Worse still, health journalists are taking advantage of the wrongness problem. Presented with a range of conflicting findings for almost any interesting question, reporters are free to pick those that back up their preferred thesis—typically the exciting, controversial idea that their editors are counting on. When a reporter, for whatever reasons, wants to demonstrate that a particular type of diet works better than others—or that diets never work—there is a wealth of studies that will back him or her up, never mind all those other studies that have found exactly the opposite (or the studies can be mentioned, then explained away as “flawed”). For “balance,” just throw in a quote or two from a scientist whose opinion strays a bit from the thesis, then drown those quotes out with supportive quotes and more study findings.

Of course, journalists who question the general integrity of medical findings risk being branded as science “denialists,” lumped in with crackpots who insist evolution and climate change are nonsense. My own experience is that scientists themselves are generally supportive of journalists who raise these important issues, while science journalists are frequently hostile to the suggestion that research findings are rife with wrongness. Questioning most health-related findings isn’t denying good science—it’s demanding it.

Ironically, we see much more of this sort of skeptical, broad-perspective reporting on politics, where politicians’ claims and poll results are questioned and factchecked by journalists, and on business, where the views of CEOs and analysts and a range of data are played off against one another in order to provide a fuller, more nuanced picture.

Yet in health journalism (and in science journalism in general), scientists are treated as trustworthy heroes, and journalists proudly brag on their websites about the awards and recognition they’ve received from science associations—as if our goal should be to win the admiration of the scientists we’re covering, and to make it clear we’re eager to return the favor. The New York Times’s highly regarded science writer Dennis Overbye wrote in 2009 that scientists’ “values, among others, are honesty, doubt, respect for evidence, openness, accountability and tolerance and indeed hunger for opposing points of view.” But given what we know about the problems with scientific studies, anyone who wants to assert that science is being carried out by an army of Abraham Lincolns has a lot of explaining to do. Scientists themselves don’t make such a claim, so why would we do it on their behalf? We owe readers more than that. Their lives may depend on it.

If you'd like to get email from CJR writers and editors, add your email address to our newsletter roll and we'll be in touch.


More in Cover Story

Chemical reaction

Read More »

David H. Freedman is a contributing editor at The Atlantic, and a consulting editor at Johns Hopkins Medicine International and at the McGill University Desautels Faculty of Management.