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Friday, 23 July 2010

The end of this blog

Please note that this blog is no longer being updated as it has now been incorporated into the ABSW's new website. Please check there for the latest news, job postings and everything else.



ABSW Web Manager

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

DEBATE: Is the mainstream media’s science coverage broken, misleading, dangerous, lazy, venal, and silly?

FOR: Ben Goldacre, doctor and author of the Bad Science column (in the Guardian) and book

Please note: The authors were asked to submit no more than 500 words and neither author had sight of the other author's copy prior to publication.

Discussions on this problem could easily descend into banal lists of examples. As a starting point, here is my banal list of examples. The irresponsible reporting on MMR – which continues even now – is this profession’s flagship of shame. The endless over-extrapolations from tenuous studies to specific dietary recommendations are absurd, and mislead the public on the specifics of a healthy lifestyle, but also on the very nature of how we know if something is good for us or bad for us. The 'scientists have proven' stories which turn out to be built on a PR survey or some PR 'report' are equally corrosive, and are frequently well-disguised by correspondents eager to affect professionalism. Then there are the distorted studies, sometimes on topics as sensitive as rape. If you want more examples, I’m never short of material for the column.

Neither of us have quantitative data on how much science reporting is flawed. So how much bad reporting is too much? How bad is too bad? Of course there are reasons. Of course sometimes these articles are written by people who you might choose not to identify as science journalists. But these are the people who write about science in the media, and these are the kinds of articles that cause concern.

I’m no absolutist. There is some good reporting, and there are some problems: I think the problems should be addressed, but until then, the key problem is this industry’s baffling resistance to engaging with its flaws.

The background to these two pieces today is, perhaps, an illustration. There was almost no discussion of these problems at the recent World Conference of Science Journalists in London. I suggested a free meeting in a pub to discuss remedies, along with two academics who blog, in an internet post on my website. In response, Steve Connor wrote a column in a national newspaper lambasting us (Lofty medics should stick to their day job, The Independent, 30 June 2009), describing us repeatedly as three medics (only one of us is), accusing us of medical arrogance, and deriding our meeting, which he described as having happened the night before. In fact it was the day after his article was printed. We offered him room to speak, and invited him to attend: Steve said he would try to come, but sadly did not.

Since the spectre of medical arrogance has been raised, let me draw a parallel. All the medical professions today (I wouldn’t give doctors special status) recognise the value of listening to the critical voices of patients. Sometimes it’s frustrating, because we feel we do our best, and because critics from outside a profession may be – we feel – wrong about the mechanisms of how problems arise, or naive about the best solution. But outsiders are very likely to be right about the basic fact that there is a problem. Instead of denying that, space in this journal might better be spent on science writers discussing what to do about it.

AGAINST: Steve Connor, Science Editor, The Independent

Please note: The authors were asked to submit no more than 500 words and neither author had sight of the other author's copy prior to publication.

Ben Goldacre’s columns are often entertaining and in the public interest – two ingredients of good journalism. They are welcomed in the battle against anti-science and the mountebanks of disinformation. I thought we were on the same side in this struggle. However, it seems that Ben sees science journalists as part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. Of course bad science stories do sometimes appear in the mainstream media, but to tar us all with the same brush is as silly as saying that all doctors are potential mass murderers because of Harold Shipman.

At the time of writing, I’ve not been able to see the justification for his withering words, so I’ll make do with what he’s stated before. He has said, for instance, that there was a “collective failure” of the news media in regard to MMR and the way they ignored “all countervailing evidence” against the claims of Andrew Wakefield. In making such sweeping statements, he is being selective in his use of the facts, a criticism he levels at science journalists.

He must be aware of the Wakefield coverage in his own newspaper, written by its health correspondent on the day of the 1998 press conference [1]. No-one reading this journalist’s account could possibly go away with the idea of this being unchallenged science.

Or take the coverage on the same day in my own newspaper, written by its health editor [2]. The very first words in the front page story came from experts who urged parents to continue vaccinating their children. The coverage in both papers by experienced specialist journalists was loaded with quotes and comments expounding the countervailing evidence – it was not ignored.

For my own part, all stories directly on MMR written over the past 10 years were deeply critical of the Wakefield hypothesis and have emphasised the scientific justification for vaccination. I went out of my way to emphasise the countervailing evidence [3].

