Fake News and Science Reporting

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During and even after the recent US election campaign, there were numerous reports of fake news, made-up news, and other kinds of news that were deemed either outright fabrication, or inaccurate or incomplete reporting of something to skewer it into one point of view or another. While the outright-fabricated news can easily be spotted eventually, there are other kinds of news reporting that were not as easily spotted, and worse still, continue to be cited by numerous news organizations, websites, and even political figures.

Most of these news involve inaccurate or misleading reporting of either data or facts. One such example is the recent report of the unemployment rate in the US that had been used in the recent political campaign. One can see why it isn’t really wrong, technically, to indicate that the US unemployment rate can be anywhere from 4.6% all the way to, get this, 40.3%! Anyone can take one or the other extreme number and claim to be “correct”. But what about the public listening to such claims? Are they aware of the two extreme numbers, and are they aware of why they are so different? Can they understand the context where those two numbers were derived?

So that was the setup for what I’m about to tell you here. This is a continuation, or maybe a reinforcement of the point that I had tried to make in my earlier article on The Most Important Thing You Can Learn From PhysicsForums. You see, in that article, one of the important point that I tried to emphasize is the constant “nagging” of senior members of this forum for members to clearly pay attention to their sources of information, and to CITE those sources clearly:

We try to enforce many things here on PF, and some of them to the dislike of many members. I’ve mentioned our insistence that members who wish to understand about stuff they read, heard, etc. must cite their sources clearly. This is a normal practice in science and engineering. We includes tons of citations in our papers, our funding proposals, our reports, etc. It is part of our standard operating procedure, making sure whoever reads it knows where the source of such-and-such information comes from. This is not a common practice for the general public. Newspapers very seldom provide such exact citations. Politicians are even worse – they seem to claim A causes B without even providing any justification, something we can’t do in science. Maybe, just maybe, if you learn how we arrive at our ideas in science, then you might set your acceptance level of what is valid to be higher, where you demand to know what is the evidence to support that A causes B? What is the nature of the source that support this? There is no reason to not demand valid supporting evidence even in dealing with political and social issues. Otherwise, it becomes just a matter of opinion or tastes without any rational justification. This is what science set as a standard, and this is why HOW we arrive at the conclusion we have is something important that you can learn from this forum.

I hope that you can already see the connection between where I’m going and the issue of “fake news” that I reported at the beginning of this article. If you care that much about knowing the unemployment rate in the US (for whatever reason), then you simply should not rely on news report, and certainly not from the mouths of politicians, for those numbers. What this means is that you have to go dig out the source, read how these numbers were arrived at, and maybe even try to understand how they were obtained, and then understand why there were such variations and range in the numbers reported. You have to go back to the source, rather than rely on news media reporting or 2nd, even 3rd-hand news! The source of your information requires to be scrutinized!

So how does this relate to physics, or science in general. The impetus for my writing this article happened very recently, but this type of “fake news” has happened numerous times before. This is not an outright-fabricated news, but rather a misleading news. But what is even worse is that this misleading information, once it has appeared online, gets propagated by other news media, and thus, giving a unsuspecting general public the wrong impression of what actually was going on.

The story in question is the recent publication on the verification of the magnetic field topology for a fusion reactor or Stellerator known as Wendelstein 7-X. This is a significant milestone in the process of commissioning the stellerator because the geometry of the magnetic field inside this reactor is extremely complex and with tight tolerances. In fact, you can read the actual publication of this paper since it is open to the public.

So then, what’s the problem? Now, remember what they are reporting here, i.e. the accuracy of the magnetic field topology that they had designed. This is important if they want to continue on and possibly generate a fusion process when this beast is finally running.

But along comes the various sites reporting this work and this is where things become misleading very quickly.

