On November 1, 2017, the Journal of American Veterinary Medicine (JAVMA) published an article called The Dangerous Dog Debate, which posed the question, “Breed bans are popular, but do they make the public safe?” JAVMA senior news reporter, R. Scott Nolen told our executive director that the article was about the current state of breed-specific legislation. This is a good topic to discuss because it’s important that people know breed discriminatory legislation is being repealed and rejected more than it’s being put into place.
As a scientific journal in the animal welfare space, JAVMA should be well aware of this fact and of the research that fuels this trend. But instead of focusing on research and facts JAVMA’s Nolen, made the choice to interview the owner of a tabloid website as an attempt to create relevance for his article.
Nolen opened his article with loaded emotions recounting the story of when dogsbite.org (DBO) founder, Colleen Lynn, a former online psychic turned web designer, was bitten by a dog in 2007. Being bitten by a dog is surely frightening and painful but it does not make one an expert on dog behavior, biology, public safety, or even legislation.
The emotion and compassion everyone feels for those bitten by dogs is important on a human level, but emotions aren’t facts. They have no place in scientific journals. Scientific journals are just that, scientific. They rely on provable realities, give context to nuanced situations, and do their due diligence to confirm the statements presented by their sources.
Nolen either made the conscious choice to ignore the well-known fact within the scientific community that DBO has no legitimate credentials to make it a serious resource or he is obtuse enough not to know this and he just simply failed to do his due diligence. With little effort, Nolen could have discovered the limitations of his source. On top of Nolen’s own errors, the journal as a whole needs to take responsibility for this lack of judgment. Where were the editors to catch this unscientific approach to reporting?
The question is “Did JAVMA fall for DBO’s pretense or did it decide to be clickbait and opt for pageviews over facts?” Either way, it’s at risk of losing its credibility.
It wouldn’t have taken much for Nolen to discover that DBO and Lynn aren’t reputable sources. One of Lynn’s first claims in the article is that “pit bull” dogs are more dangerous than other dogs. This shouldn’t have been difficult for Nolen to fact-check, not when his very own AVMA already debunked it.
When we read this article, we had to ask ourselves if we were in some kind of Onionesque universe where everything is backward and websites who refer to doctors as “whores,” as DBO does, are used as a scientific source. No really, this is exactly what happened in Nolen’s article.
In a 2011 blog post, DBO referred to veterinarian Dr. Mahfouz as a “science whore” who “infected” a local newspaper with facts. They also did this to Dr. Amy Marder in 2012. In case you’ve forgotten, because JAVMA certainly has, people who accuse others of being “whores” aren’t reputable people to turn to for facts. In this instance, the term “science whore” means that Dr. Mahfouz is being paid by “pit nutters” to lie about science. There’s no proof of this, but who needs proof when you can play on people’s emotions?
Science journals, that’s who – or at least they should. Nolen ruins his credibility as a science reporter by turning to a site full of slang terms and juvenile insults as a source that endorses violence against people and animals.
To make matters more absurd, the term “science whores” comes from DBO sister site Maul Talk. The name itself is a giveaway that it is not unbiased. There’s nothing objective about using the word “maul” in the title. It’s a site skewed toward violence and it regularly attempts to discredit scientists by slinging insults and accusations, instead of using facts.
Maul Talk verifies some of its insults, which it has catalogued into a glossary, with laughable sources. Maul Talk attempts to give credibility to the term pit nutter by citing its inclusion in the Urban Dictionary. Anyone can add and edit definitions in the Urban Dictionary. It is a dictionary of slang terms, be they terms that are widely used by society or simply inside jokes among friends. To make sure no one missed this point – anyone can add words and definitions to this site. It is unregulated and it is not peer-reviewed by scientists.
So let’s bring this back around to JAVMA: The Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association interviewed someone who thinks the Urban Dictionary is a valid source for information. Thus, a JAVMA senior news reporter gave the same weight to the Urban Dictionary as he gives to the scientific research and views of the CDC, the American Bar Association, Humane Society of the United States, and American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and presidential administrations.
This is embarrassing for the scientific community as a whole.
Dogs and their families can’t afford for a scientific journal to pander to tabloid sites and Facebook likes. Families lose their pets and dogs die when that happens. What’s more, when people give equal weight to alternative facts and actual facts, legislators don’t know what’s true and what isn’t. This means they may pass ineffective laws based on reactionary tabloid language, rather than non-discriminatory, effective regulations backed by well-researched science.
JAVMA as a collective knows this, even if Nolen himself doesn’t. This means that the people behind the journal risked more than their reputations by going for clicks, they risked the safety of communities and the welfare of dogs.
JAVMA has a responsibility to be accurate and to perform its due diligence. They failed. Perhaps the failure rests solely on the shoulders of one shoddy reporter. In either case, JAVMA needs to take action to regain their reputation as a scientific journal.