Science vs. the Media: a Winnable War?

The media: a stumbling block in scientific developments?

Science and the media have had a long and tempestuous relationship, but in recent years there seems to be a consensus that they have been more often and more severely in conflict. The biologist Sir Paul Nurse presented a BBC Horizon episode entitled “Science under Attack”, exploring the development of scientific controversy and the role that the media has played in confusing the public about mainstream scientific consensus. As Sir Paul investigates, the loss of faith in science by the general public is one of the most disastrous developments of the modern age, particularly when we are so dependent on technology and scientific progress. This idea was reinforced in Brian Cox’s documentary on the ways in which the media can be used and abused to communicate science to the general public. The rapid developments that affect our daily lives are mostly delivered through the medium of news and television, and it is therefore imperative that the messages delivered through this medium are accurate and effective in spreading new ideas. Scepticism about vaccinations, climate change and GM crops is explored by these programmes; public loss of faith in the scientific consensus for these issues could have catastrophic consequences on health, the environment and society.

But what is it that causes the discrepancies between the media coverage of such issues and the scientific consensus? The point that is driven home by both Sir Paul and Brian Cox is the journalistic lack of understanding of peer review and its importance in the development of new ideas. Scientific work is self-regulated by peer review which is a process whereby researchers critically evaluate and attempt to refute new concepts. This is a continuous process, as the principle of the scientific method is not that facts can be proven, but rather that theories must be disproved and replaced by better ones. It is therefore right that once new theories have passed through the process of peer review and been accepted as the consensus at this stage, this information should be passed out to the public. There is not much point in publishing endless streams of data and providing the public with a step-by-step guide to the science behind a new theory, as the public will not have the understanding to process this information properly, and experts in the field should have already done this. Therefore, the public should be able to accept receiving the information after the peer review stage.

What is evident through reading multitudes of media reports on the same topics is that most journalists have little or no understanding of this process. If they did, the only news that would be published would be that which had the backing of the majority of the scientific community. Which is not the case. The MMR scandal a few years ago was based on the research of a scientist whose findings had not been accepted by his peers. This has subsequently resulted in several outbreaks of mumps and measles, an example of the dangers of this type of reporting.

In some cases it is the process of data interpretation which is proposed to be at fault. The Climategate scandal, which was based on the discovery of controversial e-mails sent between members of the University of East Anglia, is an example of just one of the recent disagreements between researchers and the media. Headlines about this issue were highly inflammatory; The Daily Telegraph put “Climate change: this is the worst scientific scandal of our generation” on the front page. Many members of the public may have looked no further, taking this sweeping statement as fact, which could seriously harm attempts by scientists and global leaders to decrease carbon emissions. The researchers claimed that the data tweaking mentioned in the e-mails was a part of the normal statistical manipulation that must be undertaken to make sense of the vast quantity of data they receive. The journalist who wrote up his findings saw this as gross manipulation of the facts. But as most scientists would realise, data is almost always unusable in its raw form and must be interpreted using statistical techniques. The subsequent public request for this data under the Freedom of Information Act cannot have been as informative as hoped, as non-experts will not have the skills to analyse such data into meaningful fact. It is the trust in those who are more equipped in their training to provide scientific answers to important questions that is being subverted by media which does not follow scientific protocols.

Journalists need to check their sources, not by getting a wide variety of views on the topic or trying to interpret the raw data themselves, but by making sure that the view they are proposing is the one that is accepted at that time. This will be imperfect, as many discoveries are later found to be false, but at least it will be trying to understand the science as it is meant to be understood.

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