Trying to see the sense in science reporting


Science: It works, bitches.

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The world can be a bewildering place. Every day, we are inundated with information on any subject imaginable — including, and particularly, health. It's understandable that we all want to keep up with the latest do's and don'ts with regard to our well-being. But let's face it, even with convenient and relatively easy Question everythingaccess to peer reviewed studies these days, we don't have time to sift through all the latest scientific journals and weigh up the empirical evidence and related opinion on any given subject — let alone read and understand the studies themselves.

Instead, we take the short cut. We glean what we can from the media: TV, newspapers, magazines and, yes, the Internet. The articles are short and give us the basics, the bare essentials that keep us in the loop. Or do they? Well, the truth is, it's difficult to say. Newspapers — as well as other media sources — have an ostensible duty to their readers to provide the clear, unsullied facts relating to the most interesting or significant matters of the day.

Yet, all the while, they may have another voice nagging at their conscience: that of their sponsors and advertisers. Commercial media outlets, by their very nature, tend toward the eye-catching and the sensational. And — let's not kid ourselves — as readers, so do we. We all want to hear the miracle cure, the easy alternative and the simple explanation. And, whether we end up believing what we read or not, the copy that results from an appetite for eye-opening headlines can be anything but healthy.


Contradictory advice

In the scramble for an audience, the messages we receive can get mixed. Even the usually reliable BBC website recently published two apparently conflicting articles — literally side by side — the first declaring that "lifestyle choices" are the cause of a significant percentage of cancers, the second that most types of cancer are not caused by the usual personal health choices but are "just bad luck." At first, the explanation for the apparent contradiction is not that easy to spot. The truth is that while most types  of cancer are caused by genetic mutations that we cannot control, the risk of most preventable  cancers can be potentially reduced by making healthier lifestyle choices. So, though both articles are arguably true, at first glance the facts are difficult to ascertain.


Journalistic methods

Essentially, scientists and journalists have two different (and even contradictory) agendas. Scientists pursue lines of study based on the evidence available and make an attempt at arriving at a point where they have data that can be peer-reviewed and criticized. Their view of data is (or, at least, attempts to be) objective. Journalists have arguably the opposite impetus.

Ben Goldacre argues in his book Bad Science that "[j]ournalists are used to listening with a critical ear to briefings from press officers, politicians, PR executives, Bad Science by Ben Goldacresalespeople, lobbyists, celebrities and gossip-mongers, and they generally display a healthy natural scepticism: but in the case of science, generalists don’t have the skills to critically appraise a piece of scientific evidence on its merits. At best, the evidence of these 'experts' will only be examined in terms of who they are as people, or perhaps who they have worked for."

On the reporting in a British newspaper of a case in 2009 Goldacre said: "nobody can have a meaningful opinion, because newspapers are no place to communicate breakthroughs which are incompatible with large swathes of current knowledge, and based on what seems to be weak and even contradictory evidence."

Obviously, a good way to sift objectivity from opinion is by working out who said what and why. Citation is an important factor when reporting developments in health. The second of the two BBC cancer articles cites a paper published in this month's Science, while the first has no citation and only includes an unsourced reference to "figures from Cancer Research UK." This doesn’t automatically mean the article is misleading but it does leave the reader with no recourse but to either delve unguided into the Internet in a Dante-esque search for these "figures" or to simply take the reporter’s word for it (hint: not exactly a scientific approach). 


Question everything

The bottom line seems to be that, if we want to hear a balanced view and find out the truth about science in the media, we really ought to be listening to the scientists themselves. But then how do we go about sifting the sense from the sensationalism and getting to the facts without miring ourselves in the nuts and bolts of matters we may not fully understand?

Question everything

Unfortunately, it's not an easy problem so there really is no easy answer. Be ready to always ask questions, even when you perceive an article to be reliable. Who commissioned that study? Who benefits from that report? Read as much as you can, from as many sources and angles as you can find and then make up your own mind based on who has said what and, more importantly, why. And, above all, never take anyone’s word for anything. Not even mine.