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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.