Essay:Science and the media

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Essay.svg This essay is an original work by Armondikov.
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Science and the media have an odd symbiotic relationship. On the one hand, a good piece of science that is widely distributed in the popular press and captures the public imagination will ensures that, when it comes to the next round of funding, you'll have a big smile on your face. On the other hand, and I dare say this is the far more common case, science is one of the most misrepresented, misquoted and most badly understood subject that newspapers will report on. So for every good documentary shown on TV, or every well researched and interesting story on the Large Hadron Collider appearing on the BBC News website, we have dozens of "Scientists have discovered the equation for..."[1] or "Scientists say peanuts now cause cancer..." or "Scientists say that some popular social networking website will now KILL YOU!" and so on. Skipping the obvious point, which is that these sort of stories tend to be fundamentally untrue, we need to ask the question of why are these reported? Is it because science isn't interesting to the reader so they have to find the sensational aspects and selectively report it? Probably not, the niche market for good, interesting science and technology stories is probably at least as large as the niche wanting to hear every pointless boring detail about sport - but if a paper printed an incorrect score and then completely misreported the match to back it, there'd be absolute hell on. Fans would riot, sports teams would possibly sue... yet somehow, they can get away with misrepresenting science on a daily basis.

Is it, then, because actual science is hard, too hard for this niche of people to understand? Perhaps. You need to spend three years doing a chemistry degree just to get the basics of how everything works into your head, there's practically no time to learn the finer details about pieces of research which you'll probably continue to be clueless about for the rest of your life. And even then, you'll still not be able to read a biology or physics paper and appreciate it. You can take a full four years studying computer science and still not fully know, at a fundamental level, how a computer works. And stick a molecular structure down in front of you and you'll still be scratching your head. There is a lot of detail and information that has been accumulated by science, and it can only continue to grow. It is difficult, if not impossible, to be able to comprehend the details of everything considering it takes years just to get the basic details of one thing. But this is not an excuse for not reporting science and just sticking with these semi-scientific stories like "the equation for the perfect holiday"[2] (which, if you looked at the equation, would actually maximise if you stayed at home and did nothing[3]) or ones that are outright fraudulent (see most Daily Express headlines for the last decade or so). People not understanding is not the issue - indeed you can argue that it's the media's job to make the people understand. Leading scientists usually operate websites that tell you about their research and often they're well written, and clearly understandable from a non-expert view. Some journals, such as Science publish news and blogs that are written for non-experts and the Cochrane Collaboration - the big hitter for all systematic reviews of medical literature - publishes excellent lay summaries of their work so you can understand it without having to have a degree in medicine twined with a degree in statistics.[4] So it is possible and it is done.

Of course, papers will still publish sensational articles and misrepresented articles. The will continue to patronise their audience with almost shameful lapses in fact, reducing science and technology to the level of glossy gossip magazines. They'll also continue to publish their retractions, buried in the ads section on page 68, with small print saying how they "may" have "misquoted" someone - an absolute travesty when the story they're correcting was actually massive headline saying "FLU JAB AS DEADLY AS CANCER",[5][6] but never mind. Until we can force newspapers to make their retractions as equally prominent as the errors they report (something I would like, but would have to object to on certain practical grounds) we might want to look at other solutions. The solution I propose has two benefits; firstly it prevents tabloids publishing absolute fiction and secondly, it improves the experience of consuming news when it is well reported, such as on the BBC News website - where (plug plug) my group's research once got a well reported mention (okay, so it was basically just a rehash of the University's press-release, but I have nightmares about what would have happened if The Express got hold of it...).[7]

Anyway, the solution is simple. Newspapers are sold with a clear indication that what they are reporting is news, and by extension, mostly factual. They're not sold in the fiction section of a bookshop, for instance. Indeed, the press have specific rights and specific standards to be allowed to call themselves "The Press" and "The News". Similarly, inside these newspapers you have stories quite clearly labelled, on their website they're on sub-pages for easy access. You have the politics section, which is about politics, you have the sports section, which is about sport (I presume, as I'm one of those people for whom the phrase "Arsenal vs Spurs" conjurers up an image of a rack of guns against some actual spurs and thinking "well, it's great for stabbing horses with but it's not going to do well against those bullets"). And we have the science and technology sections, which is assumed to contain science and technology. So the proposal, then, is that any "science and technology" story, any story that claims "scientists say..." or "scientific tests show..." and contained within a "news" provider is made a protected term - protected in the sense that it can only be called "science and technology" if it meets certain requirements. This requirement is simple; the stories must contain a link or citation. Lots would be nice, one will do. If a "scientists says" something, we want to know who they are and where they said it - this is very, very important.