Ben has made a second career out of post factum critique. It’s a genre I’ve done myself with a Sunday’s newspaper’s unscientific claims in the early 1990s that HIV doesn’t cause Aids [4], with the bad science behind a daily newspaper’s claims that GM potatoes are poisonous [5], and the terrible journalism of a television documentary suggesting that global warming is a swindle [6]. Two of these were the product of non-science journalists, and the third was written by a health correspondent with an unhealthy interest in Surrey ashrams.

But unlike Ben, science journalists cannot survive on critique alone. Nor could they survive on just keeping bad science stories out of their paper – although I’ve done my fair share of that, such as a flawed story about cellphones and suicides (only to see it appear in another newspaper). To survive, we have to find and write stories that can compete in a busy news agenda. If science is not covered by specialist writers, it will be done by general reporters – or not at all. Does Ben Goldacre really want that?

[1] The Guardian, 27 February 1998, “Alert over child jabs”, p. 1 and “Doctors’ dilemma: damned if they publish, damned if they don’t”, p. 5.

[2] The Independent, 27 February 1998, “Doctors link autism to MMR vaccination”, p. 1 and “Emotive and controversial issue that splits medical profession”, p. 5.

[3] The Independent, 9 February 2002, “Why parents are ignoring the rational experts”, Comment section p. 4.

[4] The Independent, 21 May 1993, “The truth about the growing menace of heterosexual Aids”, p. 6.

[5] The Independent, 15 October 1999, “It is Britain’s pre-eminent medical journal. Now its reputation hangs on a single issue”, p. 3.

[6] The Independent, 14 March 2007, “The real global warming swindle”, p6.

EDITORIAL: Call me the awkward squad

You'll see a piece about the Templeton Fellowship in this issue, and I don't feel I can let it stand without at least some comment. When Mike Hanlon suggested writing the piece I felt snookered. On the one hand I felt it would be giving the wrong kind of publicity to an organization that seems to me to be both pro-religion and anti-science, and that, it could be claimed, uses wads of cash to bypass the integrity of otherwise decent scientists and journalists. On the other hand, holding this view made it impossible for me to claim that I could make an objective decision on the subject, so I couldn't in good conscience say no.

I'm not going to say anything more about the Templeton Foundation here, except that I will, some time in the next few months, write explaining the evidence behind my concerns.

As far as this issue's debate is concerned, I'm in an awkward position there too. For years I myself had moaned about the poor quality of science journalism, and to this day I'm a bit of a fan of Ben Goldacre's scathing approach. On the other hand, I've seen how a good story can be butchered by a bad editor, and how a bad story can be seized upon by an editor who can only see the shocking headline and increased sales. That's not down to the journalist.

I think there's a link here. We're all incredibly lucky to work in science journalism, but it's only worth doing if we can do it well, if we can make a contribution. If not, there are a thousands of other jobs that are interesting, allow us to use the same skills, earn a decent salary, and not lose sleep at night. I choose only to work for publications where I have respect for the publications and my immediate editors (and they at least pretend to have respect for me). And I know my own limitations in terms of the subjects I can write about well and with insight, and I stick to those (whether they're fashionable or not).That means some years I get more freelance work, others less. I have to make sure that I have other work -- teaching and editing -- to pay the mortgage. But I'm not embarrassed about the work I produce.

Of course I want to be paid well for my journalism. That would be ideal. But I'd rather be paid nothing (I write a blog when I have time) than compromise on the quality of the work that I produce, or be paid to forward the agenda of an organization whose values I know I don't share.

That might sound priggish, but, after attending the WCSJ, I think there are a lot of others out there with the same sensibility. I think there might even be more of us than there are chancers who will write anything as long as they can get a byline and a paycheck. So Steve Connor is right (talking about the former), and Ben Goldacre is right (talking about the latter).

And Mike Hanlon? He could be talking about being funded by any foundation, Templeton or otherwise, but I personally think his piece displays both a cynicism and a casualness about accepting money that make him dead wrong.

Sunny Bains
Editor, The Science Reporter

NEWS: The Creative Rights Alliance recovers

Despite the sad passing of its chairman, The CRA continues to tackle issues of paramount importance to writers, such as digital copyright and a European Commission attempt to clamp down on any recommendation of rates.

