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Science and Medicine

If you're fairly adept at science, it's easy to pull the wool over the eyes of people who aren't - which is just about anybody in a newsroom. There is nothing else that journalists cover with such gusto yet know so little about.

News consumers have always been fascinated by scientific and medical claims, and many will believe just about any story that sounds like it comes from a scientific source. That's why in 1835, the New York Sun could get away (for a while) with tales about scientists discovering winged people on the moon.

For journalists trying to play it straight, verification of scientific claims requires the use of tools and processes that are not part of the routine practice of journalism. To make matter worse, science hoaxes sometimes involve history, such as claims about ancient human remains - another area where journalists are not well-trained or equipped to verify claims.

So when a scientific discovery is announced, most journalists are at the mercy of the people making the claims, as well other scientists and science organizations, including scientific journals. We contact other scientists for reaction, and we take our cues from medical and scientific journals, figuring (correctly) that the claims have been through a better vetting process than they would go through in any regular newsroom.

The rub is that even scientists and science journals are fooled by science hoaxes.

Key Factors

Great Stories: Missing links, asteroids headed for earth, cloned humans. With amazing scientific discoveries continually being made about humans, our planet and our universe, nothing seems to be beyond belief.

Credibility: The claims are made by people with science degrees (or alleged degrees) or are cited as being from a respected scientific institution.

Confirmation Obstacles: They're more significant here than for any type of hoax. Even if a journalist had the ability, the means of verification are typically not available to the journalist covering the science story. The journalist usually doesn't have access to the thing being discussed - such as an asteroid heading toward earth or an ancient human skull - or to the scientific instruments that were used to observe or measure that thing - such as a giant telescope or archeological materials. Unlike contemporary stories involving crime, government operations or business, most science stories are not easily verified by use of public documents or interviews with witnesses. To the extent there are documents and witnesses, they tend to come from the source of the claim.

The "We Believe What We Read in the Papers" Syndrome: In this case, well-regarded general news organizations and scientific journals lead the way.

Red Flags

Doubting Thomases: The world is full of well-regarded scientists of various specialties, and many of them feel free to voice skepticism about new claims.

The "Huh?" Factor: As with the outrageous tales weaved by professional hoaxers, listen to the voice in your head that says the story's too good to be true.

A Lot to Gain: The source is making a financial claim or significantly boosting his or her reputation.

Unconfirmable Details: As with most hoaxes, the truth seems to be held by one person or group. No peers have independently verified the finding.

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