Credibility is key to scientific communication. It’s the flipside of trust. Journals have to trust authors, professionals have to trust journals, and the public has to be able to trust popular translations of information out of journals in addition to trusting that the entire process is solid.
When trust isn’t rewarded even infrequently, suspicions creep in, and the credibility of scientific communication is put at risk.
A recent study hit on all these areas of trust and credibility. The study, published in the journal Pathophysiology (which oddly doesn’t indicate it’s a peer-reviewed journal, despite being an Elsevier title), postulates that an observed 10% greater prevalence for left-sided cancers (left breast, left testicle, left side of the body in general) is potentially caused by box spring mattresses, which the authors believe act as antennae (because certain dimensions are somehow mathematically related to the wavelengths of radio signals), amplifying ambient radio and EMF waves into people as they sleep on their left sides, a common position, thereby increasing the risk of developing cancer.
How’s that for a premise?
The authors compared Western populations with Asian populations (who sleep on futons), and found that the Asian populace didn’t have a similar “handedness” to their cancers.
It’s an arresting hypothesis, but given the number of times the cancer-causing effects of EMF waves have been debunked, my skepticism immediately kicked in. The story gets even more interesting, as the scientist who wrote the paper, Olle Johansson, was named “Misleader of the Year” in 2004 by Swedish Sceptics [sic], a non-profit watchdog group that “tries to inform the public and the media about the nature of science, explaining which questions are scientifically meaningful and which are not.”
Yet, the study was published in an Elsevier journal and amplified by a blog affiliated with Scientific American — a “guest blog” with “Commentary invited by the Editors of Scientific American.” The author of the blog post, R. Douglas Fields, PhD, is described thusly:
Chief of the Nervous System Development and Plasticity Section at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and Adjunct Professor at the University of Maryland, College Park. Fields, who conducted postdoctoral research at Stanford University, Yale University, and the NIH, is Editor-in-Chief of the journal Neuron Glia Biology and member of the editorial board of several other journals in the field of neuroscience. He is the author of the new book The Other Brain (Simon and Schuster), about cells in the brain (glia) that do not communicate using electricity. His hobbies include building guitars, mountain climbing, and scuba diving. He lives in Silver Spring, Md.
Scientific American adds this to the blog:
The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.
Blogs have become a problematic area of branding for existing publishers, and for the life of me, I can’t see what the problem is. Is it because there’s “technology” involved? Is it because there’s a stigma to blogs that somehow clogs thinking? Problems with the branding or sub-branding or non-branding of blogs is becoming a theme.
Readers don’t seem to have any difficulty comprehending the branding or credibility issues. Comments on the original Scientific American blog post call out the problems with the study and Fields’ coverage in no uncertain terms. They started within minutes of the post going up:
Except, of course, that radio waves do not have enough energy to do anything with our cells.
This is absurd and not worthy of SciAm, although I must say the online version is not up to the print standard anyway.
Do you even know who this Johansson is, Douglas? Please do a Google search before you write anything next time.
This is ridiculous. How am I supposed to respect Scientific American when they post junk science like this? Radio waves are non-ionizing radiation and DO NOT CAUSE CANCER. You could teach a child the correlation between energy and cancer risk by showing them the electromagnetic spectrum and pointing out where UV, X-Ray, and Gamma lie in comparison to visible light and radio waves.
And so on. In fact, one commenter got to the point that occurred to me immediately:
The simple answer is that in most countries, drivers sit on the left getting exposed to sunlight and UV. Case closed.
Given the fact that people in Japan drive on the opposite side of the road from Americans, this makes sense. Also, genetic differences, reporting rates, medical systems, and other variables also have to be taken into consideration.
Huge branding issues are tangled up in this mess. Pathophysiology, as noted before, doesn’t list peer-review as part of its process, despite this being standard for most Elsevier journals. It also doesn’t list that it’s indexed in PubMed, even though it is. Is it peer-reviewed or not? Basic branding elements (it’s a journal, it’s published by Elsevier) suggest it’s peer-reviewed, but that might be an assumption. Can a publisher’s brand create this assumption?
For Scientific American, the branding of its blog, the branding of invited bloggers, and the vulnerabilities these bloggers and blogs might create for the brand should be leading its owners to manage it better. Branding distinctions aren’t clear, quality is not being maintained, and laughable items are getting through.
But the biggest issue is credibility. To me, this hits squarely on a problem I’ve worried about before — we’re publishing too much, thereby becoming a cause of filter failure rather than a solution. For people outside journals, the statement “a study found” or “a recent study” is more likely to induce eye-rolling than riveted interest. Being upstream from the mainstream media, we’re injecting unfiltered water, an anemic popular media isn’t filtering it further (trusting our process perhaps too much), and the public is more often finding the resulting sludge distasteful.
The entire scientific publishing genre is losing credibility with the public, putting the article, the journal, and the peer-review process at risk.
As one smart person covering the bedspring study and resulting skepticism noted, “Who’s right? Who knows.”
Is that really a sufficient result for published research?