Thursday, 11 March 2010

Can we rely on the media to convey science accurately and fairly? A UCL Human Sciences Symposium


Yesterday I attended a symposium with the above title, where four very distinct and interesting speakers gave their perspective on science reporting in the media. Here's my brief take on proceedings.

The first speaker we heard was Professor Steve Miller, who described an international study he published in the prestigious journal Science regarding scientists' interactions with the media (you may need a subscription to see the full text, give me a shout in the comments if you want me to email you a PDF). Prof. Miller's point was essentially that whilst many scientists relay anecdotes of their horrible experience in speaking to the media (being mis-quoted, mis-understood, made to look like they were supporting position X when their research shows Y and so on), the survey they carried out painted a much more positive picture overall -
Overall, 57% of the respondents said they were "mostly pleased" about their "latest appearance in the media," and only 6% were "mostly dissatisfied"
To many people in the audience - who were mainly students of history/philosophy of science and human sciences - and perhaps to reader(s) of this blog, this is a picture we simply don't recognise - if most scientists are happy with the way their work is covered in the media, why do blogs like mine exist? How has Dr. Ben Goldacre - more on his work later - made a career out of debunking media coverage of science, and how is it that glaring failures of science reporting - whether on MMR (again, more later), GM foods or mobile phone masts ever occur? Prof. Miller suggested one - that whilst scientists rated their own experience of media interaction positively, they were less positive about coverage of science in general, indicating that somewhere the media can get science reporting wrong - but I'd like to put forward another caveat not really covered in his study. In the Science paper, Miller and colleagues treat all media interactions as the same - whether with the editors of Nature/Science/NEJM/PNAS/WTF, or the News of the World. I wonder whether a more detailed survey of scientists' interactions with the lay media, in particular the tabloid press that is prone to howlers that I'm sure you're familiar with, would be as positive. A strange contribution to the debate, I've no doubt that Prof. Miller's study was accurate (in that it reflected the views of those who responded), but it fails to square the circle of science in the media when one reflects on the various examples of Bad Science in the press.

We then heard from David Dickson, director of the website - a collection of quality science reporting from across the world. He began with a theoretical look at what the media's role in science should be and vice versa - which contained the most frequent and gratuitous use of the word 'paradigm' I've ever witnessed - and went on to tackle an interesting phenomenon where the quality of science reporting is linked to who deals with it within a news organisation. Dickson's assertion - and one I largely agree with - is that most science stories start off as just that - stories about a scientific issue, reports on a discovery/study/trial that centre on published studies and are covered by science desk reporters. By and large, dishonourable exceptions aside, these stories are both accurate and fair. Stories such as MMR-and-autism, climate change and alternative medicine, however, migrate through time to becoming the responsibility of first news desks and then political desks, at which point both the accuracy and fairness can slip. Dickson's point was that this is because whilst the scientific community considers accuracy to be the correct reporting of the facts of a study, and fairness to be the reporting of said facts within the context of current consensus opinion in the field - whereas when a science story 'goes political,' accuracy becomes more about 'what person X said' and fairness becomes more about presenting two sides to each story - whether or not that means elevating fringe opinions (homeopathy cured my cancer, for instance, when reporting on the lack of efficacy of homeopathy) to the same status as the consensus, which creates the impression of genuine debate where there is none. Interesting angle, and one that perhaps underlies a lot of bad science reporting - not only that non-specialists cover essentially scientific stories, but that their methods in doing so distort their coverage - albeit unintentionally perhaps.

Then came Evan Harris MP, former medic and Lib Dem science spokesman. He took us through the various 'fight-backs' he has been involved with, from his involvement in the Pro-Test movement in Oxford that backs animal research, to the debate over the safety of GM foods, and of course his work during the debate of the use of human embryonic tissue in research (which I blogged about in three parts) and the recent Select Committee report into homeopathy and the NHS. Through these experiences Evan has come up with the following: that science journalism may not be perfect but it remains the most effective tool to inform the public of the facts surrounding issues in science, and that by using many of the same tactics used by those opposed to scientific progress (be they religious groups, CAM practitioners or scare-mongering anti- mobile-phone-mast-tin-foil-loons), scientists can in fact alter coverage of their work and the issues it raises in their favour.

