CHOPPY WATERS: Can Someone Please Turn on the Lights at MIT’s Undark Magazine?
To improve reporting, MIT’s Knight Science Journalism Program should first improve themselves, then lead by example.
If the COVID19 pandemic has revealed anything, it is that America and much of the world was poorly prepared. Advice about masks, lockdowns, and vaccine availability has ebbed and flowed in all sorts of directions, creating confusion in both the public and medical experts. The pandemic also exposed questionable reporting by many science writers who roam together across the journalism landscape in a commensal herd with their scientific sources, fail to follow money trails or seek out independent viewpoints, and rarely acknowledge much less correct errors.
Back in 2009, Meg Kissinger at the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel contacted me about a series she and reporter Susanne Rust were writing on the chemical bisphenol-A or BPA, which can act like the female hormone estrogen. The chemical and plastics industry had started harassing both Kissinger and Rust for their reporting. One industry ally who had attacked them was someone well known to me named Trevor Butterworth, who worked with a group called the Statistical Assessment Service, or STATS. Kissinger had heard that I had been tracking STATS for several years, and since I was working in the Senate, I gave her all I knew and had saved.
As I explained, STATS appeared to be a corporate front group, although I was unsure who was paying them. Butterworth constantly denigrated studies showing harms from chemicals, and STATS had released several pieces that downplayed the importance of climate change science. Plus an article in Salon noted that STATS had been financially supported by conservative foundations who funded climate denial. I explained how to find the tax forms, called 990s, and pointed out that STATS shared office space and salaries with another group called the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA); she would have to look at the tax forms for both groups. (At the time, I missed a New York Review of Books article detailing CMPA’s financial ties to conservative foundations and efforts to condemn the Columbia Journalism Review as an “advocate of advocacy media.”)
In a final bit of advice, I pointed Kissinger toward the Tobacco Industry Archive at UCSF to see if she could find anything there. (Since that time the archive has been renamed “Industry Documents Library.”)
Several months later, Kissinger and Rust published their investigation in the Journal-Sentinel on Butterworth and STATS:
So what might look to consumers researching BPA on the Internet as independent information are often stories written by chemical industry public relations writers.
Allegiances are not always explained. The most impassioned defense of BPA on the blogs comes from Trevor Butterworth, editor of Statistical Assessment Service, also known as STATS. He regularly combs the Internet for stories about BPA and offers comments without revealing his ties to industry.
Butterworth explained his stealth public relations campaign in a 2006 article in Chemical Week magazine.
"Companies need to develop a public information policy that is proactive in educating the public and tackling the claims of activist groups in real time," Butterworth said. "Most of the companies are like a deer in the headlights, and traditional PR is useless in dealing with these problems."
The reporting duo also discovered a tobacco connection:
STATS claims to be independent and nonpartisan. But a review of its financial reports shows it is a branch of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. That group was paid by the tobacco industry to monitor news stories about the dangers of tobacco.
All good. That same year in 2009, the Endocrine Society released a statement on hormones that mimick chemicals and explained that BPA had multiple deleterious effects in mice and rats and that the urine of 96.2% of Americans had BPA, which might be harming developing fetuses.
Kissinger and Rust’s series went on to win several journalism prizes and was a finalist for the Pulitzer in investigative journalism. I figured this would be it for STATS and Trevor Butterworth, but I was sorely mistaken.
Front groups like STATS serve as convenient cudgels for science writers looking to smack down anything they read and don’t like. As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof began writing a series in 2012 on the dangers of chemicals, journalism professor Deborah Blum wrote an opinion piece for Wired, “Whenever Nicholas Kristof writes a piece about the evil, awful world of chemicals out there, I feel a twitchy need to kick something. Or someone.”
Blum also reached for Trevor Butterworth as a handy hammer to whack down Kristof:
There's an outstanding rebuttal to Kristof's column today by Trevor Butterworth at Forbes, titled "Why Nicholas Kristof's Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Us All." It cites a piece I wrote last spring, when I was blogging at the Public Library of Science, in which I made some of these points in much more depth. I called it Nicholas Kristof and the Bad, Bad Chemical World and it sorted through a series of his chemical columns, all of them - trust me - annoying to anyone who actually cares about this subject and getting it right.
So there you have it. A journalism professor ignored the money trail exposed by award-winning reporters at the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and cited Butterworth—apparently because he soothed her emotional angst and she liked what he had to say, without bothering to check if it was credible. Having seen this happen so often in the science writing world, I was not really surprised.
Nor was I shocked when the views of Blum and Butterworth were then amplified by an industry outlet called “Plastics Today.”
The problem is that this is not just a one-off. Science writers often ignore conflicts of interest and fail to follow the money when they have a narrative stuck in their head and stumble across a voice that echoes their own personal preferences and tickles them in their political privates. This same problem has appeared in several stories at Undark Magazine, where Deborah Blum (now a journalism professor for MIT’s Knight Science Journalism Program) is publisher, and in a handbook for science writers and editors her journalism program released last year.
