navy sonar”, would see that the study looked at sonar, and didn’t mention wind farms at all. At our most generous, the Telegraph story was a spectacular and bizarre exaggeration of a brief contextual aside about general levels of manmade sound in the ocean by one author at the end of the press release (titled “Whales scared by sonars”). Now, I have higher expectations of academic institutions than media ones, but this release didn’t mention wind farms, certainly didn’t say they were “one of the main reasons why whales strand themselves on beaches”, and anyone reading the press release could see that the study was about naval sonar.

The Telegraph article was a distortion (now deleted, with a miserly correction), perhaps driven by their odder editorial lines on the environment, but my point is this: if we had a culture of linking to primary sources, if they were a click away, then any sensible journalist would have been be too embarrassed to see this article go online. Distortions like this are only possible, or plausible, or worth risking, in an environment where the reader is actively deprived of information.

Sometimes the examples are sillier. Professor Anna Ahn published a paper recently, showing that people with shorter heels have larger calves. For the Telegraph this became “Why stilletos are the secret to shapely legs”, for the Mail “Stilletos give women shapelier legs than flats”, for the Express “Stilletos tone up your legs”.

But anybody who read even the press release, which is a readable piece of popular science itself, would immediately see that this study had nothing whatsoever to do with shoes. It didn’t look at shoe heel height, it looked at anatomical heel length, the distance from the back of your ankle joint to the insertion of the Achilles tendon. The participants were all barefoot. It was just an interesting nerdy insight into how the human body is engineered: if you have a shorter lever at the back of your foot, you need a bigger muscle in your calf.

Once more, this story was a concoction by journalists, but more than that, no sane journalist could possibly have risked writing the story about stilletos, if they’d linked to the press release: they’d have looked like idiots, and fantasists, to anyone who bothered to click.

Lastly, on Wednesday, the Daily Mail ran with the scare headline “Swimming too often in chlorinated water ‘could increase risk of developing bladder cancer’, say scientists”. There’s little point in documenting the shortcomings of Daily Mail health stories any more, but suffice to say, while the story purported to describe a study in the journal Environmental Health, anyone who read the original paper, or even the press release, would see immediately that bladder cancer wasn’t measured, and the Mail’s story was a simple distortion.

Of course, this is a problem that generalises well beyond science. Over and again, you read comment pieces that purport to be responding to an earlier piece, but distort the earlier arguments, or miss out the most important ones: they count on it being inconvenient for you to check. It’s also an interesting difference between different forms of media: most bloggers have no institutional credibility, and so they must build it, by linking transparently, and allowing you to easily double check their work.

But more than anything, because linking sources is such an easy thing to do, and the motivations for avoiding links are so dubious, I’ve detected myself using a new rule of thumb: if you don’t link to primary sources, I just don’t trust you.

If you like what I do, and you want me to do more, you can: buy my books Bad Science and Bad Pharma, give them to your friends, put them on your reading list, employ me to do a talk, or tweet this article to your friends. Thanks! ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

66 Responses

  1. secondfresh said,

    March 19, 2011 at 4:12 am

    Brilliant!! Love that you’ve written this. How can you report on science without reporting on the source of the science?? The examples you have given are hilarious!

    Thanks, keep writing!

    Lauren K

  2. Simon said,

    March 19, 2011 at 4:41 am

    I like that rule of thumb: “if you don’t link to primary sources, I just don’t trust you.”

    I find myself getting very frustrated reading print newspapers for the very reason that there are no links.

    Also, you’re not the only one publishing these thoughts. Google: Assange Scientific Journalism

  3. briantist said,

    March 19, 2011 at 5:33 am

    Which is why “NHS Choices Behind the Headlines” is one of the most important reads on the net.


    It does provide the links and correct background information.

    Just not about Whales, obviously.

  4. EnglishAtheist said,

    March 19, 2011 at 6:30 am

    “It’s also an interesting difference between different forms of media: most bloggers have no institutional credibility, and so they must build it, by linking transparently, and allowing you to easily double check their work.”

    I link in my wee blog, not because I was thinking about my credibility, but because it just seemed the obvious and proper thing to do.

  5. robblackie said,

    March 19, 2011 at 9:22 am

    Great article.

    You obviously can’t force it on any newspaper – but maybe you could persuade the Guardian to start adopting it as standard practice?

  6. JohnD said,

    March 19, 2011 at 10:13 am

    Only a litle while before the ‘stilleto’ article, the Telegraph published an article that was much more scary than that, and with as little substance.

    “Millions of surgery patients at risk in drug research fraud scandal” they sai, on 3/3/11, (www.telegraph.co.uk/health/8360667/Millions-of-surgery-patients-at-risk-in-drug-research-fraud-scandal.html) linking the story to the Wakefield fraud.

    Tracing the story back, a German researcher in Ludwigshaven, Prof Joachim Boldt, has been a leading publisher of academic articles on the use of solutions of starch polymers as plasma substitute in surgery and trauma. His institution found that he had omitted to obtain ethical committee approval for 30 of 74 articles.
    As a result, all his work has been retracted and will need to be redone. A statement by the Editors-in-Chief of all the major European and North American anaesthesia and trauma care journals (www.oxfordjournals.org/our_journals/bjaint/eic%20joint%20statement%20final.pdf) stated that,
    “Retraction for lack of IRB approval does not address whether the published research was
    compromised by data fabrication, manipulation, or misrepresentation. A separate investigating
    committee at Klinikum Ludwigshafen is assessing the integrity of Professor Boldt’s published
    research. We will retract any article for which the data are found to be fraudulent.”
    In other words, while lack of ethical committee approval invalidates any research on humans, there is no evidence to date that Prof Boldt was a fraud, or that his research put any of his patients at risk, let alone the millions of patient who have received starch polymer solutions.

    German history may make that country very sensitive to any allegtaion of unethical reserch, but ethical committee approval is a basic safeguard anywhere for patients who volunteer to be the subjects of research. Failure to go through the process invalidates that reserach. But the Telegraph had no justification for their headline or for the substance of their article, especuially for the link to Wakefield. It was unjustifiable scaremongering.

    PS I’ve just taken 300 words to describe this offending article, when Ben no doubt would have done it in 30.

  7. MarkSG said,

    March 19, 2011 at 10:19 am

    I think you’re being over-optimistic. Journalists simply aren’t interested in whether a story is factually accurate, they only care about whether it’s a good read. Even if the facts are staring them in the face, they’re not interested.

