The Observer’s tangle with science story — now removed from website

The Observer seems to have pulled a front-page story from its website, after problems emerged with the article, which was published on 8 July 2007.
Observer front page 8 July 2007

The case raises some interesting questions not only about science reporting — but also about corrections and clarifications, and the importance of some journalistic essentials.

Ben Goldacre, who writes the Bad Science column in The Guardian, has analysed the article in detail in his column and on his blog and in the British Medical Journal.

He’s expressed his concerns forcefully (follow the links above to read his detailed analysis):

I am pretty jaded and sceptical, but this front page story has completely stunned and astonished me. The misrepresentations and errors went way beyond simply misunderstanding the science, and after digging right to the bottom of it all, knowing what I know now, I have never resorted to hyperbole before, but I can honestly say: this episode has changed the way I read newspapers.

The difficulties lie not only with the original story, Ben suggests — but also with the clarifications from The Observer’s Readers’ Editor, Stephen Pritchard, which appeared in the two following issues: on 15 July and 22 July 2007.

Ben Goldacre’s assessment of the situation:

Two failed “clarifications” later that clarify nothing, and I am even less impressed. Retract. Delete. Apologise.

One of the journalistic failings seems to have been that no-one from The Observer apparently contacted Dr Fiona Scott, even before publishing the first clarification. She then posted some comments online, which The Observer published as part of its second clarification — again without having spoken to her or exchanged emails, it appears. However, it took Ben Goldacre a quick Google search and a couple of hours to get an email reply, as he notes in this post.

The original Observer article used to be online here. The Google cache of the original story is here — or at least it when I wrote this post. But if the article was pulled for legal reasons, perhaps it won’t be on Google’s cache for much longer.

Will The Observer run a third clarification next Sunday?

Meanwhile, credit to its sister paper, The Guardian, at least, for publishing Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science column on the article.