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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  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    I liked this article also, and was about to post about it – nice job. If you’re a humanities graduate, and have a sense of humor, goldacre has some choice quotes that Clifford hasn’t included that you might enjoy (I’m not saying I agree with them, only that they’re funny writing).

  • http://www.lbbp.net/skepticrant LBBP

    “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.”

    I’ll second that and expand my plea to include ALL media outlets especially television and film.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    Oh, yes. I do mean all of them! Thanks.

    -cvj

  • Ed Hessler

    Glad you posted this for it deserves wider circulation. It is, of course, well written and funny, provocative too. I’d read it earlier in the day.

    And I agree, all media as they massage the message. Ah, would it be nice to have many articles, science and non-science vetted by “knowers” but do these guyz and girlz work right up against print deadlines and then on to the next story, assignment, etc.

    Cheers.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    Ed, I think that there is a different editorial standard used for science stories vs other stories, say about politics. The amount of stuff that can just be plain wrong, misleading, inaccurate, etc in a single science article can be staggering. If the same standard of inaccuracy was left in the average political writing, there’d be a scandal. So they spend a bit of time checking their politics stories, but assume that nobody really cares about the science stuff…nobody understands it so nobody will write in….and even if they did, it’s just those eggheads who don’t matter anyway….

    So I don’t think the “working against print deadlines” excuse for them will fly.

    Cheers,

    -cvj

  • http://pantheon.yale.edu/~eal48 Eugene

    The article is a riot to read. Though I must say that his frequent humanity-person bashing is a bit counterproductive. Sure I enjoyed the bashing (I do plenty of those as a graduate student…), but at the end of the day I wonder if he is actually writing to “us” scientists, or writing to the general public.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    His humanities-bashing is a frequent part of his writing. I think it is part serious (in ways that I might even sign on to) and mostly tongue-in-cheek (given that it is so frequent and stylized).

  • Stephen

    Even if it’s tongue-in-cheek, I still worry that Goldacre’s writing comes across as bitter and arrogant. Would you be happy for someone to write, say, “And scientists, who suspect themselves to be intellectuals, desperately need to reinforce the idea that art is nonsense: because they’ve denied themselves access to the most significant developments in western culture for 2000 years, and secretly, deep down, they’re angry with themselves over that”?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Maybe; maybe not. depends on the tone and how often I read them to undestand it. On first reading, no. If I read them a lot, like this guy, I’d have a sense of humor about it.

  • http://vincible.blogspot.com vinc

    I’ve written a post about this at my blog. The super-short version is that many of the problems with science journalism are really problems with all journalism.

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  • http://valatan.blogspot.com bittergradstudent

    Two thoughts: American media DOES get the political stories every bit as wrong as it does its science stories, following all the patterns described above–the “he said, she said”-ism, confusing cause and hypothesis with effect, and above all, absolutely REFUSING to give any background information to help expalain the context of government actions, problems, etc. The runup to the invasion of Iraq offers a very good example of this

    Second, as someone who was both a science major and a humanities major back in my undergraduate days, I have to say that I get a bit annoyed with the dismissive attitude that my fellow physics grad students have toward humanities students, pretending that ANYONE can major in philsophy or English, and that the vast majority of people studying such things are simply desperately trying to hide their lack of knowledge. I’ve seen far, far more dumb business and engineering undergraduates in my career than I have dumb philosophy and Art majors.

  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2005/06/trigger.html Plato

    Qulog,

    You have to go with the flow:) It’s kind of creative thingy. It sets the stage for further events.:)

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    bittergraduatestudent :- fair point, but on balance I’d still say that there is more care given to reporting on politics and other things than there is to science. There are several spectacular examples of things being totally wrong (Irag, Katrina, etc), but there is far more out there in terms of volume to sample from than there is in science, and when you sample, you can put together a reasonable case that they’re at least trying to get at least some of it right…. but in science, it is far more common to see someone get a bunch of quotes, buzzwords from talking heads and a few experts, and then totally make up a science fiction story, by using those quotes etc out of context and in the wrong order, and present it is an ongoing research issue. This happens in the rest ofthe news media too, but not as commonly and gratuitoously as it seems to for science reporting…. Bottom line is that there are no consequences (in their mind) for getting such things wrong. You get the politics that consistently wrong and you can lose advertisers, readership, behind the scenes politcal support, etc….

    -cvj

  • http://pantheon.yale.edu/~eal48 Eugene

    quoth bittergradstudent : I’ve seen far, far more dumb business and engineering undergraduates in my career than I have dumb philosophy and Art majors.

    Now, now, no bashing engineering students okay? I was an engineering undergraduate before I took my PhD in astronomy, and (as I like to add) so is Dirac!

    As for business undergraduates, bash away!

    (Long live majorism….)

  • Jim

    I was struck by this:

    “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. ”

    Which reminded me of the whole evolution controversy. There, it seems to me both sides are playing to their weaknesses — scientists quote famous scientists who say something like Evolution is a fact and you have to be stupid not to believe it, and the ID types claim their stuff is science. The IDers are challenging the science on its home field, and the best defense the scientists come up with is to say louder and louder that evolution is a fact. Why not play ball? I even suspect a lot more kids would be excited by science if they actually had to think through the evo/ID business themselves. I think scientists are too afraid to trust the ability of the masses to separate fact from smoke and mirrors. Or they care more about some message being sent than what people actually believe. Of course, the creationists are also care more about this… Let them have it.

    Jim

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Jim. This isn’t at all what is going on with evolution. Scientists tell you evolution is an established theory because it has unimaginable amounts of support from data and experiment. ID isn’t science because it fails evn the first, most basic criteria and tests.