    There was a classic example of that in The Times a few days ago. I can’t link to the articles because of the paywall (so no primary source from me either!), but a typically journalistic “oh no it’s all going to be a catastrophe” article on the Japanese nuclear power plants was complemented, on the facing page, by an article by the paper’s science editor in which he (rightly) pointed out that the danger is, and is likely to remain, minimal. If they’re not embarrassed to publish an article which is directly contradicted by one of their own colleagues, then why would they be any more likely to care that an external source contradicts them?

  8. Auden said,

    March 19, 2011 at 11:25 am

    This is something that has often annoyed me, not just in newspapers but on several websites as well (though granted websites tend to be much better at this than the print papers). If you make an interesting new claim I want to be able to easily find the source, not just because it means I can check whether it is justified, but sometimes just out of interest in how it was done.

  9. EvanHarris said,

    March 19, 2011 at 11:57 am

    Ben, you are proposing a general rule – that journalists always link to the primary source (e.g. scientific paper or press release) when reporting such a source.

    I agree with that but i think it is not likely to happen as journalists won’t accept such rules or even follow such advice, any time soon.

    I have another suggestion, that authors of papers don’t have anything in their quotes on press releases (or press conferences) which can’t be found in some form in their paper. In other words if there is a lesson or conclusion an investigator thinks can be drawn from the results of the study, she should put it in her discussion section where it has had to pass peer review.

    Otherwise we just have situation where University press offices “sex-up” a paper with juicy quotes in a press release, and we are left merely complaining that newspapers have reported (even if exaggerated or over-extrapolated) something from a press release, which is not in the paper.

    The Telegraph (et al) will not accept your suggestion but the University of St Andrews (et al) might actually heed mine.

  10. squitchtweak said,

    March 19, 2011 at 11:57 am

    I was actually thinking this the other day! Not because I suspected something was untrue, but because I wanted to find out more about it.

    Love the heels example! Would that actually prove the reverse? When I was little I was always told that if I wore high heels my tendons would shorten and make it hard for me to wear flat shoes. Having said that, I’ve never actually checked to see if that was true (probably because I don’t wear high shoes much anyway)

  11. Jeesh42 said,

    March 19, 2011 at 12:29 pm

    Depressing when you look at the comments these suspect newspaper articles generate from readers. Naturally, very few people question the messenger (i.e. the journalist), but many question the intentions of those *crazy* scientists funding and conducting research into stilletos, with my hard-earned taxpayer money etc. Unlike scientists, the newspaper gets none of the reputational damage, so there’s no disincentive to publish this drivel.

  12. Daibhid C said,

    March 19, 2011 at 12:44 pm

    Jeesh42: Indeed, and I’m not sure linking to primary sources would even help. A few years ago The Scotsman ran an interview with Noel Sharkey, the Professor of Artificial Intelligence at the University of Sheffield. Professor Sharkey was saying that the military have a dangerously cinematic idea of AI, leading them to leaving life-or-death decisions in the hands of dumb systems.

    The headline was “Beware the rise of deadly Terminators, warns top academic”. Despite the article actually containing what Sharkey really said, all the comments seemed to believe the headline.

  13. Daibhid C said,

    March 19, 2011 at 12:46 pm

    Sorry, when I say “ran an interview” what I meant was “copied some lines from an New Scientist interview”.

  14. Lanky said,

    March 19, 2011 at 2:04 pm

    I think this is too weak a response. If a journalist lies to their readers, then they should be fired. I know that publishers want “good” stories that get public interest, but if readers just shrug their shoulders when a journalist lies, and sigh at the iniquity of the press then nothing will change. When a paper or journalist is caught red-handed lying to their readers, we should call for resignations. I doubt anything will change, but if we just let it go as “the press is always unreliable”, then there’s no real pressure on journalists or editors to report accurately.
    We should be signing petitions asking for lying journalists to be sacked.

  15. lostexpectation said,

    March 19, 2011 at 2:16 pm

    asked about lacked of links in the Irish Times as was told that its because they’re back end process isn’t set up for it, having been built 15 years ago :/, i don’t know if thats the same for the UK papers you point to above but maybe they have newer system but hopefully as their processes redevelop it will become standard.

  16. heavens said,

    March 19, 2011 at 5:50 pm

    “Distortions like this are only possible, or plausible, or worth risking, in an environment where the reader is actively deprived of information.”

    Technically, “actively depriving” means “removing what I’ve already got”. A failure to link is passive deprivation.

  17. MedicLewis1 said,

    March 19, 2011 at 7:25 pm

    Lanky I dont think it can be simplified quite that much. I think its often the case that the journalists are pushed to lie and write the sensationalist lines by their editors, to pull in the punters. I think the editors are going to be unlikely to sack anyone for doing exactly what they are asked to do.

    For me the root of the problem comes from the consumer being willing to accept/ actually interested in this style of science reporting. You could get quite an insular view from just reading on here and believe that most people actually know anything about scientific method. I dont wish to be offensive but for me looking at the circulation of these papers, says to me that the vast majority of the public dont have a clue and lap this drivel up. If I had a pound for everytime someone asked me whether if baroness greenfield was right about video games I think I would own the moon.

    If Ben’s admirable idea is going to come to fruition then I think it will have to come about through consumer demand. I simply cannot see any editor turning their back on sensationalism when it sells so well!

  18. nickuk72 said,

    March 19, 2011 at 8:24 pm

    I think that it’s time to create a “wall of shame” for the journalists who produce these articles – it’s just to easy for the institutions who publish to ignore any critisisms, but when the individuals reputation is a stake I’m sure it would be a different matter

  19. HaggisForBrains said,

    March 19, 2011 at 10:37 pm

    Mrs Brains has pointed out that the link might end up in paragraph 19. I’ve just realised the irony that this is probably post 19 – I hope someone reads it :-).

  20. SimonW said,

    March 19, 2011 at 11:51 pm

    Distortions are still possible both in the mind of the readers and in not waiting for the peer review. There was an interesting paper on cognitive ability and breastfeeding by ISER recently (I won’t link, I don’t want you to trust me, and it hasn’t yet been peer reviewed as if that would stop the press), which suggests that the majority of cognitive advantage breastfed people demonstrate is because of the kind of mothers/families who breastfeed rather than their diet, although the remaining cognitive advantage attributed to breast milk whilst small was still statistically significant (if the method used are sound; it was a big study so relatively small effects can still be statistically significant).

    The spin put on the reporting depended a lot on what your belief was before. The press release and researcher seemed to me to spin it to fit the “breast is best” culture we live in but the story read to me as somewhat undermining the pervading 5 point IQ gap we all think we know about (although only one study, and only on cognitive aspects of breastfed people).