Cometh the hour, cometh the… organisation. As pressure on the rights of authors, journalists and other creators rises, the Creators Rights Alliance appears to have steered itself out of the doldrums which arose from the illness and recent death of its founder chairman David Ferguson.

David, a self-taught musician, had achieved eminence both as a successful composer of music for TV and as a radical advocate of creators’ rights. The loss of his energy and focus hit the CRA a near-fatal blow and it has taken some time to recover. An obituary written by his friend Mark Fishlock appeared in the Guardian on 28 July.

The ABSW has been involved with the CRA since 2001 and has attempted to play a significant part in the development of its policies. A few critics have questioned whether the Association should get involved in the fight to support the rights of such a broad slew of media creators, many not connected with writing or science.

But recent news – Google’s 'opt-out-or-be-dammed' announcement regarding its plan to digitise every book ever published, or the confused debate over the fate of supposedly ‘orphaned’ works, for example – make it clear that there really is nowhere to hide. There are corporate interests out there that will have the benefit of your work free of charge if they can get it.

The CRA met in July under its vice-chairman Mike Holderness, a freelance journalist, policy consultant, and National Union of Journalists activist. The meeting launched a redesigned website, published a manifesto, restructured the organisation and reinvigorated the sense of purpose of delegates of affiliated organisations. There has been a much-needed rebalancing, with a reduction in the perceived emphasis on music interests and the emergence of stronger voices from the other genres, including those of journalism, book writing, illustration, photography and design.

There is also a clearer definition of the role of the CRA which should remove the roadblocks set up by the demand for consensus on every policy issue. It now sees itself as a forum for UK organisations representing creators: both authors and performers, roles that are increasingly merged in the digital world. The CRA’s raison d’être is that organisations can, when they wish, throw their weight behind joint initiatives and statements.

An important new strategy is to seek a high profile representative to take the CRA chair as a figurehead and spokesperson. Ideally, this individual will already be active in some field of creator’s rights so that they can bring in significant networks of contacts. Nominations are being sought from the affiliate organisations.

The current arrangement over chairmanship will probably continue past the organisation's annual general meeting in November, with the vice-chair handling the meeting-to-meeting running of the organisation including setting agendas for meetings under the new chairman.

The CRA’s present administrator, Lucy Weston has decided to move on and will be replaced with a researcher-administrator (see advertisement) who can assist the chair, vice-chair and committee with policy development, lobbying and fundraising. Funding is secure until the end of the current financial year, with a reasonable prospect of support from the Journalists’ Copyright Fund thereafter.

Elsewhere, The CRA has been active in Europe and contributed to The Creators’ Forum, which met in Brussels in June. The European Commission has struck – perhaps unwittingly – at the bargaining power of freelance creators by attempting to use competition law to stop any recommendation of rates – an activity that the ABSW has recently begun, albeit through the legal loophole of characterising it as a historical record. This prohibition of rates advice has already been disputed by the CRA in UK Government policy.

The Brussels meeting agreed to approach the European Commission with a range of proposals for the support of authors’ rights in late 2009. Proposals will draw heavily from the new CRA Manifesto.

The CRA has already demonstrated in its involvement with government departments that a combined voice carries much greater clout than the simple sum of its parts. As the ABSW’s representative, I shall continue to argue that proper protection of the UK’s creative talent – the feedstock of every media sector – will in the long term strengthen UK media and benefit the economy.

Mike Harrison

The ABSW is a CRA affiliate organisation. Mike Harrison represents the ABSW on the CRA’s national committee.

NEWS: Free help for investigative journalism projects

A new initiative from City University, London, will supply investigative researchers from its Science Journalism Masters Course to working journalists who apply.

The intention of the scheme is to provide research support for in-depth scientific investigative journalism as part of a joint partnership between the Journalism Department at City University London and ABSW.

According to the course director Connie St Louis “Many science journalists often have projects which they are convinced will lead to a great story but often lack the time and resources to commit to it. The scheme will provide an excellent opportunity to address this.”

All of the highly skilled graduates will be mentored through their six-month research projects by the Director of the Centre of Investigative Journalism, Gavin McFadyean.

To apply, please complete the online form and outline briefly what the project entails. The deadline for applications is Friday 25 September 2009.

