08 January 2010

Bad science, bad media

So here we are, newly arrived in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Yet in an era of bionic prosthetics, large hadron colliders and gene therapy, media corporations pay self-styled astrologers and ‘psychics’ to cast horoscopes and tell fortunes, the charlatans’ babble splashed across newspapers, magazines and websites. And on the same payroll as the mumbo-jumbo peddlers are journalists who cannot, or will not, differentiate between science and pseudoscience.

Doctor and journalist Ben Goldacre has dedicated himself to ‘dismantling foolish media stories about science’, which he does with righteous gusto in his book Bad Science (2008). Goldacre’s analysis of the woeful state of science journalism is worth quoting in full, for his observations are likely close to the bone.

My basic hypothesis is this: the people who run the media are humanities graduates with little understanding of science, who wear their ignorance as a badge of honour. Secretly, deep down, perhaps they resent the fact that they have denied themselves access to the most significant developments in the history of Western thought from the past two hundred years; but there is an attack implicit in all media coverage of science: in their choice of stories, and the way they cover them, the media create a parody of science. On this template, science is portrayed as groundless, incomprehensible, didactic truth statements from scientists, who themselves are socially powerful, arbitrary, unelected authority figures. They are detached from reality; they do work that is either wacky or dangerous, but either way, everything in science is tenuous, contradictory, probably going to change soon and, most ridiculously, ‘hard to understand’. Having created this parody, the commentariat then attack it, as if they were genuinely critiquing what science is all about.

This perception of science as being groundless, tenuous and contradictory is the toxic fallout from the explosion of postmodernist and poststructuralist ideas, which sought to undermine the basis of knowledge and truth statements about the world. Science, according to some self-indulgent theorists, is but one ‘system’ amongst others, with no special claim to veracity. This demotion of science allows it to be co-opted by commercial interests, where PR companies court scientists to write up promotional material disguised as ‘science news’. An article predicting the evolution of humans into six-and-a-half feet tall, coffee-skinned people with bigger dicks and more pert boobs turns out to be paid for by bikini-girls-and-fast-cars ‘men’s TV channel’ Bravo. Meanwhile a study by ‘Cambridge mathematicians’ showing that actress Jessica Alba has ‘the ultimate sexy strut’ is funded by Veet, makers of hair removal cream (incidentally, there were no Cambridge mathematicians involved in the ‘study’, which was apparently a survey of eight-hundred men asked to rank ten celebrities for ‘sexiness of walk’. Jessica Alba actually came seventh). Articles spouting formulas to calculate either the happiest or the most miserable day of the year are sponsored by an ice-cream manufacturer and a travel agency respectively. Such are the rotten fruits borne of epistemic relativism. After all, the relativist reasons, if science is only one kind of ‘truth’ system, shouldn’t it then be amenable to the demands of any other equally valid system?

The current media trend, especially online, calls for short, reductive reportage, regardless of the subject matter. Whether it’s a celebrity hook-up/break-up/death/sex scandal or a new medical breakthrough, the journalist has only got two-hundred words to tell his story with. Yet science does not generally lend itself well to bite-size summary. Many areas of study can be quite complex and any speculation voiced by an expert is often tentative, with plenty of provisos and caveats. This can be frustrating to a reporter, who needs to render the imposingly dense science into something snappy and attention-grabbing that will sell papers. Question: What’s the one phrase scientists use that journalists hate the most? Answer: “It’s a little more complicated than that.” It seems at the outset that the slow, rational, fastidious nature of science is irreconcilable with the fast-paced, emotive, sensationalist spirit that animates the media. And it is the public that loses out when important science news is delivered to them only after being mangled by (perhaps well-meaning) journalists trained in a totally opposite culture to that of the scientists they interview and use as a resource.

To remedy this, Goldacre argues that science stories should be covered by trained science journalists, and not generalist writers (though with media producers facing tighter budgets and shrinking staff numbers, a smaller pool of writers are under pressure to create the same amount of – if not more – content, so reporters are increasingly having to wear several hats). The difference between a science-related story and, say, a narrative of a trans-Siberian roadtrip is one of kind, not degree. Science stories aren’t simply human interest essays with lots of numbers, Star Trek jargon and an alphabet soup of acronyms thrown in. While a New Yorker article on urban gastronomical delights can be generous in its degree of poetic license and subjective perspective, writing on hardcore science issues like the African AIDS epidemic (and the monstrous denialism that exacerbated it) demands a far more stringent approach. In an ideal world, unqualified journalists would be legally barred from writing on complex scientific topics that they are incapable of reporting on with accuracy, fairness and objectivity.

The importance of good science journalism is usually highlighted by its absence. Case in point: the vaccines-cause-autism hysteria in the US and the UK. Unlike those in the anti-abortion or anti-evolution camps, people who oppose child vaccinations do so not because of ideology, but because of ignorance and misinformation brought about by incorrect, irresponsible journalism. Because the anti-vaccine crusaders include charismatic celebrities like actor Jim Carrey and his girlfriend Jenny McCarthy (they have an autistic son), and because they also possess considerable emotional cachet to elicit sympathy for their cause, the media have taken their side and aided them in perpetuating the lie that vaccines cause autism in children. Meanwhile, scientists like (pediatrician and co-inventor of a rotavirus vaccine) Paul Offit who actually know the facts – and are only too aware of the dangers of not vaccinating children – are vilified as whores of Big Pharma, promoting vaccination out of greed and cynicism. In an uncommon example of good science journalism, Amy Wallace writes in Wired magazine’s November 2009 issue (‘An Epidemic of Fear’):

The doubters and deniers [of the safety and neccesity of child vaccinations] are empowered by the Internet (online, nobody knows you’re not a doctor) and helped by the mainstream media, which has an interest in pumping up bad science to create a “debate” where there should be none.

When science journalism’s integrity is compromised by commercial motives, bad science flourishes because it creates controversy. And controversy sells.

The Western media prides itself as the defender of free speech and its corollary, access to information. Consequently, it enshrines the public’s right to be informed while skirting around the bothersome matter concerning the quality of the information. So what we get is a semi-regulated information market with caveat emptor as the reigning principle. Instead of the wisdom of crowds, we have the folly of the misinformed masses. But the public is complicit in the creation of this sorry state of affairs. If people can’t be bothered to acquire a basic understanding of probability, statistics, risk evaluation and evidence-based science, this raises the question: do they deserve to be correctly informed?

The right to information – fundamental for empowering the citizens of a democracy – does not imply the right to be spoon-fed mush that has been pre-chewed for us by an infantilizing media. We consent to the dumbing down of information whenever we refuse to exercise our intellectual capabilities, specifically when it comes to evaluating the accuracy of the data, news, advice, soundbites and hearsay we avidly consume. We are open to infection by all the spin, lies and misrepresentation in the media unless we vaccinate ourselves with knowledge of the dodgy methods employed by the sensationalists and scare-mongers. Reading Ben Goldacre’s book is a good start to one’s self-inoculation.


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