    I like the wall of shame idea but we need some more sophistication, I’m thinking perhaps we just need a search engine with some of the Quackometer code built into the weightings, and we could have a browser plug-in that shows Canards on the current page, and warns if too many are found.

  21. mgerring said,

    March 20, 2011 at 12:00 am

    I think a lot of the commenters here who think that journalists either don’t care about the truth, or are pushed by their editors into lying, are wrong. I do see how you could get that impression, but I don’t think it’s accurate.

    I say that as a journalism student for the last 8 years and someone who’s been around publications and the industry as part of my education. The mindset attributed to the press by some of the people commenting here is just wildly off base.

    The truth is that believe it or not, journalism is a hard job, especially good science journalism, and exposing the source material of a news article is a hard problem that a lot of people are working on, including the New York Times, the Knight Foundation, and a lot of individual journalists like myself.

    I gave a talk at a tech conference last year about this exact subject and I wrote something up about it here: beatpanda.co.cc/blog/2011/01/31/show-your-work-filling-in-the-holes-in-online-news-reporting/

    The situation really isn’t as bleak as you all seem to think, and a lot of people in the news business are asking these same questions.

  22. Mark Bain said,

    March 20, 2011 at 7:39 am

    An article with the following opening recently appeared in the Guardian newspaper.
    “What does news that female pupils learn better in warmer classrooms mean for mixed-sex schools? Research now suggests that girls do better in warmer classrooms.”
    As there were no links in the original article, it took me some digging and emailing to find the original paper – which was published 30 years ago, in 1981.
    Aside from blogging about this (markcbain.com/2011/02/hot-air-from-guardian-newspaper/), I contacted the newspaper’s Readers’ Editor, Chris Elliott, who said my comments were “interesting”, and that he may write a column on “the whole issue of the way press releases are used”. Hope springs eternal.

  23. JohnD said,

    March 20, 2011 at 12:39 pm

    Even journals that are are, or should be, keen on quoting sources, like New Scientist, give an inadequate link in the on-line version, but nothing in the print version.

    EG (random selection). The print version of a recent item contains only the name Physical Review E, which is easy enough to find, so really is no worse than what appears online. At www.newscientist.com/article/mg20928044.000-sticky-cars-could-save-lives.html a hotlink is included to Physical Review E’s website, but that only leads to the journal’s home page and more searching is needed to turn up the paper by Prof.Mellado and colleagues. pre.aps.org/accepted/E/59072ReeK6a14600a5062fa18478addfe33b5d151?ajax=1&height=500&width=500 if you are interested.
    It would be unwieldly to include references at the end of a news item, like an academic paper. The question is not linking, it’s the misuse, or complete misunderstanding, of scientific reports by people with no scientific education. The Two Cultures are still seperated by a wide chasm.

  24. Lanky said,

    March 20, 2011 at 1:14 pm

    MedicLewis – I agree absolutely that the pressure to write sensationalist stories comes from editors/publishers. And there’s a kind arms race involved, where if the Daily Mail publishes shocking sensationalist stories, then the Daily Express will lose circulation if they just stick to mundane reality, so the quality of reporting is pushed back.
    The problem is that we accept newspapers lying, and don’t complain about it. I think any editor, or proprietor, would have a lot more difficulty saying “I won’t do anything about journalists who lie”, than saying “I’m not linking to primary sources on the website.”
    Journalists cherry pick stories, and lie outright, because they’re under pressure to get sensationalist stories, and not under enough pressure to tell the truth. I don’t think you could demand a certain standard of research, or even-handedness, but I don’t think demanding journalists don’t deliberately lie is unachievable, and I think it would be hard for editors/publishers to say that it’s OK for journalists to deliberately lie.
    If a journalist then gets sacked for doing what they were ordered to do by their editor, then I think that would count as constructive dismissal, and at least would put more pressure on editors to make sure they’re not publishing things they know to be untrue.

  25. Kevin said,

    March 20, 2011 at 3:26 pm

    Brilliant post, now if only the newspapers (and even more so the general public who is fed this kind of journalism!) would listen.. Cf. also the Language Log post on ‘the business of newspapers is news’: languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1951

  26. Jonathan Eisen said,

    March 20, 2011 at 4:46 pm

    I am starting to be driven crazy by press releases with their frequent hyperbole and disconnect from the researchers (some press releases are OK but most bother me in one way or another). So for my latest paper, I simply emailed some journalists saying the paper was coming out in a few days and also wrote a detailed blog post phylogenomics.blogspot.com/2011/03/story-behind-story-of-my-new-plosone.html that was posted when the embargo lifted on the paper. It is not perfect but at least there was not a filter between me and the public/press/others. I was also going to try to write a version for the public that was not as detailed or jargony as my post, but Carl Zimmer wrote a post blogs.discovermagazine.com/loom/2011/03/18/glimpses-of-the-fourth-domain/ about the work and I simply started sending people his post, which was better done than anything I could have done.

    So – not sure that my experiment with not doing a press release worked perfectly but I think it is a good thing to try.

  27. Carlos Alberto Teixeira said,

    March 20, 2011 at 6:52 pm

    Excellent article. Standing ovation!

    – c.a.t.

  28. KingDrax said,

    March 20, 2011 at 7:38 pm

    The great Richard Feynman once said:

    “The idea is to try to give all the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another”

    A case in point, then :)

  29. MedicLewis1 said,

    March 20, 2011 at 7:45 pm

    Lanky that is a very good point and i guess a lot of the possible solutions depend upon the relationship dynamics between editor and journalist, and one I’m not best placed to judge. I wonder if any journalists have anything to say on this, re. the extent of editorial influence on the degree of sensationalism in their stories, or simply wether the culture in certain papers actively encourages this style.
    Perhaps customers by being irritating and barraging science editors/journalists could bring about a shift in culture towards more objective reporting.

    At the moment I just can’t see that many editors actually mind dubious fact distortion for a better headline. It would be great if they all did, and took action against journalists that lie, and undoubtably that would “clean” things up. Just seems a long way till that happens.

  30. amcle said,

    March 20, 2011 at 10:42 pm

    Loads of (to some extent) supportive comments about the article. Did you read it in the Guardian newspaper as I did? You won’t find proper references to the three papers which were mis-reported elsewhere.

