In this era of fake news, it’s not unusual for social media users—including the US president—to accuse journalists of doing bad work. Sadly, when it comes to coverage of scientific studies especially, there’s some truth to these accusations. Science writers do sometimes overstate claims based on research findings, and now one Twitter account exists solely to highlight a particular variety of these misleading stories.
The account @justsaysinmice tweets about stories that rely on a study of mice to make claims about human health. It’s been in existence less than a month and has only issued seven tweets as of this writing, yet it has 24,600 followers already (rising from 21,500 when I began drafting this story). The scientist who runs this feed, James Heathers, has his own Twitter account, @jamesheathers, which by contrast has only about 5,100 followers, though it’s been in existence since September 2011 and has issued more than 3,000 tweets.
Let me start with an audacious assertion: A major problem confronting science journalists is that they have trouble communicating what’s true,” Sharon Dunwoody, an Evjue-Bascom professor emerita at the University of Wisconsin-Madison school of journalism, wrote in a 2014 article on Sci Dev Net. She says that reporters simply don’t know enough about all the different research they have to cover to accurately convey the implications, and suggests writers would be better off writing about the weight of the evidence instead of deciding whether a particular scientific claim is true. Journalists, she argues, should show both support and opposition to a particular hypothesis, leaving the ultimate judgment to readers.
For reporters, of course, there’s not just pressure to understand the story, get the facts right, and work on tight deadlines. Writers and editors also have to make scientific stories seem relevant to readers. That need leads to the kind of hyped-up claims that Heathers is outing on Just Says in Mice. It might not be that interesting to readers to discover that a particular development, which seems to affect rodents, is actually years away from the human research phase and even further from clinical use. So though these facts may well be revealed in a story, the headlines written to entice readers often do not make this critical distinction.
But if Just Says in Mice outs enough major publications with its damning tweets, and proves as popular over time it has been in the brief period since its inception, we may soon see the word “mice” in a lot of science headlines. And you will know why.