From Popular Mechanics website:
Germany’s Wildly Complex Fusion Reactor Is Actually Working

However, the stellerator design is still relatively untested, so a group of researchers spent the past year studying the W7-X reactor to ensure that it was working the way it was supposed to. They found an incredibly small error rate, less than 1 in 100,000, which the researchers characterized as “unprecedented accuracy.”

Here’s something from Space.com:

“Star-In-A-Jar” Fusion Reactor Works and Promises Infinite Energy
In a study published in the latest edition of the journal Nature Communications, researchers confirmed that Germany’s Wendelstein 7-X (W7-X) fusion energy device is on track and working as planned. The space-age system, known as a stellerator, generated its first batch of hydrogen plasma when it was first fired up earlier this year. The new tests basically give scientists the green light to proceed to the next stage of the process.

The unsuspecting public (remember them?) might read either of these articles and (i) pay huge attention to the title and (ii) will get the message that I highlighted above from each of these articles. The result? People will think that the stellerator is now working and they’re moving on to the next phase. This is completely wrong! They have not reported such a thing, even though this is an important step towards making the device to work. What these two news article focused on was the “sexy” side to the story, i.e. a fusion reactor and the promise of “infinite energy”. Reporting that the group confirmed the shape and strength of the magnetic field is boring (other than the neat picture that accompanied the paper). So they stretched the truth a bit and went for the non-existent jugular. This is “fake news”.

Now I will be fair to both of them. Unlike regular news articles, these two at least provided links to the source. So anyone with any keen interest can pursue this further and read the actual paper. But how many of the members of the general public will (i) do that and (ii) be able to understand the technical details of the paper? They rely on news summaries such as these to give them the gist, and presumably, ACCURATE information. Otherwise, if they have to actually dig the source each time, what’s the point in such news summary in the first place?

It is disheartening to see “established” websites reporting and/or propagating misleading news such as this. We on PF have often seen members coming in and citing many such sources. These members can become frustrated, usually with us, when we tell them that they either didn’t understand what the real thing was, or that the news they read is incorrect or inaccurate. Worse yet, we get crackpots who rely on these inaccurate news to propagate their ignorance.

The moral of this story is : caveat emptor!

Unless you are ready to dig a bit deeper into what you read and get your hands on the source, you have to be aware that you are relying on someone’s interpretation, motive, agenda, etc. in whatever you are reading. It is why we insist that you pay attention to the quality of your source of information, and that you cite the source you are using to back your claims. Otherwise, there is no way for us to know if you misinterpret/misunderstand what you read, or if you read another “fake news”.


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  1. stevendaryl
    stevendaryl says:

    You're absolutely right, that people should not be satisfied with a news story about some event without checking into sources. However, it's often the case that confusion about what happened are actually cleared up in the original article itself, and people come away with a false impression just because they only read the headline.

  2. fresh_42
    fresh_42 says:

    The best part of it is your example:

    Wendelstein 7-X is the world’s largest fusion device of the stellarator type. Its objective is to investigate the suitability of this type for a power plant.

    (Source: http://www.ipp.mpg.de/w7x – Homepage of the Max-Planck institute in Greifswald, which performs Wendelstein 7-X, including an email address for questions.)

    This statement includes the fact, that the device isn't supposed to be a prototype of a functioning nuclear reactor, rather a scientific tool to investigate the possibility of a stellarator compared to (the pulsed operation of) a tokamak.

  3. Greg Bernhardt
    Greg Bernhardt says:

    You're absolutely right, that people should not be satisfied with a news story about some event without checking into sources.

    I'm willing to bet extremely few people outside the relevant specialty give any time to investigating sources.

    people come away with a false impression just because they only read the headline.

    People don't have time to fully read anything these days. Marketers know this extremely well and craft catchy and sometimes down right deceiving headlines. It's the problem with new information being a business.

  4. stevendaryl
    stevendaryl says:

    People don't have time to fully read anything these days. Marketers know this extremely well and craft catchy and sometimes down right deceiving headlines. It's the problem with news information being a business. Social media has made it worse.