    ‘A’ for effort
    ‘E’ for achievement

  31. Ben Goldacre said,

    March 20, 2011 at 11:05 pm

    hi amcle, every single one of the three studies i talk about are linked properly, both above and in the guardian version.

    i’ve not argued that newspapers should print references for academic papers at the bottom of articles in the paper edition. if someone else wanted to line up the for and against on that suggestion i’d be interested to read their thoughts, tho i doubt newspapers would consider it.

  32. booker said,

    March 21, 2011 at 12:12 am

    Yeah I fully agree, this something that drives me crazy. I’m in New Zealand and I could count on one hand the times I’ve ever seen an article linked to its source. On the odd occasion the journal may be mentioned or one of the authors’ names, but even then it can be hard to match the story with the original article.

    For me this just seems like journalistic bread and butter, if you’re going to cover a research finding, link to the original research report!! Especially in this day of online newspapers a direct html link to the article is simple.

  33. branimir said,

    March 21, 2011 at 12:44 am

    On the question of references in the paper edition: I can imagine that many editors would have an issue with printing all references at the bottom of every printed article. In this case what they could do is put the references on their web site and print a short URL (e.g. guardian.co.uk/ref/24213) at the bottom of the article.

    Anyone interested in references could just type the URL into their browser and verify them.

  34. Joe Volcano said,

    March 21, 2011 at 12:57 am

    I can’t get away with talking about science without referencing studies in the forums I post at. The fact that these guys get paid to do this stuff is just laughable!

    More than just referencing the study, they should give an overview of all of the other relevant, credible studies. I see all of these press report style media stories announcing results that are just replications, which is good because it’s confirming, but you ought to hear that. The state of the scientific consensus is apparently quite the slippery concept to the media, as we know… 😛

  35. craigmcgill said,

    March 21, 2011 at 2:54 am

    There’s conspiracy being hunted for here when it’s more a case of not understanding the medium.

    The vast majority of stories which appear in the press appear in the print version first. To that end, there’s no room for lengthy links to appear – even bit.lys would break the flow of a story or concentration.

    Secondly, to take the links out for the print version and then put them back in for digital would be too time intensive for the staff involved. Remember, a story goes through a least three sets of hands before ever seeing print – and they all edit it/change it.

    Some papers – including the BBC I believe – also have policies against deep linking and will only ever link to a home page. Yes, this is stupid, but the policy must be there for a reason.

    On top of all of this, bear in mind that most news gatherers aren’t easily trained in the idea of sharing links as their story is meant to be the all-you-need. It’s a very 20th Century, pre-digital belief (and one I think is wrong) but it’s very prevalent.

  36. ianrs1967 said,

    March 21, 2011 at 2:09 pm

    mgerring: The mindset attributed to the press by some of the people commenting here is just wildly off base.

    Have you read a popular British newspaper recently…?

  37. mgerring said,

    March 21, 2011 at 4:37 pm

    ianrs1967: I read the Guardian pretty regularly. Like I said, it’s easy to arrive at the impression that all journalists are swindlers and liars who don’t care about the truth. I just don’t think it’s accurate.

  38. Lanky said,

    March 21, 2011 at 6:04 pm

    mgerring: I don’t think all journalists are liars or swindlers; my sister’s one for a start. I do think the pressure on journalists to get sensationalised stories needs to be counterbalanced by real consequences if they deliberately lie.
    At the moment, if someone is asked to sex up a story, it’s harder for them to say no, because everybody knows there are no consequences to misrepresenting, say, scientific research. No matter how well-meaning the journalist is, if the pressure from publishers is to make sensational stories, and nothing untoward will happen if they do, the journalist will face pressure to jazz up the story to the point of total fiction.

    I doubt editors want journalists want to lie; they want exciting stories though, and they want circulation, and they can always justify the story by not looking too hard at it. On the other hand, I think it would be a lot harder for an editor or publisher to disagree publically with “Journalists who deliberately lie will be fired” than it would be for them to disagree with “We will link to primary sources”. Very few people will get excited about primary sources, but journalists deliberately lying is an easy thing to understand.

  39. muscleman said,

    March 21, 2011 at 6:30 pm

    I can confirm the shorter lever-bigger muscle hypothesis. My left foot is half a size smaller than my right and my left calf is noticeably bigger than my right calf. Most especially since I’m a distance runner despite being on the mesomorphic side and I have big leg muscles so the smallish % difference adds up to a significant actual difference.

  40. nasim marie jafry said,

    March 22, 2011 at 11:57 am

    I’m having real difficulties commenting here & am beginning to feel like a stalker, has been suggested that links can result in being spammed so I’ll leave my links out & try again. I agree about primary sources being hugely important, but what happens when the press release(s) and the original research paper are seriously flawed? I refer, of course, to the recent PACE trial, published in The Lancet, which resulted in sensational newspaper headlines like ‘ME cured by exercise’ across the internet. The Science Media Centre was responsible for releasing misleading information on ME to health editors who then – irresponsibly – parroted this misinformation across the globe. The reality is that the PACE trial (funded by the MRC and DWP) conflated the neurological illness ME with ‘chronic fatigue’ and depression, but there’s no mention of this anywhere. All that will have stuck in readers’ minds is ‘ME cured by counselling and exercise’. So even if you had linked to the primary sources, the truth is being obscured. Patients with ME haven’t actually been helped, and readers have been spectacularly misled. So unless a journalist has a special interest in ME and an enquiring mind, obfuscation reigns. There has been resounding condemnation of the PACE results, and the ME Association has written to the Science Media Centre complaining about the censoring of information about ME in its press release. There are links on my latest blog post if anyone is interested.

  41. Dr Spouse said,

    March 22, 2011 at 4:05 pm

    I started thinking about this and composed a comment but it got SO long I have written a blog post instead:


    Craig, the policy at the BBC is not specifically against deep linking (though they prefer not to link to pdfs), but it is often that a link will go to a home page pre-embargo and then may or may not get changed to go to an article.

    I know not all web articles are copies of newspaper articles, but where they are, a link is again less likely to get put in, for admin reasons.

  42. aaron mullan said,

    March 22, 2011 at 9:21 pm

    The New York Times seems to always include links to referenced papers.

  43. Emmy said,

    March 22, 2011 at 9:49 pm

    Hillarious. I wonder if anyone has brought up the fact that most studies require that you subscribe / pay for the journal article. Do these journalists really have a subscription, or are they just quickly reading the abstracts for a cheap and dirty headline?

    Anyone who has read Freakonomics knows how journalists can twist research in order to sloppily prove their worldview (or in the case of Freakonomics, the worldview of whoseever article they link to or copy-and-paste, because sometimes they hardly wrote any original thoughts of their own).

