Imagine being a Rhodes Scholar, a Columbia graduate with neuroscience training and completed humanities coursework as well as a later graduate of the University of Cambridge. Imagine after writing books, articles and magazines, you are contracted to write for The New Yorker. You are so accomplished that your name is familiar among other scholars and you are frequently asked to give talks. But then imagine making a few mistakes. These few mistakes caused the public to erupt in outrage, shaming you, defiling your reputation, destroying your career and leaving you emotionally scarred. You are ashamed and mortified, willing to make amends, but the public isn’t so forgiving. What was the mistake? Fabricating sources.
This is not a hypothetical situation. It is actually the case of the writer Jonah Lehrer whose excessive recycling of old works and intentional fabrications of sources destroyed his career. He was found to have faked quotes from Bob Dylan and written books with significant portions recycled from previous works. He was a scholar with an impressive line of accomplishments, but his whole career went down the drain because he missed a lesson or two on the importance of accurate and cited sources.
Despite the seriousness of this specific case, his story could easily be anyone else’s. It could have been Donald Trump’s when he falsely suggested of a terrorist attack in Sweden. It could have been that of the news outlets that misconstrue findings of scientific studies. And, it could be you, a college student stressing over the ten page research paper that you have no time to write for, resulting in you desperately making up facts. As college students, I think we’re tired of hearing our teachers lecture us on the importance of correctly using and citing sources. We’ve been hearing it every single year since our first cited paper in middle school. We have the citation formats ingrained in our minds and we are familiar with an extensive list of scholarly databases. However, constant exposure sometimes makes us immune to the dangers. We have to continuously remind ourselves of the power of our voices, especially if we are faces of the media.
Take the case of Donald Trump’s recent error — falsely claiming that there was a terrorist attack in Sweden. Whether this was the result of misinformation or a purposeful attempt to misconstrue the facts, it caused a riot in Sweden, a confused tweet from the former Prime Minister of Sweden and uninformed supporters still thinking there actually was a terrorist attack. However, unlike Johan Lehrer, Trump still has his reputation, he still has his job and he still is spreading false information. Not many have his privilege.
Problems with sources are also found in the science coverage in popular media outlets. For example, Time magazine published a story on July 11, 2014, “Scientists Say Smelling Farts Might Prevent Cancer”, referencing to a scientific study that mentioned neither the words fart nor cancer. The magazine later corrected itself (so the link to the corrected article only exists), but it is still getting calls about its publication on farts. This is just one of many scientific studies that were misinterpreted or manipulated to satisfy media’s tendencies to sensationalize information.
Video by John Oliver on LastWeekTonight discussing how media distorts scientific studies.
In college, it’s easy to be complacent with poor source-checking habits. After all, we are mostly writing for a grade and the chances that a professor would fact check your paper, out of the possibly hundreds he or she has to read, is low. However, it's important to remember that bad habits are the prerequisites for future mistakes. It’s important to be aware, informed, conscious and careful of your sources because while right now it may mean a zero on your research paper, in the future it could mean damaging public audiences, or worse, a horrific end to your professional life.
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