    Yeah, there is a lot of intentionally misleading headlines out there. But even when the headline is not intentionally misleading, the reader can get the wrong impression if he only reads the headline (or the headline and the opening paragraph).

  5. fresh_42
    fresh_42 says:

    I'm willing to bet extremely few people outside the relevant specialty give any time to investigating sources.

    I have read a quotation posted by my nephew on the US election, determined to influence opinions. As I've looked up the sources of that article, I've found the first seven sources have been a self-quotation of formerly posted statements and the eighth has been a FOX news report …

    It's not that difficult nowadays to find the sources.

    I liked this a lot:

    Flow chart for claims of major proofs:

    Is it sent to one of the leading journals?

    — No: It is not a valid proof

    — Yes: Did it pass peer review?

    —–In progress: It is probably not a valid proof

    —–No: It is not a valid proof

    —–Yes: It gets interesting. Did a mathematician find a flaw within 2 years?

    ——–Yes: It is not a valid proof.

    ——–No: It is probably a valid proof.

  6. Ygggdrasil
    Ygggdrasil says:

    This also happens a lot in biology.  For example, Science has a nice news story covering how one small developmental biology paper got overblown by the media, with headlines that were completely wrong:

    So, without further ado, the recipe for transforming a modest developmental biology paper into a blockbuster story, as it played out yesterday in the media:

    1. Take one jargon-filled paper title: "Mice produced by mitotic reprogramming of sperm injected into haploid parthenogenotes"
    2. Distill its research into more accessible language. Text of Nature Communications press release: Mouse sperm injected into a modified, inactive embryo can generate healthy offspring, shows a paper in Nature Communications. And add a lively headline: "Mouse sperm generate viable offspring without fertilization in an egg"
    3. Enlist an organization to invite London writers to a press briefing with paper’s authors.
      Headline of Science Media Centre press release: "Making embryos from a non-egg cell"
    4. Have same group distribute a laudatory quote from well-known and respected scientist:
      “[It’s] a technical tour de force.”
    5. Bake for 24 hours and present without additional reporting. Headline in The Telegraph: "Motherless babies possible as scientists create live offspring without need for female egg," and in The Guardian: "Skin cells might be used instead of eggs to make embryos, scientists say."


    The path from research paper to press release to news story is essentially a bad game of telephone that distorts scientific findings at each step.

  7. jim mcnamara
    jim mcnamara says:

    My field, Biology, is the worst for 'post-truth' news claims using weak references to journal articles.   Nutrition claims and medical breakthroughs constitute an almost daily blitz of poorly informed hype and or blatant advertising claims.

    I feel the fake news thing overlaps largely into the 'post-truth' thing:


    – with the exception that a lot of fake news is self-serving from the writers point of view.

    In the case of bad science reporting, it can well be a writer trying to keep a job by generating interest in his/her column, for example. So called 'slant' on a topic.  Call it fake news, post-truth, or 'tribal science' (e.g., anti-vaxxers) .  Or maybe religion as @mfb feels this stuff sometimes amounts to….

    Name your poison.

    Edit oops @Ygggdrasil beat me to it.  And did a better job.

  8. fresh_42
    fresh_42 says:

    You are not the average reader :)

    I've never before read so much "quotes" of questionable content than in this year's campaigns. Even if I didn't search for their origin doesn't mean I believed them. Mostly I took it as an entertainment.

    IMO weak journalism is the real danger to our modern democracies. I really believe that a democracy depends on educated voters. We've experienced where a "public vote" can get us to. It frightens me to see former confidential magazines deteriorate and mass media making opinions. I'm not sure whether it really got worse the recent two decades or whether I'm simply complaining by "the good old times".

    The more I appreciate the lonesome callers for references on PF, although I sometimes think, a negative answer would have been shorter. At least this habit shows future generations of scientists how to do it properly. Too many faked reports have already damaged science: copied thesis, the famous autism-MMR link and probably many more.

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