That Science Coverage We All Hate

By cjohnson | September 8, 2005 4:52 pm

Ben Goldacre, writing in this Thursday’s edition of The Guardian’s science section Life, continues his musings over bad science. The article* is entitled “Don’t Dumb Me Down”, and focuses on one of my pet topics, science in the media.

He makes several observations that I’ve made in the past, and that I also constantly rant on about at dinner parties (which might explain why I have not been invited to any for a while), and so I’ll tease you with some extracts, which will hopefully encourage you to go and read the whole article, and then come back here and chat with us about it, ok? (Below, square brackets represent my own editorial insertions showing where I’ve shortened things a bit, for (relative) brevity’s sake.)

Science stories usually fall into three families: wacky stories, scare stories and “breakthrough” stories.

[Wacky stories] never end. Infidelity is genetic, say scientists. Electricity allergy real, says researcher. I’ve been collecting “scientists have found the formula for” stories since last summer, carefully pinning them into glass specimen cases, in preparation for my debut paper on the subject. So far I have captured the formulae for: the perfect way to eat ice cream […] the perfect TV sitcom […], the perfect boiled egg, love, the perfect joke, the most depressing day of the year […], and so many more.

A close relative of the wacky story is the paradoxical health story. Every Christmas and Easter, regular as clockwork, you can read that chocolate is good for you (www.badscience.net/?p=67), just like red wine is, and with the same monotonous regularity….

These stories serve one purpose: they promote the reassuring idea that sensible health advice is outmoded and moralising, and that research on it is paradoxical and unreliable.

At the other end of the spectrum, scare stories are – of course – a stalwart of media science. Based on minimal evidence and expanded with poor understanding of its significance, they help perform the most crucial function for the media, which is selling you, the reader, to their advertisers.

He goes on to discuss the important example of the MMR media-and-child-health disaster here, which is something you should look up (see his own writings on it here and here) if you’ve not heard about it. He continues:

Once journalists get their teeth into what they think is a scare story, trivial increases in risk are presented, often out of context, but always using one single way of expressing risk, the “relative risk increase”, that makes the danger appear disproportionately large (www.badscience.net/?p=8).

And last, in our brief taxonomy, is the media obsession with “new breakthroughs”: a more subtly destructive category of science story. It’s quite understandable that newspapers should feel it’s their job to write about new stuff. But in the aggregate, these stories sell the idea that science, and indeed the whole empirical world view, is only about tenuous, new, hotly-contested data.

Oh boy, this is an issue especially close to my heart!

Articles about robustly-supported emerging themes and ideas would be more stimulating, of course, than most single experimental results, and these themes are, most people would agree, the real developments in science. But they emerge over months and several bits of evidence, not single rejiggable press releases. Often, a front page science story will emerge from a press release alone, and the formal academic paper may never appear, or appear much later, and then not even show what the press reports claimed it would (www.badscience.net/?p=159).

He gives here the excellent example of the heath scares due to bad reporting about the dangers of mobile phones. He mentions that the big problem there is that they give you little or no information about the science behind the report. He then continues:

[…] papers think you won’t understand the “science bit”, all stories involving science must be dumbed down, leaving pieces without enough content to stimulate the only people who are actually going to read them – that is, the people who know a bit about science.

Statistics are what causes the most fear for reporters, and so they are usually just edited out, with interesting consequences. Because science isn’t about something being true or not true: that’s a humanities graduate parody. It’s about the error bar, statistical significance, it’s about how reliable and valid the experiment was, it’s about coming to a verdict, about a hypothesis, on the back of lots of bits of evidence.

But science journalists somehow don’t understand the difference between the evidence and the hypothesis. The Times’s health editor Nigel Hawkes recently covered an experiment which showed that having younger siblings was associated with a lower incidence of multiple sclerosis. MS is caused by the immune system turning on the body. “This is more likely to happen if a child at a key stage of development is not exposed to infections from younger siblings, says the study.” That’s what Hawkes said. Wrong! That’s the “Hygiene Hypothesis”, that’s not what the study showed: the study just found that having younger siblings seemed to be somewhat protective against MS: it didn’t say, couldn’t say, what the mechanism was, like whether it happened through greater exposure to infections. He confused evidence with hypothesis (www.badscience.net/?p=112), and he is a “science communicator”.

Ok…… I see I got carried away with the extracts there, because it is such an excellent article, and he gives such good examples…. Do read the whole thing -there’s actualy much more more. He goes on to discuss some of my other pet peeves, and you should read the article for…. No, wait, here it is:

So how do the media work around their inability to deliver scientific evidence? They use authority figures, the very antithesis of what science is about, as if they were priests, or politicians, or parent figures. “Scientists today said … scientists revealed … scientists warned.” And if they want balance, you’ll get two scientists disagreeing, although with no explanation of why (an approach at its most dangerous with the myth that scientists were “divided” over the safety of MMR). One scientist will “reveal” something, and then another will “challenge” it. A bit like Jedi knights.

Ok… I’ll stop now. Do have a read of it, and please come back here and tell us what you think!

A plea to science writers and editors out there: Please don’t stop trying. Please Please Please. We need there to be much more science coverage as it is, so don’t think that when scientists complain about the articles that the appropriate response is to not cover science at all. What you most urgently need to do is give the general public the benefit of the doubt. Don’t dumb it down so much. They’ll never “get” the science content if you keep protecting them from it. And do try to break out of that limited number of ways that you think science can be presented. There are as many ways as there are for stories in other areas. Do keep trying. And don’t be shy to consult actual scientists to see if you’re getting the emphasis right. We know a thing or two about science.

A plea to editors and employers in the media: Employ more scientists to help out with the journalism, or at least people who’ve had exposure to science.


A plea to educators:
See that your journalism majors are exposed to more science courses, science majors, and scientists. See that your science majors are exposed to writing, writers, journalism majors, and journalists.

-cvj

(*Thanks Samantha.)

Update: It seems that Ben Goldacre actually has a blog, called Bad Science, where these articles are posted, and you can go in and duke it out with the man himself if you want to take issue with what he writes. (He’s arguably a bit unkind to humanities graduates in this article for example.) The link for this article on the blog is here. The other links in the quoted text above are also links to the blog.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science, Science and the Media
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