Evanston, IL – A recent joint study by the Columbia School of Journalism and the Department of Physics showed that 68% of science stories had scientific mistakes.
Frank Albertson, a journalism professor at Columbia who ran the study, said, “It can run from simple math errors to complete fabrication of facts. Many of the journalists who cover science stories don't have the scientific background to make sure that their stories are accurate. And whether from the pressure of deadlines or laziness, they don't do the extra work needed to make sure the stories are factual."
Albertson cited several examples of scientific errors from the study. In one New York Times story about the asteroid that could possibly hit Mars the reporter said, “The impact could split Mars in two causing it to fall into the Sun.”
"I think the reporter has seen too many Michael Bay films," said Albertson. "It's no laughin matter though. Many people trust the New York Times, so that story becomes fact for a lot of people, and the body of science knowledge is harmed."
Even worse was a story in the Chicago Tribune about global climate change. One passage describing the melting of the polar ice caps said, “Whales support the rising oceans, because it gives them deeper water to swim in. Sharks on the other hand would be confused by the increased volume of water.”
Albertson just shook his head sadly at that one.
Melanie Hogbarth, a science columnist for the Des Moines Register, defended scientific journalism. She said, “You can't expect us to know everything. Especially math, math is hard.”
The effect is widespread from local papers to glossy science magazines. “It's no wonder that American students are falling behind the rest of the world. When they read things like, 'Snowflakes Can Cure Cancer' in the Discover. How can you blame them?” said Albertson.
Albertson said that education of reporters was the key. “If they were willing to learn how to use a calculator, and learn a few basic scientific principles, then it would eliminate almost half of the mistakes. Also, it'd be nice if they didn't rely on Wikipedia for their 'fact-checking.'”
The good news for reporters was that over 42% of the stories were completely accurate.