This is already done on blogs to more or less of a degree. Ben Goldacre, The Lay Scientist, PZ Myers et. al. all link out to their sources. These people don't just say "oh, I can't be bothered, just Google it", they link out and prove that what they've said is the case. Perhaps they don't prove their case, perhaps they misquote or misrepresent the link, he point is that they've sourced their statements and facts and the readers can check. This puts a lot of power in the readers hands and would makes the papers more respected. We need to know where and when they get their sources. During the MMR scare which peaked in 2002 in the UK, very few articles written on the subject mentioned Dr Andrew Wakefield, the individual doctor who, in 1998, published the one paper (since retracted, but that's not the point) that the entire scare stood on - there were more that talked about Tony Blair's young son Leo than talked about Wakefield.[8][9] If papers were forced to cite the paper (which is "Wakefield, AJ; Murch, SH; Anthony, A, et al., The Lancet (2998), 351, 9103, 637-641", incidentally) then this gives us something to work with. Are they citing an actual paper or a conference? Are they talking about research, or a website on par with Time Cube? Were they contacted by a University press office or a PR company? All of these questions can be seen from the title of the source alone - you don't need to be online to click a link or have an account to read the journals to see this key information. So without this source, a story cannot be considered as part of "science and technology" (maybe add "health" to that too, as some of the more insidious twistings of fact are usually put under that banner). This way, we know that the papers have done their job and informed us correctly. Would people be less likely to believe the horseshit presented to them if it had to be marketed under "lifestyle" rather than "science"? Possibly, it would take a slow paradigm shift in how people consume news.

Providing a source - an actual source you can visit, not a name, which is done quite often but usually they're stealing quotes from a press release and making it appear as if they've done a real interview - is not going to stop papers publishing and misrepresenting scientists and their research. But it does mean that we'll be able to tell where they're getting their information from. Would a politician stand up and recite a bogus story about cockroaches on the London underground if the papers made it clear that the story came not from an intrepid research group, but a PR company (and not just any PR company, but the same PR company that Rentokil uses)?[10][11][12] Would we be lead to believe that Facebook is causing syphilis if the paper linked out to the original press release (which really said nothing of the sort)? Here's hoping.

What is ultimately needed is an attitude shift that puts these science and technology and health stories on the level they deserve to be; respectable and factual. This cannot happen so long as newspapers are allowed to print what they like, label it as "science" and demean the term even more.


I'd almost feel hypocritical if I didn't cite some stuff;

  1. VKendology: Your Guide to the Perfect Night Out - This one is notably more open about what it is, but is the exception for an "equation story", which make it look like it's legit research rather than PhD students pissing about and earning £500 for their trouble.
  2. BB News - Cornish resort has right formula - I've slightly raved about the BBC in this essay, but in its defence here, this isn't in the Science and Technology sections.
  3. The equation divides by "time to destination" and "cost", so as these decrease the holiday gets better, which sort of makes sense. But if you stay at home and did nothing, both of these values are zero and the figure tends to infinity. But maybe that was the joke.
  4. UK Cochrane Centre
  5. Bad Science - Jabs “as bad as the cancer”
  6. The original Express story was quietly pulled from its website, this quotes pretty much the same tripe, however: - HPV vaccine ‘As deadly as the cancer’
  7. Oooh, do I want to give this out?
  8. BEn Goldacre - Bad Science
  9. ESRC - Public Duped by Media over MMR
  10. The Independent - Business Diary: Rentokil bugged as PR gaffe is exposed (one assumes that The Independent either didn't fall for it or quietly removed the original story after the "gaffe" aspect was circulated by bloggers)
  11. The Daily Mail - The 2,000 bugs taking a ride in every train compartment
  12. NHS Middlesborough - Warning as syphilis cases increase