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Science bloggers gather to wrestle down myths about research and themselves

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ScienceOnline2011 logoDURHAM, North Carolina­­­­—TV pundit and Washington Post columnist George Will has a history of misrepresenting climate science—and it’s bloggers who typically make sure the record is set straight on such points.

For instance, a 2009 Will editorial in the Washington Post asserting, among other things, that the extent of global sea ice today is the same as it was in 1979 drew particularly loud howls. The debate blew up quickly in the blogosphere, pressure was applied to the Post not to disseminate falsehoods, and the upshot was a counter-editorial in the Post by journalist and blogger Chris Mooney.

The role of bloggers as monitors of scientific and medical misinformation—be it erroneous claims about cancer drugs, vaccines, autism, evolution or climate change—was a theme here this weekend at the fifth annual Science Online conference. Some 300 scientists, bloggers and journalists attended—with lots of overlap among those jobs, which was the point and also a point of contention.

Be skeptical of skeptics, Reuters Health Executive Editor Ivan Oransky urged a standing-room-only crowd at what was called a "keepers of the bulls**t filter" session.

His tips apply to all consumers and producers of science, health and medical information: keep a biostatistician in your pocket (that is, call on experts to assess the stats you read in research reports); understand the limits of the review procedures used to decide what is published in a journal; avoid disease mongering, the expansion of disease definitions in order to promote unnecessary treatments.

Maia Szalavitz, who blogs for Time magazine on health issues, advised against buying into myths about addiction and the "drug scare of the week." National magazines have raised panic with cover stories about crack babies. It’s obviously a bad idea to smoke crack when pregnant (or at all), but Szalavitz said that medical research suggests that doing so actually carries the same fetal risk as smoking cigarettes. Other addiction myths unsupported by medical research but sometimes promulgated in the media: addiction is always a lifelong chronic disease, and prescription drug addicts are the victims of over-prescribing doctors. Typically, Szalavitz said, the patient in the latter case has a history of crime or drug abuse.

Some bloggers at the conference grumbled and tweeted about being pressured to adopt journalistic standards for their writing and reporting. However, as more science and health blogs are digested by mainstream media or other "blog network" sites—like those run by Wired Science, Nature Network, Scientopia and Discover—bloggers are expected or feel that they are expected by their media overlords to keep the lines clear as to who is paying for their work and any industry or corporate sponsorships or support.

The imposition of journalistic standards can be a tough pill to swallow for bloggers, not because they dislike facts or ethics, but because they are traditionally independent, said science blogger Ed Yong.

"You assume the mantle of responsibility when you join a network, especially one associated with an established media brand," Yong said. "It’s not as simple as ‘I am a blogger and have extremely independent things to do.’"

The role of blogs in science and medical research and communications is quite positive overall, but remains blurry. As Ars Technica science editor John Timmer said, "George Will got most of his disinformation off blogs in the first place."

Image Credit: ScienceOnline2011

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