Times Insider: “When is scientific research considered reliable?”

From a Times Insider column by Emily Palmer headlined “How Reporters Treat Scientific Studies: When is research considered reliable?”:

After early studies showed promising results of the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine in coronavirus patients, President Trump quickly promoted it as a possible treatment and later announced that he was taking the drug as a preventive measure.

But publishers of the study from France that Mr. Trump had referenced said that it fell short of their standards, while researchers in Brazil examining the related drug chloroquine halted their research after patients given high doses developed potentially fatal heart arrhythmias. Throughout its coverage, The Times has cited scientists’ reservations about the drug’s effectiveness and reported last week that the first controlled study of the drug found it did not prevent infections in people exposed to the virus.

The misjudgments about hydroxychloroquine underscore the importance of how reporters at The Times cover scientific research: They study the study, and tell readers what’s known and what’s not. Even as scientists work feverishly to answer questions about the pandemic, science reporters carefully parse fact from conjecture, truth from folly. . . .

Before you read about a study in The Times, reporters will have looked into the researchers’ backgrounds and often consulted three to five outside experts to determine the quality of the work. Reporters also ask questions like: What are the margins of error? Did the study include enough patients to get meaningful results? And what are the shortcomings of the research?

Historically, reporters have considered studies published by major science journals — like Nature, The Lancet and The New England Journal of Medicine — to be the most reliable, because those publications use expert editors and rigorously vet research methods and conclusions by sending them to other scientists to evaluate. . . .

Reporters are not looking for the perfect study — science is not definitive and even the highest quality research has limitations. But “right now, with all these reports pouring out, there’s more uncertainty than usual,” said Denise Grady, a science reporter. “That’s hard for everybody to accept at a time when we all wish there were answers and a clear way forward.”

The Times’s guidelines recognize that reporters must balance the weight that they give to such studies with the need to provide information about those that wind up in the global conversation.

“We will do everything we can to be straight with readers about what we know and what we don’t know,” said Ms. Dugger. “Science isn’t the discovery of a final truth or the be-all-end-all. It’s a process. Our knowledge will get better as we go along, but it’s still worth sharing with people the evolution of what we know.”

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