17th September 2009 Jonathan Harris

Badscience Vs the Lord

Last night I had the pleasure of attending the debate between Ben Goldacre (of Badscience fame) and Lord Drayson, Minister for Science.

Chaired by Simon Mayo (yes of the BBC) the statement posed was: Bad science reporting: is it bad for your health?

Lord Drayson went first. His argument is that we do have an awful lot to celebrate in science reporting, yes there have been disasters in the past (BSE, MMR) but the standards are rising. We cannot afford to be complacent, it is a virtuous circle. He argued that across today’s media landscape you need a mix of sensation and accuracy. Good reporting needs to gather the attention of the public and drive interest. The more that people engage and understand science the more likely they are to adopt and embrace new technology.

Both sides mentioned that scientific journalism is under threat, CNN, The Boston Globe and Washington Post have all gutted or disbanded their science departments. There is a real danger to science reporting across the world due to short-sited cost cutting.

Science needs access to the mainstream of popular culture, Lord Drayson and Dr Goldacre both agreed that you do need qualified, specialist journalists, not journeymen or women generalists more suited to the usual politics and human interest. Lord Grayson wants to learn the lessons of MMR, encourage the science community to engage the media professionally. If you have a voice – as he does at cabinet level, then you can advise and influence policy at the highest level.

Today’s intelligent media demands professionalism as well as street smarts in science. There is a need for a science Press Officer to interface with the mainstream media in most science organisations. He emphasised that yes we should critisise bad science but also push and praise good science – if we just bash it then soon it will vanish.

I was really impressed by the position he took. It’s fairly common sense, and not as far from Dr Goldacre’s as I’d previously read.

Though both tried not to trade examples back and forth Ben Goldacre did choose to highlight the odd behaviour of the Daily Mail in the UK and Eire, backing the MMR vaccine in one territory and condemning it in another. It cannot be denied that we are misled on stories on a daily basis. This continuous mis-reporting erodes our basic understanding of science, of evidence based reporting (ie facts!) and common sense.

He argues that the impact of the media cannot be underestimated. Misreporting does create doubt, does mislead and does cause people to make bad health choices. It influences the public but it also influences doctors as well as academic, and the citations they create. In the main stay this is a system failure, rather than an individual one (I might argue that in some cases). Editors and even science journalists are seduced by press releases and spin.

Goldacre wails ‘There is nothing out there for the nerds’. He may well have a point there, there’s nothing in the mainstream media that consistently talks to the scientists, or those with a scientific background. There must be thousands of middle managers with science backgrounds and degrees that aren’t being included or catered for.

To journalists he offered some advice… don’t collaborate, fight and speak out. Don’t be afraid to critique your own paper or establishment. Encourage and let scientists speak in their own words.

And scientists, be aware. Scream when misrepresented. Talk to the media, talk to the public, develop social media, blog. Don’t depend on mass traditional media. Be relevant, readable and accessible. Maintain your nerd collatoral, seduce the uninterested. Link to the data, be transparent.

My feeling at the end was that they were broadly coming from the same place. Both thing science reporting is essential. Both see mistakes in the past and some hope for the future. Both hate misrepresentation and sloppy journalism. Lord Drayson wants to celebrate the advances we’ve made, and use those triumphs to defend and grow science journalism. Ben Goldacre can’t quite bring himself to do that just yet, the balance has yet to be tipped in his view and we have to continue with constant vigilance, determination and the will to name and shame.

Lord Grayson is a reasonable chap, and kudos to him for fronting up (as he had been all day) on this topic. He’s obviously got a vested interest in the topic and strikes me as the sort of working peer that the House of Lords should be full of. He’s balanced and qualified to talk about the subject, my only slight dismay was that he appears a bit naive. When asked what he’d do to set mis-reporting right he could only offer that he’d use influence to gain a correction. If you’ve ever seen a newspaper, especially a tabloid make a correction then you’ll know why this is a weak response. They’re buried deep in the paper, long after the event and the horse has well and truly bolted.

Ben Goldacre can appear despite best intentions as a bit of a zealot. Passion and commitment yes, and to be honest I’m a huge fan but I don’t know if he was grandstanding for the groupies (and yes they do exist) but there were times that to my ear he could have been a bit more gracious and balanced. It doesn’t matter what your message is if you’re too much hard work to listen to. People will have long switched off or tuned you out. Having said that I do think there is a place for his energy and scorn. There is a need to pull people up when they’re sloppy, cynical, misinformed or just plain lying. He is a self appointed watchdog, through his work, the lens of celebrity and the media rich world in which we live, using that power and influence carefully will get the best results long term I think.

There were many journalists present, they spoke eloquently and with passion. These are the good guys that both speakers were lauding. From The Guardian, The Daily Mail, The Economist. They’re doing a tough job under often cash strapped conditions and from the tone of their responses they’re sick of getting a kicking from the likes of Dr Goldacre.

So what’s my take on accuracy in science reporting – the sensationalism will take care of itself – get the facts right and the wow will follow. I’ve had a day to think about this, and though this may be aiming at some sort of utopia bear with me.

If you slander or libel then there are means of gaining redress, ok you can debate the effectiveness of our libel laws elsewhere. If you feel you have been unfairly treated in the newspapers then you have the PPC. An incorrect advert falls under the watch of the ASA. Science reporting needs something similar, and with teeth. An organisation that fulfills many roles, some outlined by the speakers. It can train and aid scientists in how to communicate professionally, from mass media, television training and press release writing to blogging and tweeting. It can make science communication part of the curriculum, if you can’t share your idea then frankly no one will care. When a complaint is made about a published story (in any medium) it can sit in judgement as a panel of peers and review the content then the evidence that the publisher has furnished or used in arriving at the conclusions they’re promoting. The panel need to decide whether the reader would arrive at a conclusion that is supported by the evidence/data beyond the smokescreen of the headline.

I think if you publish a newspaper then you should be compelled to have links on your website to the data, evidence, whatever – that you’ve based your story on. A little transparency never hurt and it would allow those with an interest to pursue and decide for themselves. It would encourage and maintain transparency and rigour in journalism and encourage the science community to make communications digestable as well as the more science based papers. Publishers should celebrate and be encouraged to promote the thoroughness of their research and reporting, science is the pursuit of the truth, there’s no reason for reporting to be any different. Willful misrepresentation should result in a fine, a correction and public censure.

It should be remembered that misreporting isn’t always about poor journalism, it can be purely about sales. Many have taken the tack of going with a headline to sell editions, knowing that they can afford the fine and bury the correction. As Simon Mayo asked: “is science reporting really any worse than the rest?”

Here’s the webcast so you can join in the debate: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/webcast.html