A few months after the start of the COVID19 pandemic, in April 2020, three former US intelligence agents wrote an essay in Foreign Policy warning that the virus could have emerged from nature or escaped from a Chinese lab in Wuhan. One of the authors, Avril Haines, is now President’s Biden’s Director of National Intelligence, and she repeated professional concerns that the virus could have come from a lab in Wuhan when testifying before Congress a few months ago.
But in June of last year, Undark Magazine ran a laudatory piece on Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, a non-profit organization that has provided hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). In that article, Undark ignored the concerns of intelligence officials about a possible lab leak and noted "Some conspiracy theories currently circulating allege that a chimera may have escaped from high-security labs at the Wuhan Institute of Virology...."The article also describes consideration that the virus could have escaped the WIV as “an allegation that’s been broadly discredited.”
Last March, Undark revisited the pandemic’s origin in a second piece that described Daszak’s financing of the WIV as “what many sources described as a conflict of interest.”
Disturbed by these two odd pieces, I sent Deborah Blum a series of questions, asking how the lab leak theory could be a “conspiracy theory” if intelligence officials described it as a possibility in April 2020. “Is your publication alleging that the intelligence community is spreading conspiracy theories about the pandemic's origin?” I asked.
I also asked who had “broadly discredited” the idea of a lab leak, and for Ms. Blum to explain what she considers a conflict of interest.
Blum sent back answers from herself, Undark editor-in-chief Tom Zeller, and Charles Schmidt, who wrote the two pieces. To explain what a conflict of interest is, Blum cited the Oxford dictionary and Investopedia. Simply understanding the meaning of a conflict of interest doesn’t somehow license a journalist to declare that someone we are reporting on has one, she explained. She also wrote that journalists who attend her program have a clear understanding of financial conflicts of interest.
Since I had long ago noticed that Blum had promoted Trevor Butterworth in a piece for Wired, after an award-winning series had discredited him, I kind of doubted her confidence on the last matter.
As for the awkward wording about Daszak’s financial ties with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Zeller wrote, “If your point is to suggest that we ought not have told readers that several sources described Daszak’s participation as a conflict of interest, and instead simply declared it a conflict of interest ourselves, well, I respectfully disagree.”
I then asked Zeller to explain this answer. I pointed out that I had spent years working on financial conflicts of interest while in the United States Senate, had written a law on the issue called the Physician Payment’s Sunshine Act, and had advised the National Institutes of Health on updating their financial conflicts of interest policy. I had even advised a few foreign governments on the matter.
Daszak had a direct financial relationship with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a fact that had eluded Undark. So I asked Zeller to cite something from journalism, bioethics or the law where a direct financial relationship was NOT a conflict of interest.
No substantive response.
A few days later, I sent Ms. Blum an email asking if she was going to correct the story that described the lab leak as a “conspiracy theory” that had been “broadly discredited.” No response.
Meanwhile, the Washington Post corrected a story they ran last year that used similar language to Undark. “The term 'debunked' and The Post’s use of 'conspiracy theory' have been removed because, then as now, there was no determination about the origins of the virus,” reads the Post's correction.
But Undark has still not corrected their reporting. And since I sent Blum those questions, a medical journal called The Lancet has lengthened Daszak’s conflict of interest statement to over 400 words, making it clear that if Blum and Zeller remain confused about conflicts of interest, the editors at The Lancet remain less so. Furthermore, last week the head of the World Health Organization said the move to discount the COVID19 lab leak was premature and announced plans to investigate labs in Wuhan.
Claims by Zeller and Blum that journalists should not declare someone to have a conflict of interest, also struck me as rather awkward and an example of situational ethics. Last June, Undark updated a piece written by Jeanne Lenzer and Shannon Brownlee on controversial Stanford professor John Ioannidis:
[B]oth authors of this op-ed, Jeanne Lenzer and Shannon Brownlee, have previously co-authored published work with the subject of the piece, John Ioannidis. These collaborations should have been disclosed at the time of initial publication.
Zeller’s editor’s note makes it clear that Zeller does not, in fact, have a problem stating when alleged conflicts of interest should be disclosed. But as someone who has written a law on financial conflicts of interest, and advised the National Institutes of Health on the matter as well as several foreign governments, I have never heard of co-authorship as something that needs to be disclosed. Even when I search credible sources. This appears to be another example of Undark Magazine just making things up.
UPDATE: Since this article published, Jeanne Lenzer provided The DisInformation Chronicle with correspondence between herself and Zeller. She did in fact notify Zeller that she had co-authored a piece with Ioannidis, but it was seven years in the past. Zeller acknowledged the email from Lenzer, “Thanks for being up front on that.” See correspondence between Zeller and Lenzer here.