NEWS: 'PRs have morals,' says study funded by PRs for PRs

Public relations professionals have higher morals than surgeons, businessmen and accountants, claims a study (and its press release).

A study suggests what many journalists have doubted for years – that public relations (PR) professionals have an effective moral compass.

Renita Coleman at the University of Texas, Austin, and Lee Wilkins at the University of Missouri found that public relations practitioners are more morally developed than orthopaedic surgeons, business professionals, accounting students and veterinary students, but less developed than doctors, philosophers and journalists.

The study looked at 118 PR professionals, working for PR firms whose clients include the likes of Exxon–Mobil, GlaxoSmithKline and Reebok. Using a series of questions from a survey called the Defining Issues Test (DIT), they posed six ethical dilemmas to each subject.

One asked whether to tell experts hired to promote a herbal medicine that there is potential for the product to be abused. Sixty-six percent of respondents said that they would tell their experts about the potential abuses. Seventeen percent said that they would not.

Another scenario asked whether they would confirm or deny leaked information about a school closing. This time 31 percent were in favour of confirming the story, 32 percent said they would deny it, and 37 percent couldn’t decide.

Tallying the responses from each scenario, the researchers calculated an average 'moral development score', which they then ranked against other groups of professionals tested in other studies using the DIT. The PRs ranked seventh out of all groups assessed in the hundreds of previously administered DIT studies (see table below).

The researchers say the study is “the first to empirically measure the moral development of working public relations professionals”.

And it certainly had the audience and backing – the study was published in the July issue of the Journal of Public Relations Research ("examining our understanding of why organizations practice public relations as they do and by studying ways to conduct public relations more effectively," according to the journal's website).

Furthermore, it was funded by a $10,000 grant from the Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication – a research centre dedicated to the study and advancement of ethics and responsibility in corporate communication and other forms of public communication. Proof positive that there is a journal – and grant – out there for almost anyone.

Andy Extance is a freelance science journalist.

FEATURE: Faith, reason and the Templeton Fellowship

The Science Editor of the Daily Mail, Michael Hanlon, gives his take on the Templeton Journalism Fellowships.

Like a former Prime Minster’s aide, I have never ‘done’ God. I went to a soppy Anglican Primary School, with a liberal vicar, no hellfire or brimstone, no guilt-trips nor eternal torments. But even so, all that stuff about fluffy clouds and heaven, people getting nailed to posts and rising from the dead, the tricks with the bread and fishes … it all left me cold. At least the Tooth Fairy was good enough to provide tangible evidence for her existence.

Since childhood my atheism has waned and waxed. I went through a brief, and frankly risible, flirtation with faith in my early teenage years, mostly sparked by a pretty but unforthcoming girl in a bible study class, but that was that. The stony road of atheism for me ever since. But faith is a fascinating thing and so, when the Templeton Foundation approached me in late 2008 to ask if I would consider applying to be a Cambridge-Templeton Journalism Fellow for 2009, my curiosity was pricked.

The Templeton fellowships are run by the Templeton Foundation, a think-tank founded by the late Anglo-American billionaire Sir John Templeton ‘to encourage dialogue between science and religion’. In Sir John’s country of birth, this dialogue has become something of a tedious slanging match, with ‘science’ pitted against fundamentalist Christianity. Here of course things are a tad more subtle.

I went to a Templeton meeting in the 1990s in Washington and was impressed to find not the bunch of religious loonies I was expecting but impeccably secular cosmologists, philosophers and, in short, proper people. People like Cosmologist Neil Turok, protégé of Hawking. Here also Jill Tarter of SETI; if Earth’s alien-finder general could take the Templeton shilling then this had to be half respectable. But even so I had my reservations. The old Sir John died last year, and the Foundation is now headed by his son, John Jr, who is of a far more traditionalist Christian bent than his dad (John Jr has donated money to an anti-gay-marriage campaign in California). Then there is the Dawkins issue. Prof Dawkins, High Priest of the Atheists, actually spoke at a Templeton Fellowship a few years ago but now clearly regrets it, calling the Foundation a berth for ‘scientists who have nice things to say about religion’. More of Dawkins later.

