Oh, my science

Science reporting is in rude health in Britain, and also in a poor state, often getting basic science wrong and misleading the public. So (roughly) said Lord Paul Drayson, Science Minister for the government, and Dr Ben Goldacre, writer of the Bad Science column in the Guardian in a highly entertaining debate at the Royal Institution last night. Ok, so I've somewhat condensed the argument, but, strangely, they're probably both right (a reflection, perhaps, of how well they both argued). Lord Drayson made good points as to why science journalism has improved and why we need to celebrate it, and Ben Goldacre was entertaining as ever with his points and examples of very bad science reporting, many of which were still worryingly recent.

The most telling comment, though, came from Michael Hanlon, the Daily Mail's science editor, who was in the audience. Taking the example of the Mail saying that coffee could both cause and cure cancer, Hanlon pointed out the [1] number of studies done on coffee actually reflected this, with half saying coffee was beneficial and half saying  it was harmful.

Now, short of going into the lab and watching each experiment, the only way you're going to be able to say if this is significant or not is by doing a systematic review of all these papers - one paper alone is not necessarily an indicator in itself one way or the other - and coming up with a conclusion.

But therein lies the problem. Individual papers make good news, and the Mail is not necessarily wrong when it reports that coffee both causes and cures cancer. There's a good chance both reports are accurate with regards to the source material.

These both make good headlines. A review that concludes that it's difficult to say whether coffee is indeed good or bad for you doesn't have quite the same level of attention-grabbing.

What, Hanlon asked, would you have me do?

It's easy to feel sympathy for both sides here. Goldacre is right to despair at some science reporting. When you read some of his clinical dissections of poor science journalism (for example, 'Exercise Makes You Fat') you shudder and feel ashamed for your profession.

But then, the journalist has space to fill, deadlines to meet, and papers to sell. And science isn't quite like your political scandals or natural disasters. There's no clear narrative. One paper may be produced, peer reviewed and shown to be not all that. How does a journalist get something exciting, sexy, reader-grabbing AND accurate out of all this.

A lot of Ben's suggestions - features, encouraging bloggers, getting the public to be more discerning readers, getting scientists to write columns - are great intentions. Not all of them are without problems, and my worry would be if you did this, you may start to lose science from the news pages, which would not be a good thing.

On a slight tangent, I'd like to bring in my brief experience as one of those arts and humanities graduates, mentioned occasionally in the debate, who've ended up in journalism and isn't overly scientific (which is to say I understand science methodology and the philosophies behind it a hell of a lot better than I do the science itself. Which I often definitely don't understand).

In my reporting days, I'd tend to shy away from science stories (other than the fact they often weren't things that our target audience were meant to be interested in) because I didn't feel confident enough in handling them, or handling them accurately. I struggled with basic GCSE biology. I really wasn't the best person to critique or summarise an academic's work.

When I did cover science, the interviewee tended to get a relatively easy ride, again, due to my own lack of knowledge. And, yes, all too often I'd end up relying on a press release, especially if they were well-written and clear. It's perhaps not something I can say I'm overly proud of, but hopefully you can understand why (especially given how understaffed we were). Give me a football or local government story on the other hand.... No need for press releases there.

[This isn't to do I'd do this for all science or health stories. Lifestyle stuff, like your miracle cancer cures or food x causes y usually tended to get my bullshit alarm ringing].

Again, the question: what would you have me do?

Also, a secondary anecdote from my time editing the student paper.

Coming into the editor's chair, I was painfully aware how under-represented the science and medicine students were in the paper, especially given their bulk around campus, so we launched science and health pages - the first time, to my knowledge, the paper had ever included such sections.

I put out appeals to all science and medicine students, via email, asking them to get in touch if they were interested in editing or writing. I've no idea exactly how many students that went to, but it would have been in its thousands.

I got four responses. One ended up becoming our science editor, the other wrote a brilliantly vivid piece about his time on placement in hospital in Pakistan, and I never heard from him again, despite several emails almost begging for more articles. The other two never followed through. Ok, we got a couple more throughout the year, but that was still less than ten students (roughly).

I'm not quite sure what conclusions you can draw from that.

But back to the debate. It would be hard to say either side won, although that wasn't really the point. Both are right - it's good to praise good journalism and encourage it, and Ben Goldacre's right to bang the drum against poor science reporting which, at best is embarrassing and, at worst, dangerous.

The main thing was the debate was taking place in the first place. Just discussing whether science journalism is done well probably indicates both sides are right in their own way.

There's a more coherent write-up here and here from people who probably, unlike me, took notes. You can watch the debate here. I'd highly recommend it if you have a spare 90 minutes.

[And if anybody's wondering about the title of this blog post, it's a reference to a particularly demented and brilliant episode of South Park where Cartman freezes himself to get a Nintendo Wii but ends up in the future where Richard Dawkins' teachings reign supreme and there's a war between mankind and otters. It makes sense, honest.]

[1] It's late at night and I'm going by memory here.