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Don Paul: Who's minding the science?

“Bundle up: Experts say this winter is going to be pretty brutal.”

That’s the headline I saw on Twitter last week, and the source intrigued me. WCVB in Boston is one of the nation’s most  prestigious local stations, and its weather department is headed by a friend and truly “expert” meteorologist, Harvey Leonard. Harvey has been in Boston TV since 1977, and his grasp of what causes winter storms to occur more frequently some winters is almost peerless. To that extent he was awarded a rare honor for a broadcast meteorologist; he is a Fellow of the American Meteorological Society. Before you ask, nope, Harvey’s a Fellow and I’m not. Anyway, I got off my bike to read this because I wanted his thoughts on the winter to come.

There were no such thoughts. No thoughts from Harvey and none from his excellent team of meteorologists were to be found in the story. After I opened the story, it was apparent Harvey and his team had as much to do with its contents as I do with the Farmers Almanac forecasts. Speaking of which, the Farmers Almanac was one of the two “expert” sources behind the WCVB story, along with their phony-baloney claim of “80 percent accuracy.” The other source was a private forecasting company based in another state which has no connection with WCVB’s highly touted in-house meteorologists.

Being a butt-inski from way back, I tweeted a response to the station which leaned toward the snide side, punctuated by a “Yikes!” The crux of was “Why would you put such a story out without consulting your meteorologists?” My tweet got loads of likes, some from meteorologists, and some from civilian weather geeks.

How do little gaffes like this happen? How does a producer or an editor come to call the silly Farmers Almanac an expert source, when nothing could be farther from the truth? Simple answer: They forgot. They forgot to ask what’s the local angle for the Boston viewing area, and whom might I consult for some local expertise? That’s where my “Yikes!” came in. I haven’t talked to my friend Harvey, but my guess is he would have said “Dumb story. Don’t do it with these sources. And give me some time to put some thought into it.”

One of the more classic similar incidents in my memory concerned junk medical news. Besides weekend weather, I had done quite a bit of medical reporting during my five years at WJBK in Detroit before I came to Buffalo, and I had written science articles for the private sector prior to that. Since I was acutely aware of the stark limits of my knowledge, I made friends with PR people at both the University of Michigan School of Medicine in Ann Arbor, and Wayne State Medical School in Detroit. Those very helpful PR people always were ready to assist me in finding expert medical professors in particular specialties to help me put together accurate, understandable medical stores. I’d seen countless junk medical stories on air and in print, and I was determined not only to avoid such gibberish, but to debunk junk where I could. (It’s only gotten worse since the advent of social media.)

When WIVB hired Peter Ostrow to do medical reporting back in the mid 1980s, I figured such problems were solved at WIVB. Peter Ostrow, MD, Ph. D, Associate Pathology and Neurology Professor SUNY Medical School, co-department Pathology chair, Buffalo General, published researcher…yeah, that oughta do it! And it DID do it, on days when Peter was there and presenting his excellent medical stories. No one else in Buffalo print or broadcast had ever had such a qualified medical correspondent, and Peter did this work mainly to enhance SUNY Medical School’s public visibility. But…on days Peter wasn’t there, quite a few bad “reader” stories still got on the air if no one bothered to call the very busy Dr. Ostrow. Read: bad stories like the other stations had still gotten on the air, just fewer of them.

And then there was the day one of those bad stories got on the air with him in the building. Ahead of my weather segment, a story from the CNN feed for subscribing stations featured a Chinese-American acupuncturist who was selling an IQ-enhancing chewing gum. For $60, he’d sell you a box of this gum which, he claimed, would raise your IQ at least 4 points. Basically, it was a commercial for a fraudulent product. Coming out of that story it was my turn to speak. Being the smart butt that I am, I said something like, “Folks, send me your 60 bucks and I’ll ship you a box of Juicy Fruit, and keep the change.” I’m quite sure I appeared annoyed-with-a-strained grin. After my weather, we went to a commercial break, and Peter strolled into the studio. “What was that you were fulminating about?” he asked. I told him. I think it struck us both as mildly outrageous our producer didn’t take the time to turn her head to the nearby doctor and ask, “Hey, Peter. Does this story about IQ gum make any sense?”

By the time Peter finished his typically excellent story, he’d pretty much brushed the IQ gum nonsense out of his thoughts. He was in a far more justified position to be ticked off than I was, but my recollection is he let it go.

And me? I still love to tell that story to this day, 26 years later. When it comes to junk science, Don Paul knows how to hold a grudge.

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