The last contribution came from Brian Deer, the journalist who has heroically taken apart Andrew Wakefield's claims that the MMR vaccine causes autism. Here I will tread carefully, so as not to upset anyone...

Brian is clearly a passionate man - his presentation bordered on the jibbering rant, but was still a powerful demonstration of the failures at the heart of the MMR debacle. Failures which, in Brian's version, lie entirely at the feet of Wakefield himself and the massive cover-up of his fraudulent 'research,' details of which emerged in the recent General Medical Council's damming verdict. I have no doubt that Wakefield was a fraud, that he dishonestly manipulated both families and data in publishing his study, and that research fraud is a major issue in science - in a heated and fractious Q and A session following the talks, Deer pulled up this study on falsification of data that showed 2% of scientists admitting they made data up and 14% saying they knew colleagues who had - but I found Deer's angle on the whole debacle unsettling.

Yes Wakefield's behaviour was desperate - but Deer insisted that the media was innocent in the subsequent reporting of his research as they had been duped by a fraudster. Whilst I agree that the fraud was despicable, what of the credulous reports (hundreds of them) over the years that chose to back his position - and irresponsibly claimed that children were damaged by a vaccine when many, many large and high-quality studies showed the opposite? What about the editorial coverage and opinion articles that championed Wakefield and his work, written by non-experts, that newspapers chose to run and that caused a massive drop in vaccine uptake? Fraud doesn't turn this story into the monster it became, incompetent and irresponsible journalism, driven by headline-chasing editors and an explicit policy to focus on the personal (the maverick Wakefield standing up to establishment bullies) over the factual (MMR does not cause autism, never has, never will). Deer went as far as to criticise Ben Goldacre on this issue, claiming that Ben had shared a stage with him recently 'going on and on about how it was the media that failed in MMR.' (Perhaps, if by some chance Ben is reading this, you could clarify this...? What is Brian referring to, and is it accurate and fair reflection of what you said?)

Sadly if journalists take the position that Deer did - to let their profession off the hook entirely and blame a rouge researcher when in reality they share responsibility for the utter farce in this case - leaves science journalism open to subsequent abuse. Just look at the furore over the 'climategate' emails - masses of press coverage over the integrity of a few loose cannons threatens the entire edifice of public support for action against man-made global warming.

Science journalism is a vital tool in harnessing support for research and in fostering rational policy formulation. If the public is subjected to many more climategate/MMR-style scandals, trust in science is in danger of evaporating, and this is not helped by blaming unscientific reportage on the rogues that provoke it - scientists and journalists must all take responsibility to convey science accurately and fairly, or else the tension between the two professions personified in Deer's anger will only worsen.


1 comment:

ben goldacre said...

Sounds fun, don't think I was invited.

I lay the responsibility for the MMR debacle with Wakefield AND the
media (as is well evidenced by the ongoing antivaccine stories, even
today after Wakefield has been exposed, and the stories on other
vaccines, and indeed the long prior history of vaccine panics).

Deer, as you point out, says it is only Wakefield. That's his view and
like you I disagree.

I don't know why Deer would say that I think Wakefield is not at all
responsible. We've chatted about how that's not what I think, he's
seen me talk on it, it's not what I say in the book, the columns, etc,
I think it's both Wakefield AND the media, so maybe that's a
misunderstanding? We've never shared a platform but we did chat about
doing a friendly “who's worst, Wakefield or the media?” debate after a
talk with Vaughan from MindHacks and Petra Boynton at Skeptics in the
Pub. It'd be a fun event, we should do it, I saw Deer's 40 minute
recounting of the Wakefield story at a conference a while ago and it
was excellent.

Before everything that Deer dug up on Wakefield, 5 years ago, I
certainly wrote that the Lancet 1998 paper was a banal 12 subject case
series report that didn't justify the coverage that ensued. That paper
has since turned out to be dishonest and unethical. But even if it had
been immaculate and fine, it still wouldn't have justified the
coverage that ensued.

I do think it's worth thinking carefully about unpicking all the many
causes of major panics like MMR, because they'll keep happening, and
it's worth having a few thoughts about how to stop them getting so out
of hand.

ben goldacre