But readers should be aware that no relevant conflict of interest policy requires disclosure of any relationship going back 7 years.
SAME OLD, SAME OLD AT SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN
These problems in science writing are systematic and not just confined to Blum, MIT and Undark. Another outlet that completely messed up conflicts of interest on the same matter as Undark was Scientific American, which is led by Laura Helmuth. When Lenzer and Brownlee wrote a similar piece about Stanford’s Ioannidis for Scientific American, Scientific American added a curious editor’s note about the author’s purported ties to Ioannidis. In response, Harvard’s Jeffrey Flier sent Helmuth a letter explaining how she got it wrong:
Your statement that Lenzer and Brownlee failed to disclose these prior co-authorships implied they were material events the authors were seeking to hide. Unlike many financial relationships, co- authorships are public knowledge – as a quick search of PubMed will show. The norms of scientific publishing would not consider these to be reportable COIs.
So did Helmuth backtrack and fix her errors? Of course not. That would require reflection and an understanding of the matter that Flier is explaining. Like Undark Magazine, Scientific American is just making up conflicts of interest policies as they go along, and ignore experts who point out when they are wrong.
And just like Blum and Undark, Helmuth has also written odd pieces about how the pandemic started. When Blum’s Knight Science Journalism program at MIT put out a handbook last year for science writers and editors. Laura Helmuth authored the chapter on “scientific controversies.” In one section, Helmuth wrote:
And wherever possible, expose the politicization and false controversies about what should be evidence-based decisions. Broadening access to health care in the U.S. is a political debate, yes, but it means the difference between life and death. Trumped-up controversies about where the novel coronavirus originated have fueled racism and given cover to politicians who withdrew funding for international collaborations with China.
Did you catch Helmuth’s valiant attempt at presidential humor—“trumped-up controversy”? After millions of people have died across the planet and China still refuses to cooperate with health officials to figure out how the pandemic started, do you also find it not very funny?
After reading what Helmuth wrote, any thinking person would ask, “Are you accusing the United States intelligence community of fueling racism by questioning if the virus came from a lab in Wuhan?” Also, why does it “fuel racism” to question if an autocratic Chinese government (that has thrown a million of its own citizens into concentration camps) may have fibbed about a research program?
Since Helmuth wrote MIT’s purported education piece for journalists, the State Department announced that the WIV had engaged in “gain-of-function” research to engineer chimeric viruses and has worked on secrets projects for the Chinese military; President Biden has called for an open investigation of the pandemic’s origin; the Director of the National Institutes of Health has demanded that facilities in Wuhan open up their lab notebooks; NBC News caught WIV researcher Shi Zhengli lying about her ties to the Chinese military; and the World Health Organization has demanded access to the research labs in Wuhan.
Is all this more evidence of “trumped-up controversies” that have “fueled racism”? Or was Helmuth substituting her personal political views for the much harder work of reporting facts and seeking independent expert advice?
It’s really hard to explain how this should be fixed. One obvious avenue is for Blum, Zeller, and Helmuth to correct their mistakes, instead of leaving them forever on the internet to confuse and misinform the media and broader public. And in the future, a little more reporting, digging up hidden facts, and seeking out independent experts and not just those who tell you what you want to hear.
In short, improved professional behavior and a lot less personal opinion is a great place to start, if you plan to dictate how others should report. As always, lead by example.
Another outstanding piece of journalism - kudos Paul Thacker! I really loved the image your words conjured in the prefacing paragraph of today's post - "a commensal herd of science writers and their scientific sources roaming across the journalistic landscape". How poetic, and oh so apt... Thanks for your ongoing effort to shed light on this great flaw in science journalism; it's much appreciated -- and needed.
Fine article. I also noted from Hellmuth:
“Beware of the tempting trope of an outsider who claims to have a revolutionary new understanding or a fix for some disease or problem but is being thwarted by the establishment.Sometimes this is true: The theory of plate tectonics was rejected by most geologists at first, and Galileo was convicted of heresy for saying the Earth moves around the Sun. But as his biographer Mario Livio says, “Galileo wasn’t right because he was an outsider — he was right because he was right.” It takes a lot of evidence to overthrow the scientific consensus.”
Of course, in the era of captured agencies and licensed toxic junk invading every aspect of our lives Galileo may not be the main point. It is apart from anything else as Eisenhower warned six decades ago, we simply have corporate interests posing as scientific arbiters (and Hellmuth is very posy). In this case science or scientific consensus is generally about the rubber stamp of a bought out bureaucracy.
Of course, at a facile level if you want to be superior you will think like this gang but at the end of the day they are public relations people pretending to be intellectuals. What they tell you is “this is what you should believe if you don’t want to look foolish”, just like the swindlers in the ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’. Meanwhile, the long term ability of human frame or the world to sustain all this tech garbage is gravely in doubt.