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The Sunday Times in gay sheep gaffe

January 13th, 2007

Dr Petra

Oops! The Sunday Times did it again. Reporters from the paper didn’t appear to check out a science sex story they were covering and today have been left looking a bit sheepish.

It all started a few weeks ago when the Sunday Times ran a feature “Science told: hand’s off gay sheep” a headline which implied evil scientists were stalking the countryside and interfering with homosexual farm animals. The Sunday Times outlined a series of unusually cruel experiments on sheep that were designed to turn gay sheep straight.

Cue outrage on the part of animal rights groups; gay rights groups and everyone who always suspected scientists couldn’t be trusted.

Unfortunately, as indicated in Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science column today it appears that the Sunday Times managed to misunderstand and misreport the ‘gay sheep’ research.

It is fair to say that research and treatment in the past has been unethical where homosexuality is concerned. This includes the unsuccessful psychological/medical treatment of homosexuals to make them straight, misinterpreting or negatively labelling homosexual behaviour in animals, or ignoring homosexuality in humans or animals where it was observed. Any research in the area of sexuality – whether it’s discussions of the ‘gay gene’ through to discussions on the ‘evolutionary value of homosexuality’ needs careful monitoring, critical analysis and full peer review.

Sadly in the case of the Sunday Times misunderstanding and misreporting a study has led to people mistrusting science and caused distress amongst those worried about human or animal rights.

It begs the question why nobody at the paper double-checked the story, whether the paper knew they were covering something in a dodgy way but deliberately went with it just so they could cause controversy, or whether those working on science stories for the paper don’t understand the science they’re reporting.

It’s a lesson to all of us to always go beyond what we read in the news about health or science topics – to chase up an original journal article and critically evaluate it, and to check out the qualifications and credentials of experts leading research. It’s also a good lesson to critique once you’ve got all the information to hand rather than discussing an issue on the basis of a newspaper story. Whilst there are still numerous poor studies published that we can take apart, there are sadly far more news reports that just get the science wrong so we unfairly blame scientists when we should be shooting the messenger.

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