  • Jim

    Mark,

    What I’m saying is that I’m more interested in the evolution/ID issue than easily 99% Americans. Yet still I’ve seen no discussion of the actual evidence in favor of evolution anywhere. It’s always “Expert X says evolution has an unimaginable amount of established evidence.”

    A related issue that I’ve never seen discussed is the difference between a theory predicting results of future experiments and a theory giving a concise explanation of past observations. The second one is a much weaker test, and probably many people reject it outright. For instance the difference between the heliocentric and geocentric theories of the solar system is only that, up to a good approximation, the first can be described much more simply, not that they predict different things about the future–afterall they’re the same thing but under different coordinate systems. I suspect that much of the evidence for evolution is also of the second kind. I have never doubted evolution, though I now realize it’s because it does well as judged by the second kind of criterion above, not because it does well by the first.

    These are probably the fault of science journalists, but I suspect that scientists are not completely free from blame. Nevertheless, it seems to me this is a golden opportunity to get a large segment of the population actually thinking about these things rather than telling them to accept something because (they are told) it has been verified by scientists. Americans are very practical. If you show them that evolution does predict the future, they will believe it. What better way of showing them how it does that than by comparing it to a theory that predicts nothing?

    Jim

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  • http://electrogravity.blogspot.com/ Science

    “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. ”

    The problem is that science is entirely based on this, the better journalists refusing to dig into science at all or make any statements of fact themselves. The weaker journalists who don’t quote authorities for every single fact, end up getting it wrong or overstated. Most of these people can’t do arithmetic, they’re English Lit graduates at home with Shakespeare and art, not science.

    The worst example I’ve ever seen showed they can’t even add up logically! On BBC TV a journalist quoted an opinion poll of a sample of 1000 people [hence error of +/- 1/(root N) or 3%] as 47% +/3%, when the real result was 47% +/- 1.6% (i.e., +/- 3% of 50%, not 47-53). He then went on about his (misinterpretation of) the uncertainty as including 50% and therefore being too small a sample to suggest a minority or a majority. These people should made to stick to reporting Shakespeare related news. 😉

  • Aaron Bergman

    Opinion polls generally give two sigma errors.

  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2006/02/history-of-superfluid-new-physics.html Plato

    I wonder if a good science mind can leak into politcal views? :)

    If this is so, it makes them even more accountable for their opinion? More correct, then the human being in which they would judge? :)

    No really, as human, as any of us I am sure. Some might try to make you think different.

    I don’t know of one opinion that is not countered, okay, lets not call it left or right, but a oscillatory journey to some truth, “about” the truth of it?

    Maybe like a term likeresonance with which John Baez has come to a resolve? About which, while used in this sense, all thinking matured to the relevant ideal of science. Ah! I see. What the media should be writing?

    What is a good science journalist and supply by name ones that you know.:) What is one man’s opinion worth, least he be associated to a organization? Will his opinion be tainted about those things which I should read?

    Space provided:

    If we are to infer by deduction the qualities that any of science mind would think appropriate, then such standards would have already been apparent? The views shared, current and to date?

    Thank God for the blogosphere, where individuality has been shared through perspective, least we had been deluded by the media? :)

    While Quantum Diaries might not have been thought successful, there are those who had gone on to help us see the science. Thanks John Steinberg on microstate blackhole perceptions. Thanks Michio Kaku for helping us to understand hyperspace. Thanks Brian Greene, Thanks Lee Smolin for all your books. Thanks…etc.etc.etc.

    Can a pure mathematical thought become deluded by the host when expressed to a conceptual application? Some of your predecessors had been called kooks while they held the values of science at their hearts. Some would tell you because as they aged, they somehow became senile, and lost touch. How nice.

    I struggle to make sense, if for one minute, any of these gentlemen would have been counted better as a human being, then how about another, because of their writing skill. I guess they were not artistic enough in their skill, to write “the book” as others? Okay use an editor?

    Okay ID book here by the name of, and over here “true science.” Your way is right uh I mean apropriate, but he saids that you are?

    What does the “shock” do to a coherent system?:)

    Trackback, to the “Future of the Notebook.” I am speaking to you from the fifth dimensional with only words. The depth is measured by? Graphics is easy to measure, but not the depth of the words people choose?

  • http://electrogravity.blogspot.com/ Science

    Plato,

    Einstein affected politics in many ways, using his scientific authority. In 1939 he wrote to President Roosevelt suggesting nuclear weapons as a deterrent, but in 1954 he signed a declaration calling for disarmament.

    Why did the media report or credit Einstein’s political views? Put it another way, if everyone respected Einstein as much as they claimed, why didn’t everyone listen to Einstein in 1939 (the Manhatten Project funding started in late 1941)? Why didn’t the west disarm immediately when Einstein’s pacifism went against deterrence?

    It doesn’t matter how much media gurus write about things, people still make up their own minds. The public is not stupid and won’t automatically be conned by someone’s political expertise if they are expert in mathematical physics.

    What is sad is that the science journalists don’t feel confident to investigate physics as they do politics. They don’t rely on what mainstream politicians tell them, but they do exactly that for physics. They’re usually proud to either worship mainstream authority in physics, or proud to say that the mathematics is too awesome to discuss or probe.

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    Jim, I believe that the ID/Evolution debate only exists because most people are science illiterate. We hardly teach science in primary school and the science education you get in secondary school is just abominable.

    The ID proponents then don’t have to use scientifically correct arguments to convince people of their point. Scientists are at a clear disadvantage when debating ID proponents. I do think they could do a bit better, though, by invoking other well established facts.

    E.g. we know that the world consists of atoms and is described by the laws of physics. You can’t have ID in such a setting whatever evidence against Darwinian evolution you present. That’s like using the Pioneer anomalies to argue that general relativity is wrong and that therefore gravity has a supernatural cause.

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