You Ought to Have a Look: Close-hold Embargos, Scientific Outsiders, and Activists Behaving Badly

You Ought to Have a Look is a regular feature from the Center for the Study of Science.  While this section will feature all of the areas of interest that we are emphasizing, the prominence of the climate issue is driving a tremendous amount of web traffic.  Here we post a few of the best in recent days, along with our color commentary. 

With last week’s news dominated by the debates—both in front of the American people (Trump v. Clinton) and in front of the American courts (West Virginia v. EPA)—we figured we’d highlight a couple of other stories that may have not have gotten the attention that they deserved. 

First up is a piece that left us slack-jawed. “How the FDA Manipulates the Media” is an investigative journalism article Charles Seife of Scientific American that reveals a seamy world of backroom press manipulation by scientific bodies (in this case, the federal Food and Drug Administration) through a practice known as a close-hold embargo. While some organizations, including major scientific journals like Science and Nature, employ an embargo system that allows some members of the press access to articles before they are officially “published” so that they can prepare news stories, the only condition is that no one releases the story before a set date. This is why a bunch of news stories, all covering the same piece of scientific information, all hit the airwaves/intertubes at the same time.  While this type of embargo is a bit unfair to anyone who perhaps wants to comment on the story but is blindsided by it – the procedure only biased by the well-known predilections of the mainstream press.  However, the close-hold embargo is an (almost mythical) horse of a different color. Its intent is to generate loads of press, but only good press. 

Here’s a taste from Scientific American:

The deal was this: NPR, along with a select group of media outlets, would get a briefing about an upcoming announcement by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration a day before anyone else. But in exchange for the scoop, NPR would have to abandon its reportorial independence. The FDA would dictate whom NPR’s reporter could and couldn’t interview.

…This kind of deal offered by the FDA—known as a close-hold embargo—is an increasingly important tool used by scientific and government agencies to control the behavior of the science press. Or so it seems. It is impossible to tell for sure because it is happening almost entirely behind the scenes. We only know about the FDA deal because of a wayward sentence inserted by an editor at the New York Times. But for that breach of secrecy, nobody outside the small clique of government officials and trusted reporters would have known that the journalists covering the agency had given up their right to do independent reporting.

Documents obtained by Scientific American through Freedom of Information Act requests now paint a disturbing picture of the tactics that are used to control the science press. For example, the FDA assures the public that it is committed to transparency, but the documents show that, privately, the agency denies many reporters access—including ones from major outlets such as Fox News—and even deceives them with half-truths to handicap them in their pursuit of a story. At the same time, the FDA cultivates a coterie of journalists whom it keeps in line with threats. And the agency has made it a practice to demand total control over whom reporters can and can’t talk to until after the news has broken, deaf to protests by journalistic associations and media ethicists and in violation of its own written policies.

By using close-hold embargoes and other methods, the FDA, like other sources of scientific information, are gaining control of journalists who are supposed to keep an eye on those institutions. The watchdogs are being turned into lapdogs. “Journalists have ceded the power to the scientific establishment,” says Vincent Kiernan, a science journalist and dean at George Mason University.

And if you think this taste is bad, the whole article will make you ill. Sickening, but eye-opening. Perhaps take an alka seltzer first, but you really ought to have a look.

Next up is a provocative piece by Andrew Gelman, Professor of Statistics and Political Science, at Columbia University. In his post “What has happened down here is the winds have changed” Gelman contrasts the traditional peer-review system of scientific reportage with the new social-media-review system. While there are many scientists who are desperate to hold onto the old system which is controlled more by scientific “insiders,”Gelman documents how that system has become faulty and unreliable. It seems perhaps that scientific “outsiders” can, or even must, help save the day:

When it comes to pointing out errors in published work, social media have been necessary. There just has been no reasonable alternative. Yes, it’s sometimes possible to publish peer-reviewed letters in journals criticizing published work, but it can be a huge amount of effort. Journals and authors often apply massive resistance to bury criticisms.

Gelman’s post, although lengthy, is well-worth the effort—especially interesting is his timeline of events that have transpired, rapidly, over the past 5-6 years that have illuminated the “replication crisis” in today’s science. While Gelman’s post is aimed more specifically to the field of psychology, it is much more generally applicable. It’s a great companion piece to the many others that we have recently been documenting in these pages that illustrate that something is rotten in the state of Science.

And finally is a blog post by Blair King, author of the blog “A Chemist in Langley.” Blair is a self-affirmed “lukewarmer” pointing out that “I agree with the fundamental science of climate change. I acknowledge that the anthropogenic addition of Tyndall gases into the atmosphere will have an effect on global climate. As such, I agree with consensus (as presented by the IPCC) on the topic of climate change. “ but that “As a Lukewarmer my primary difference with the alarmists is that I believe that the climate’s sensitivity to carbon dioxide is on the lower end of the consensus scale presented by the IPCC. “

In his post, “On Lukewarmism, denial and a look at the state of the environmental movement,” Blair describes how nasty life can be for lukewarmers—or anyone else for that matter—who doesn’t toe the activist line that climate change is a huge threat to mankind and drastic steps must be immediately taken in attempt to mitigate it. Blair writes:

This blog post started as a light lark about the internecine battles between climate activists but has ended up as a state-of-the-union sort of piece that refutes a lot of malicious slander being directed my way by the likes of Miriam (SouBundanga) O’Brien and her acolytes who have filled my twitter feed with their rubbish, lies and insults. It puts some thoughts together in one place and describes where my mind is on the topic of Lukewarmism, climate change “denial” and the current state of the environmental movement.

Be sure to read the whole thing to get an idea of how climate activists can go off the rails.

“Bad behavior” it seems, should be included in the list of things “consistent with” anthropogenic climate change.