In the end I decided my reservations were not enough to put me off. This sounded interesting at the very least, useful and contact-building almost certainly and, just possibly, intellectually enlightening to boot. Oh yes, and there is cash: $15,000, plus a books allowance and all expenses covered. Better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. So I agreed to apply.

So what is the Journalism fellowship and how does it work? Set up, I was told, in response to the 2001 Al Qaida attacks it attempts to allow a small group of ten journalists, selected annually, to ‘examine the dynamic and creative interface of science and religion’. No, I had no idea what that means either but I jumped through the hoops of the selection process (which include a rather formal interview and the writing of a studenty essay - in my case on Cosmology) and early this year I was informed that I was in.

The ‘fellowship’ is a curious beast, run jointly between the Foundation and Cambridge University, which was to be our temporary home. Intensive and demanding, it is every bit an American take on ‘English Academia’ – i.e. to a Brit intensely, and fascinatingly, foreign. First of all, it must be said, it is tremendous, rather theatrical, fun. You get to hole up in a posh hotel (the Garden House) for a fortnight at someone else’s expense and spend dreamy summer days in King’s College listening to world-class philosophers, biologists and cosmologists giving their take on the great issues of faith and reason.

In the evenings there is the rather camp air of the 18th Century Salon, with semi-formal dinners in various colleges with guest speakers holding forth on topics as diverse as Darwin’s correspondence and Isaac Newton. On one occasion, the Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees dropped in, no religious nutcase he. My fellow Templetonians were a diverse lot, representing a swathe of upmarket American and Canadian media, from a senior editor at Time magazine to the Literary Editor of the Toronto Globe and Mail. They will have to speak for themselves but I think I can fairly say that we all found the experience delightful and bewildering in equal measure. I certainly learned some stuff.

I found the palaeontologist Simon Conway Morris’s talk on evolutionary convergence truly fascinating. Sarah Coakley’s take on the evolution of co-operation was dense and demanding but all pretty much new to me. The philosopher Richard Swinburne mounted a forensic attack on the interpretation of the famous Libet experiments, which appear to show that free will is an illusion. My fellow Templetonians for the most part found Swinburne impenetrable and incomprehensible, a throwback to the 1930s perhaps. I agreed, but not that this was a bad thing. For me he was one of the highlights of the whole course.

Looming over the whole shebang the shadow of Richard Dawkins, whose name was often invoked. It is true we had some atheist input (from the excellent Simon Blackburn) but I got the impression that the Templeton ‘club’ sees Dawkins as persona if not entirely non grata then certainly rather beyond the pale. Some speakers were better than others. Tariq Ramadan, a controversial Muslim academic, gave a rambling talk on Islam. I found the neurobiologist Steven Rose dogmatic and unconvincing and the cosmologist John Barrow, whose talk I had been much looking forward to, rather impenetrable. But for the most part the speakers had prepared well and gave excellent value for money.

The Fellowship is controversial. When one of the Fellows, Edwin Cartlidge, a Rome-based British freelance, approached Anthony Grayling and Daniel Dennett for cooperation in his project (on materialism) they refused and mentioned the request to Dawkins, who writes about it on his website. Dawkins once spoke at one of the Templeton Fellowships but clearly regrets having done so, stating: “I see him [Cartlidge] as in much the same position I was in when I agreed to go, a victim of exactly the kind of subversion of science that Templeton is making its speciality.”

Well, I don’t think anyone tried to subvert me, nor my belief in reason and ‘science’. There was certainly no overt religiosity, no discernable prejudices espoused. Nobody tried to convert me, to Christianity or any other religion. Most of all (and again I am speaking only for myself) I felt and continue to feel under no pressure whatsoever to write in a particular way or take a particular line on anything whatsoever. We are supposed to get our theses published, in some form or other, in the papers or magazines for which we write but, again, how we do so and in what form any such writing appears is completely left to us and our editors.

As to the people whose shilling I took? Well, I don’t like John Jr’s take on gay marriage, but who can afford to examine the views and prejudices of all the directors and proprietors of the organisations for which we work? For its faults, the Templeton Foundation does at least appear to be encouraging people to think, and to think about some of the most intractable and fascinating problems facing both science and religion. And that cannot, surely, be a bad thing.

Michael’s new book is Eternity, Our Next Billion Years - recently published by Palgrave Macmillan.