Journalists and Scientists; professionally gullible?
The excellent NPR radio show/podcast This American Life has been forced to retract one of their most popular broadcasts.
It turns out that Mike Daisey's account of visiting factories making Apple products in China and speaking to underage and injured workers is factually incorrect. He mixed his actual experiences in China with news stories and secondhand anecdotes to create an emotionally arresting theatrical monologue, which has reignited the discussion over exploitative labor.
This American Life have apologised for not fact checking thoroughly enough and have devoted an episode to discussing the episode retraction.
This whole scenario is much like the retraction of a scientific paper, for example the now discredited Science article linking a mouse retrovirus (XMRV) with chronic fatigue syndrome (http://tinyurl.com/87cxebm
Whereas journalists use fact checking to eliminate dubious or fabricated stories, scientists rely on the peer review process to smell a rat. However, these processes can be undermined from time to time because ultimately scientists and investigative journalists are professionally gullible.
I observe an unspoken agreement with other scientists that I will use careful investigation to reveal a truth about the world and then report it as transparently as possible. In return I will expect that other scientists do the same, such that I can consider their work at face value. However, this leaves science vulnerable to fraudsters from within (http://tinyurl.com/75w8psy
Most of the time charlatans and con-artists are not sophisticated enough to beat the fact-checking processes but every now and then one will get through. Thankfully, someone, somewhere will often notice a discrepancy or an inconsistency and sooner or later the house of cards will fall.
Maybe we would do well to remember the motto of the Royal Society from time to time.
"Nullius in verba" (Take nobody's word for it)