    I admire blogs like Mad Science, Mind Hacks and Not Exactly RS because they appear to rephrase the study in their own words instead of just a lazy copy and paste (which is fine in part, LOL I just did so recently but I included my own commentary as well). I visit blogs to hear people’s individual voices, not to scan something I could just download myself.

    The much bigger issue is that journalists are representing the science for the general public, most of whom vote but are never going to download the studies themselves to find out the truth about, say, ecological issues. Huge problem and it ticks me off to no end. I don’t mind if there are mistakes but I think it’s every journalists’ job to put an addendum to their stories: Hey, reader! This is just a summary. Read the links to my sources, and realize this is just a blurb and it’s more complicated than it seems in this article.

    That does not even begin to address also the fact that one single study is just that – one study, not a body of work.

  44. Dr Spouse said,

    March 22, 2011 at 10:31 pm

    Emmy, how it usually works is that where an article is behind a paywall or still embargoed, the author or journal will send it to the journalist. If they are doing a thorough job they’ll talk to other scientists too. Occasionally some background articles aren’t freely available but often the authors of those will share them too.

  45. Proscriptus said,

    March 23, 2011 at 4:23 pm

    Here’s an answer from a writer: Because if we give you our sources, you can “steal” them from us and we won’t be the expert any more. We’re protecting our status, prestige and most importantly, potential future income.

  46. exxonmobilgreenenergydept said,

    March 24, 2011 at 2:06 pm

    Given the damage that these misleading publications do, especially over a longer period in terms of misleading and misguiding the public on matters of science, would it be possible to launch civil action against the perpetrators?

    If this was possible then a charitable organisation could be set up that could very publicly embarrass at least a few publishers and journalists and in turn raise the public’s awareness of misleading statements.

    I understand there are watchdogs for this but they have no interest in chasing these charlatans about and are more involved in arbitration.

    I am just interested to know if this is possible as I used to work for a ‘green department’ and reading the polarised shite that both the Telegraph and Guardian could produce about environmental issues daily made me want strap their journalists (and especially bloggers) to wind turbines.

  47. Tevion said,

    March 25, 2011 at 6:10 pm

    And cannabis still causes psychosis despite leading institutions publishing papers like the keil university study.
    The media in this country actually run this country with the Nazi type propaganda they spread! Its about time politicians stopped cowering in the corner and publicly told em to shut up!

  48. Aralski said,

    March 26, 2011 at 3:26 pm

    Some don’t link to primary sources because they are lazy and have no academic training. Furthermore they probably still believe the adage that today’s news is tomorrow’s fish and chip wrapping and consequently no one will be any the wiser. More fool them.

  49. Emmy said,

    March 27, 2011 at 5:44 pm

    @Dr Spouse –

    Thanks for the clarification, and I appreciate what you said in your post. Now that I think about it, maybe there should be some open-source network where not only journalists have limited free access to journals, but maybe loyal subscribers to the newspaper (magazine, website, etc….) can read for free some of the scientific resources used for the article.

    What concerns me is that while good science journalists have (hopefully) learned to read and understand published science, the general public may have no idea how studies are conducted, reviewed or interpreted. And they seem to think studies are black and white, or that a single study “proves” something.

    This would not happen if journalists bothered to educate the public about how science works and more importantly how to read and understand a journal article. And yeah, I think it is their job. 40 years ago, most citizens were not chatting about “antioxidants”, “liposuction” or “climate change”. Those terms were injected into general language because science journalism became popular.

    At some point, the kitchy term “healthy skepticism” got out there and oh brother, the deniers just loved to punt the words around everywhere. But when a layperson reads a published study they’re surprised to see words like “uncertainty” and “inconclusive” especially since it may only refer to one aspect of the study and not another. Do you see what I mean? Once the general public understood the complexities of published studies, they could read every article thereafter with a degree of understanding that they should read the studies if they want the whole truth.

  50. Ben Wainwright said,

    March 28, 2011 at 1:29 pm

    An idea I had. If they won’t provide us with a reference list, why not create one?


  51. Sirius said,

    March 29, 2011 at 3:31 pm

    Over the last half-century, the enterprises of this author have intersected with numerous disciplines and fields, among which Mathematics and Journalism prominently figure. On occasion, when I find myself meeting a mathematician for the first time, or in a group, or (most frequently) at a conference, I will tell them that I’m a journalist, merely for the pleasure I experience as watching the sneers of derision arising from the faces in the crowd.
    Some experiences stand out. Around 1996 I obtained an invitation to come to Amherst College and address an audience consisting of mathematics students and faculty from the 5 colleges in the area. My talk was about my search for and interview with the very famous recluse mathematician, Alexandre Grothendieck in his hermitage in the Vaucluse region of France in the summer of 1988.
    When I began speaking from the podium it was explained that I’d been financed as a journalist by Le Nouvel Observateur, a glossy Parisian left-center magazine.
    The chairman of the department was sitting in the front row. At the first mention of the word “journalist” he lowered his head and covered his face with his left hand – from shame! I knew exactly what he was thinking:”What sort of bimbo have I thoughtlessly invited to address our community of sages?”
    Curiously: more or less the same reaction attended my initial inquiries at the Institute Henri Poincare in May of 1988. The secretaries had directed me to a researcher who was known to be friendly towards Dr. Grothendieck – as much as anyone can be – and who might be persuaded to pass me the address of the secret locale where he was hanging out.
    He didn’t know what to make of me. He wondered why I was so anxious to meet the great man. He warned me that Grothendieck’s work in Algebraic Geometry was very technical and I probably wouldn’t be able to understand him. Then I, once again, explained that I was a journalist researching an article for Le Nouvel Observateur. He dismissed me at once, rudely, with a wave of the hand …(“Of course, I should have known. One of those bums!”)
    Journalism is the science of the instant, the moment, the “now”. A good journalist is a historian, in the best sense of the word, who delivers, often under well nigh impossible conditions, an accurate, faithful and wise rendition of events unfolding in the spectacle passing before his very eyes.
    It is altogether wrong-headed to apply the standards (or methods or objectives) of a mathematician to the activities of a journalist. The mathematical sciences are dedicated to investigation of necessary and eternal truths, the timeless domain of numbers, relations, patterns, structures, and logic (where it overlaps with philosophy) . A mathematician may work for half a century to prove a theorem – the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem required over 350 years – yet the little spark of illumination he brings to our darkness is as immediate, spontaneous and fresh as if he’d discovered it right at the beginning, 50 years previously.
    Those great minds, those colossi whose legs, like marble pillars, bestride the vistas of eternity, have every right to look with disdain (hopefully with a dram of pity) on the mercenary Peddlers of the Actual, those (literally) “day laborers”, who so resemble those poor souls one finds on city streets, plastic sacks slung over their shoulder, who collect old soda cans from trash baskets, redeemable at a nickel apiece.
    Yet the real question is this: do those worthy souls (whose eyes have perhaps been blinded by gazing to fixedly at the sun of Eternal Truth) possess the capacity to be able to record – in the very thick of its multiple force fields –the events of a natural catastrophe, or a battle, or a political demonstration – or even something so thoroughly planned as an inauguration or royal wedding – those essential details that will allow thousands of readers to understand what happens, or still happening, or even to feel, however briefly, that they themselves are there, being carried along in the relentless flood of lived experience?

