Letter to the Washington Post’s Public Editor Regarding Poor Science Reporting

I complained to the Washington Post about their poor science reporting regarding addiction, but got no answer

I emailed this to the Washington Post’s Public Editor 5 weeks ago, and was disappointed to get not even a perfunctory answer.

Dear Mr. Feaver,

As a professor of psychiatry and addiction treatment researcher at Stanford University, I was very disappointed that the Washington Post was among the news outlets that reported almost verbatim from a press release the claim that Oreo cookies are as addictive as cocaine.

As I described on our university’s medical school blog, the “proof” for this assertion was an undergraduate research project at Connecticut College which has not been published, peer-reviewed, or indeed even presented in any public forum.

Yet this Post story by Valerie Strauss took a stenographic approach, passing along the claims of the press release almost word for word. Indeed, her story even reproduced the photo and large block quotes from the release. Ms. Strauss barely added any words of her own to her article, and certainly none that conveyed appropriate skepticism.

It is to the Post’s credit that a few days later Stephanie Pappas wrote a critical column about the study, quoting an expert who pointed out the fatal flaws in the research. However, it is worth noting that while her article opened with a dig at the “blared headlines” about the study at Fox News and Time, it did not own up to the fact that The Washington Post itself was among those media outlets which uncritically passed along the sensational and untrue statements in the press release.

I understand the pressure to publish and to do so quickly. But I would like to see leading newspapers such as yours implement some policies to ensure that speed does not trump accuracy. It could involve allowing only journalists with relevant science background to write science stories. It could require reporters to at least talk to one critical expert before passing along a press release as fact. In an era where every month there are press releases claiming that new studies show that climate change is a hoax, or that the MMR vaccine causes autism, I am not the only person who counts on your great paper to filter the wheat from the chaff.

Keith Humphreys

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

17 thoughts on “Letter to the Washington Post’s Public Editor Regarding Poor Science Reporting”

  1. A slight correction, if I may:

    It would appear that the study has indeed been presented in a public forum. I wasn’t there to witness it, but (not sure if this link will work) it was a scheduled presentation at the Society for Neuroscience 2013 conference in San Diego last month.

    The original article in the Connecticut College News acknowledges that “The results are preliminary and subject to further scientific review”. I agree that WaPo and others would have done better by their audiences had this important caveat found it’s way into their articles on the subject.

    This looks to me like an opportunity for skeptical addiction treatment researchers who are in a position to perform a bit of scientific peer review, to go above and beyond merely pointing out the lack thereof so dismissively. If there indeed be fatal flaws in the original research methodologies, scientific knowledge would likely be advanced by the application of the preferred methodologies of other experts and the reporting of those findings.

    1. “Correction” is not quite accurate. Five weeks ago would have been the day before the presentation, and the letter is in response to an article written earlier than that. Let’s call this an update instead, shall we?

    2. Also, we discussed this in a previous thread: a poster presentation at the SfN is a great opportunity and a great experience, and you’re correct that it is a presentation in a public forum – but let’s not build it up too much: it’s not any sort of peer-review or validation.

      1. Although I agree with Warren Terra, the results had not been presented in a public forum when they were released. That something is scheduled for its first public presentation means nothing — after all, it could get torn to shreds at its first presentation, causing the researcher to rethink the conclusions. That’s a good reason not to start by seeking press coverage.

    3. The original article in the Connecticut College News acknowledges that “The results are preliminary and subject to further scientific review.”

      Wrong. Use the Internet wayback machine and you will see that the press release was edited after the press backlash to include that line, which was not there before.

      1. Got a link? I’m willing to be convinced, but I did go to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine and searched the current URL for the CCN article, and the earliest I got was this page, which was archived on 2013-11-28 and contains the caveat. All three archived copies I found there were identical to each other.

        1. The October 16 version lacks the caveat — I saved hard copies of it and the new one which has the amendment.

    4. Saying that the results are “subject to further scientific review” is just butt-covering language at best. I suspect it misleads, in that most readers of “further” take away the impression that some non-zero amount of what you would call “scientific review” has taken place. But even the most generous reading is that it fails to communicate the point that the results are unreviewed.

    5. Fair enough, y’all. I’m looking forward to viewing the results of the scientific reviews coming from duplication of experiments and application of alternative experimental methodologies that the scientists here are pushing for in order to expose the fatal flaws in this research. I’ve had enough personal experience with Oreos and cocaine to understand that the addictive properties of the two are hardly comparable in humans, so follow-up studies seem appropriate.

      I’m pleased that we’re skeptical enough about such things these days that we’re not all reflexively jumping onto the ban-Oreos bandwagon. ‘Twasn’t always so. I’ve also had enough experience with 40+ years of drug war to understand that one dubious and unreviewed research study can have that effect. There have been many, many drug research studies that have followed similar, if not identical methodologies using lab rats to “prove” the addictive properties of various compounds, and that has historically been enough “evidence” to justify bans and increasingly harsh punishments. I’d hate to see my grandkids threatened with prison for the possession of a few crumbs of mega-stuf.

  2. The Washington Post has a Public Editor? Surprising. It got rid of its Ombudsman position after the last one’s term expired, and that one was worthless except as a flack to defend the paper’s every act.

    I wouldn’t hold my breath for a reply.

  3. I am not the only person who counts on your great paper to filter the wheat from the chaff.

    How about:

    …filter the nutrition out of the cookie.

    Or maybe even:

    ….filter the wheat from the Oreo’s sugared-wheat paste.


  4. Keith, send the letter to Jeff Bezos. Maybe the Amazon in him will take on an apparently Herculean task.

  5. Cynicism being what it is these days and Regent University being just down the road from DC, I must wonder whether the WaPo Public Editor’s CV would allow me to infer that he is sufficiently familiar with the attributes associated with the concepts of professor, psychiatry, addiction treatment, research, schools of medicine and universities to be able to give you a competent response.

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