When we see an obvious case of bad science reporting (sensationalistic headlines, meaningless statements, lack of context, etc.) it's easy to blame the journalists and the news media in general. And for sure, there are enough unscrupulous journalists out there to fill more than one editorial office. And for sure, fake news is all the rage now, with some stories spun from pure imagination with malicious intent. But when it comes to science, most bad journalism comes from bad science
itself...and bad scientists.
Lame statistics, poor methodology, unsound claims. Some scientists are good and well-intentioned but are under unreasonable pressure to publish. Some scientists just aren't very good at the whole science thing. Either way, bad science makes it through, and it's the job of the community to self-police and sort out the wheat from the chaff.
But what about when scientists present their work to the public? There are no barriers to entry for that, and indeed, the incentives are exactly backwards: the wilder, the more speculative, the bigger, the sexier the result, the more likely journalists will lap it up, regardless of its genuine scientific merit. How do we prevent bad science from poisoning our relationships with the public?
The answer has to come from our internal culture. We already have systems and expectations in place for filtering out bad research from becoming science. We need systems and expectations in place that filter out bad science from becoming public knowledge. It has to happen within departments and within university press offices. We have to recognize that the source of poor science reporting isn't the news, but us.