    (1) On the dangers of being a research mathematician
    “Archimedes … was …, as fate would have it, intent upon working out some problem by a diagram, and having fixed his mind alike and his eyes upon the subject of his speculation, he never noticed the incursion of the Romans, nor that the city was taken. In this transport of study and contemplation, a soldier, unexpectedly coming up to him, commanded him to follow to Marcellus; which he declining to do before he had worked out his problem to a demonstration, the soldier, enraged, drew his sword and ran him through.”
    -Plutarch on Archimedes
    This story famously illustrates the perils associated with high-level research in mathematics. In his autobiographical writings Einstein admits that he found it impossible to relax at a party, even if he happened to be the guest of honor. He could sit alone for extended periods, deep in his private thoughts anc calculations, unable to relate to anything going on around him. Fortunate it was that the presence of others on these occasions gave him some protection against Roman soldiers!
    Such obsessional mental labors can be disabling. There are people who have becomes so muscle-bound through their pre-occupation with mathematics, that the capacity to function at doing anything else has effectively atrophied: whether operating machines, driving a car, using a camera, holding a conversation, learning other subjects, playing musical instruments, dressing properly, cooking or paying attention to what one is eating (cf anecdotes about Isaac Newton at the dinner table), that is to say, the entire range of skills required for normal human living.Paul Erdös is the classic example. (Note that this did not inhibit him in the least from a lifestyle built around constant travel!)
    These handicaps can become life threatening when crossing the street, driving a car, walking on ice-covered pavements, drifting into stupid arguments, remembering appointments, warding off danger, and similar crises.
    Based on these observations I have developed the following provocative thesis: it isn’t because mathematicians are any smarter than other people, that the fields of mathematics took so many centuries to evolve (For example: although the conceptual basis and essential constructions for the calculus were developed by Archimedes in the 3rd century B.C.E., it did not emerge as a practical universal tool until the 17th century C.E.) but because in times and places in human history, the psychological disabilities associated with being a research mathematician rendered the profession too dangerous.
    People who tried to do mathematics in the past risked being killed in war, dying from accidents, wandering off and getting lost, falling off cliffs, and so forth. The dearth of mathematicians before the rise of civilization is thus explained: people who fell into the category of research mathematicians frequently ended up being eaten by wild animals (or cannibals)!

    Ground down to dust is the cliché that a mathematician, unlike a physicist or biologist, only needs a pencil and a few pieces of paper to do his research: a sand-pile will do. This is incorrect: if mathematical discoveries were so cheaply underwritten, everybody would be making them. Doing mathematics requires access to the most complex and expensive piece of equipment on earth: the organized power, as narrowly focused as a burning glass, of the human brain, absorbed in difficult activities of visualization and calculation to the virtual exclusion of everything else, over the full 24 hours of each day. No cyclotron can compete with this.

    Yet this also carries great risks, risks far greater than one can allow in a world with tigers roaming outside the cave, or decimating plagues , or multiple invasions, or herds of wild elephants trampling the crops.

    It is not merely a question of “having enough leisure time”, ( yet another time-worn cliché) ; it is a matter of having the kind of leisure that permits certain people to allow themselves to become so distracted from the perils of life that they can replace normal vigilance by an ingrown mindset based on obstinate ratiocination.

    How dangerous is the life of a professional research mathematician! Has anyone written about that? To everyone who knows this community, or who has done such work themselves, it’s an obvious fact of life. It may help explain, for example, why so much research is accomplished by persons in their 20’s: after a decade or so of intensive research, the accumulated risks make it impossible to continue.

    No-one needs to have their attention directed to the great dangers in professions such as fireman, policeman, coal miner, medical investigator of infectious diseases, or stunt man, or auto car racer. That the risks run by mathematicians are equally great is much less understood. The so-called ‘absent-minded professor’ may actually be the victim of a occupational hazard, one that can, and sometimes does, prove lethal.

    (3)On the Joys of Melancholy

    “Flow, my tears, fall from your springs!
    Exiled for ever, let me mourn;
    Where night’s black bird her sad infamy sings,
    There let me live forlorn.” Lachrimae Pavane, John Dowland

    The exquisite joys of melancholy have perennially been praised in verse and song. In the remarkable study by Ethan Watters “Crazy Like Us”, we learn the story of how, up to about 2005, Japanese society had no notion of depression. What we call the depressive or melancholy type, was considered to be a superior type of person, very reflective and thoughtful, well disciplined and in his or own way, wise.
    It was the pharmaceutical company, GlaxoSmith Kline , that set itself the goal of turning this perception around. It mounted a huge advertising campaign to convince the Japanese population that it suffered from a serious disease, labeled “depression” and that only their poison “Paxil” could relieve it. By the year 2009, the sales of Paxil in Japan passed the billion dollar mark.
    Yet many European and American poets agree with the Japanese.
    John Milton:
    “But hail thou Goddess, sage and holy
    Hail divinest Melancholy
    Whose saintly visage is too bright
    To hit the sense of human sight” – Il Penseroso

    John Keats:
    “Veiled Melancholy has her sov’reign shrine
    Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
    Cab burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine.”
    Ode on Melancholy

    Percy Bysshe Shelley:
    “Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is
    What if my leaves are falling like its own
    The tumult of thy mighty harmonies
    Will take from both as deeper autumnal tone
    Sweet though in sadness”

    And Emily Dickinson (of course!):
    “Give Balm – to Giants –
    And they’ll wilt , like Men –
    Give Himmaleh-
    They’ll carry – Him!”

    There can be no denying that one can find great pleasure in attuning one’s soul to “the still, soft music of humanity”.
    It sets me to wondering: maybe that’s why I so far out of my way to court disappointment. Just so I can sit back and enjoy it…

    (4) On the traditional “Doctor of Philosophy” degree
    It was just a month or so ago that I found myself in conversation with an administrator from the university I happened to be visiting. After learning that I referred to myself as “Roy Lisker, Doctor of Philosophy”, he wanted to know if I’d obtained my doctor’s degree from his institution:
    “Well, from some other institution then?”
    “So, Mr. Lisker. From where did you get your degree?”
    “Not from any institution in the ordinary sense . I contacted a dozen or more scholars, several with outstanding international reputations. They all sent me letters (I can show them to you) testifying that, in their opinion, I had earned the right to call myself a “doctor of philosophy”. “
    “Why- that’s outrageous! – You’re a fraud, sir!”
    “Only a certification by a legitimate institution of higher learning gives someone the right to call himself a doctor of philosophy. Did you know, sir, that in Germany you can be thrown into jail for calling yourself a doctor if your PhD has not been acquired at a German university? A German university!” He was apoplectic. I advised him to calm down, given his age, his jowls, and his tendency to overeat at the high table.
    “ I’m curious. How many Berkeley PhD’s are languishing in German prisons?” He hemmed and hawed
    “That’s beside the point. Why I could take your to court right now, for fraud and – and imposture – undermining the credibility of our credentializing system!”
    Afterwards I gave all of this some serious thought. I decided that, since I happened to be visiting a famous university, and since I was not adverse to legitimizing my doctorate, I ought to seek out the Philosophy Department and ask them if they would do so for me.
    Alas! I spent the whole of the next week looking for the Philosophy Department and couldn’t find it! Unfortunately I had to leave, although I’ve been assured that it does exist somewhere.
    So, I ask you: what is all this stuff about the university’s unique right to bestow a PhD, if philosophy itself is hidden away in a rat’s belfry at the top of the most antiquated and neglected building on campus? Who’s “illegitimate” around here?

    (5) On what is being called a “Master’s degree” in Liberal Studies
    An Open Letter about the “Graduate Liberal Studies Program”
    For the last 4 years I have attended 2 month lecture/research courses on Statistical Mechanics and related subjects at the distinguished Institute Henri Poincare in Paris. I now feel that I have sufficient knowledge and background to offer a course entitled “Entropy Explained” with the Greater Liberal Studies Program at Wesleyan University, in the city, Middletown, Connecticut, where I live.
    About a month ago I approached Dr. Brian Stewart, now chairman of the physics department at Wesleyan with this proposal. He agreed with me completely that I am very qualified to give such a course. He pointed out that virtually all GLSP courses are taught by Wesleyan faculty, and that, at a minimum, a Master’s degree is mandatory. Just 15 years ago a strong endorsement by a department and evidences of competence were enough to be admitted to the GLSP faculty.
    Several people have suggested to me that Wesleyan’s concern is that a public recognition of high and dependable standards be guaranteed. This explains, presumably, why the threshold degree level of the GLSP faculty degrees must be the MA, and all its teachers must also hold a regular teaching position at Wesleyan.
    Brian made a call to Sheryl Scullota and pitched my qualifications. From the point of view of activity at Wesleyan, the most prominent of these was my organization of the Einstein Miracle Year centenary in October, 2005. I’ve also given 5 seminars in the Physics Department itself, and maintain an archive on Hiroshima/Nagasaki and the Atom Bomb in the lounge of the department. As references to the quality of my command of the subject, and my general work in science, I can recommend Dr. Stewart himself, Dr. Reinhold Blumel, Dr. Tsampikos Kottos, and faculty members in Physics and other departments.
    Ms. Scullota put my name on the list of invitees for the GLSP Open House that took place last night at 6:30 in the USDAN Center. This turned out to be a very good idea, because from this Open House, and from discussions with former GLSP students afterwards, I learned all that I needed to know about the GLSP.

    It turns out that the restrictions of having a Master’s Degree and being on the Wesleyan faculty are not really based on the high quality of teaching. In fact, the purpose of having these credentials in the GLSP catalog is to camouflage the very low quality of the Master’s degree offered by the MALS (Master of Arts in Liberal Studies) and the CAS (Certificate of Advanced Study) programs. These are “Adult Education ” courses claiming to be fully professional graduate level courses, with the intention of giving secondary school teachers an MA credential to put into the official documents of their institutions of public education.
    As Adult Ed courses they are, perhaps, at a higher level than the more honestly labeled Adult Education courses offered by the Middletown Board of Education in a building on Main Street, but they do not begin to have the substance of even the excellent Teaching Company DVD sets, in Statistics, Chaos, Philosophy, Art History, Music, Cosmology, Classics, etc….
    The GLSP course listings are totally inadequate to what one must expect from even the minimum requirement for a graduate degree in any subject. Of course, many secondary school or elementary school teachers on their career track are quite happy to cough up $2,250 per course for a 12-course program ($27,500 for the complete program!) that will enable them to boost their status and their income once the letters MA appear after their names on official documents.
    Succinctly, the “high quality” MA of the teachers on the GLSP faculty is in direct inverse proportion to the “low quality” of the material being taught that give its graduate the official and legal right to affix the initials MA after their names.
    A cursory examination of the GLSP catalog bears this out. The lone math course Linear Algebra is not even a college course. It is taught in the senior year of any up-to-date modern high school.
    The content of Noah Berman’s Survey of Jazz Styles can easily be covered by a year’s attendance at all the Buttonwood Tree jazz and folk music concerts, at a fraction of the cost. The concerts that Noah himself gives there are excellent! As for The Graphic Novel : I was raised on a diet of comic books! As for the course on The Origins of Mankind : Any one who wants to learn about the hominids can go to the town library and take out a dozen , perhaps more, first class DVD’s on this and related subjects. The Graduate Liberal Studies Programs in American universities, do not offer a true graduate degree. I stop short of calling it a scam, rather I see it as an “end-run” around the System , a way of getting a deceptive credential for career advancement, having a bit of fun (field trips, do-it-yourself painting, whatever , listening to jazz recordings ) and, of course, a mother lode for Wesleyan’s sorely tried treasury.
    I don’t have the MA but I’m obviously over-qualified to teach a course on Entropy with the GLSP. Believe it or not, I would require from my students some background in algebra and calculus, at least one basic physics course, and a minimum level of general science literacy. My lack of a genuine MA however, does not, unfortunately, qualify me for teaching a course that leads to a bogus MA.

  52. lyra9514 said,

    March 30, 2011 at 12:13 am

    I think people commenting on newspaper articles should also have to cite their sources, and have their comments removed if they don’t.
    For example, some internet presence called “Mark Lyndon” quotes the same statistics on every relevant online article, without ever referencing the original data. Google “In Malawi the HIV rate is 13.2%” and you’ll see what I mean. He has an anti-circumcision agenda and clearly too much spare time…
    Incidentally, if anyone can find the original research I would find it interesting – I’ve had no luck.

  53. Karl Withakay said,

    April 1, 2011 at 8:47 pm

    Interesting. I spend so much time on quality blogs (such as this and Neurological, Respectful Insolence, Science Based Medicine, etc) that when I read certain types of articles that don’t cite the primary sources, I either search for the primary source (if it was a study), or wait for a decent blog to cover the story. Often, I will read about it in the blogosphere before it hits mainstream news anyway. It’s amusing to compare the spin in the regular media compared to what I see in my favorite blogs.

  54. qlmhuge said,

    April 2, 2011 at 7:50 pm

    This is such an inspiring article.

    There are surely two things that can be done immediately by all who care.

    First, comment wherever you can on the article itself. More and more newspapers let you comment their articles. What not ask, always, “Sources?”

    The other practical thing is to do the service of adding the sources for other readers. Let’s help our journalists out! 😉

  55. scishark said,

    April 3, 2011 at 4:02 pm

    I think its a matter of taking time to actually find the sources, locating them and then finding out where to put them. Recently I tried to write an article
    that was both interesting for the general public and had enough references to be believable, and linking this in was rather difficult. I settled with creating links with each major statement and it kinda works.

    If anyone has any comments on better ways to do this please comment on my site or here


  56. Alec-Ross said,

    April 4, 2011 at 1:43 am

    I remember my first journalism class at University and sources was the most fundamental thing. Alex Lockwood, Senior Lecturer at the University of Sunderland said: “Quoting the correct source gives your article auhenticity and credibility. No story is worth reading without the primary source.”

    I actually just made that up, but you get the idea. It’s a cliche, and I hate to say it, but you can’t believe what you read in the papers.

    Loving Bad Science by the way, just started reading the book – I’m hooked.

  57. fontwell said,

    April 6, 2011 at 9:04 am

    The extent to which journalists are not interested in the truth may be open to debate but in my experience they are mostly interested in an angle and a good narrative above accuracy.

    If you have ever been at an event which was subsequently reported in a news paper you can almost guarantee that some aspect of the story will strike you as spin or just plain wrong.

    I think the only thing you can believe are the match reports on the sports pages and that’s just because there are too many witnesses to get away with stuff up.

  58. scishark said,

    April 6, 2011 at 5:57 pm

    I think its also an issue that some primary sources aren’t free to all users. I’m usually behind an academic intranet where all journals would detect the university’s subscription.

    It would be a shame to link an article only for the reader to realize that it would cost them 50 dollars to read it

    scishark.com/2011/04/cloaking/ – new article about the science behind cloaking


  59. UselessFactoidCollector said,

    April 7, 2011 at 1:39 pm

    I have it from a good source that the admiral of the Dutch Navy in charge of the northern fleet used to use sonar to warn herds of whales that the Norwegian whaling fleet was out and about. He did not know at first whether it would do any good, but figured that it would be annoying for them and that they would escape. He later came to believe that the whales actually knew that it was a warning as opposed to just being scared by the sonar.

    Unfortunately I cannot reveal my source without first asking them if it would be OK.

  60. jon1467 said,

    May 16, 2011 at 12:01 am

    On the subject of journalists failure to produce references this chap uses such evidence (without reference) to justify an attack on the judiciary. I did attempt to find an email address for him to ask for said references but failed to find one. Perhaps someone else may have more luck.

    See Telegraph article:


  61. sleeprunning said,

    June 9, 2011 at 9:12 pm

    Ya’ll may like this from Yanklund — Jonah Lehrer is Not a Neuroscientist – neuroself.com/2011/05/29/jonah-lehrer-is-not-a-neuroscientist/#comment-243

  62. ccsrsj said,

    June 18, 2011 at 3:53 pm

    Prof. Ahn shows that people with shorter heels have larger calves. The Telegraph, the Mail and the Express ALL then mistakenly go on to write about stilettos.

    How did this happen? Probably not coincidental stupidity… None of the articles mentioned bothered to credit an author, so referencing sources in newspapers seems quite some way off yet.

  63. DavidMe said,

    August 19, 2011 at 6:41 pm

    If they don’t link the primary source then I don’t give the story any weight. If somebody is referencing, quoting or curating content then the original author should always be referenced. Clearly people don’t do it so that ther sensational story isn’t ‘found out’, at least not stratight away.

  64. Ajuy said,

    September 22, 2011 at 10:37 am

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  65. VinodManammal said,

    April 24, 2013 at 6:19 pm

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  66. Mark Lyndon said,

    November 21, 2014 at 11:51 am


    I don’t normally cite the source, since most commenting systems block comments with links to avoid spam.

    The exact quote would have been something like “Eg in Malawi, the HIV rate is 10.3% among circumcised men, but only 7.9% among intact men. In Rwanda, the HIV rate is 3.5% among circumcised men, but only 2.1% among intact men.”

    These are available here:
    Malawi: www.measuredhs.com/pubs/pdf/FR247/FR247.pdf table 14.11, p207 (10.3% v 7.9%)
    Rwanda: www.measuredhs.com/pubs/pdf/FR183/15Chapter15.pdf , table 15.11 (3.5% v 2.1%)

    You could have found those yourself in five minutes as I’ve posted them in enough places where links are allowed. Or you could just have emailed me – I’m easy enough to find.

    Why do I have “too much time on my hands”, when I’m arguing that spending hundreds of millions of dollars circumcising males in Africa is misguided?

    From a USAID report:
    “There appears no clear pattern of association between male circumcision and HIV prevalence—in 8 of 18 countries with data, HIV prevalence is lower among circumcised men, while in the remaining 10 countries it is higher.”
    This will include many men who have undergone tribal circumcision, but they are also likely to believe that they are protected against HIV.

    The one randomized controlled trial into male-to-female transmission showed a 54% higher rate in the group where the men had been circumcised btw.
    The figures were too small to show statistical significance, but there will be no larger scale study to find out if circumcising men increases the risk to women. Somehow that’s considered unethical, yet it’s considered ethical to promote male circumcision whilst not knowing if the risk to women is increased (by 54%?, 25%?, 80%? – who knows?)