Don’t dumb me down

September 8th, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in adverts, alternative medicine, bad science, bbc, cash-for-"stories", channel 4, channel five, chocolate, dangers, express, gillian mckeith, independent, letters, mail, media, mirror, MMR, PhDs, doctors, and qualifications, references, scare stories, statistics, telegraph, times, very basic science, weight loss | 85 Comments »

We laughed, we cried, we learned about statistics … Ben Goldacre on why writing Bad Science has increased his suspicion of the media by, ooh, a lot of per cents

Ben Goldacre
Thursday September 8, 2005
The Guardian

OK, here’s something weird. Every week in Bad Science we either victimise some barking pseudoscientific quack, or a big science story in a national newspaper. Now, tell me, why are these two groups even being mentioned in the same breath? Why is science in the media so often pointless, simplistic, boring, or just plain wrong? Like a proper little Darwin, I’ve been collecting specimens, making careful observations, and now I’m ready to present my theory.

It is my hypothesis that in their choice of stories, and the way they cover them, the media create a parody of science, for their own means. They then attack this parody as if they were critiquing science. This week we take the gloves off and do some serious typing.

Science stories usually fall into three families: wacky stories, scare stories and “breakthrough” stories. Last year the Independent ran a wacky science story that generated an actual editorial: how many science stories get the lead editorial? It was on research by Dr Kevin Warwick, purporting to show that watching Richard and Judy improved IQ test performance (www.badscience.net/?p=84). Needless to say it was unpublished data, and highly questionable.

Wacky stories don’t end there. They never end. Infidelity is genetic, say scientists. Electricity allergy real, says researcher. I’ve been collecting “scientists have found the formula for” stories since last summer, carefully pinning them into glass specimen cases, in preparation for my debut paper on the subject. So far I have captured the formulae for: the perfect way to eat ice cream (AxTpxTm/FtxAt +VxLTxSpxW/Tt=3d20), the perfect TV sitcom (C=3d[(RxD)+V]xF/A+S), the perfect boiled egg, love, the perfect joke, the most depressing day of the year ([W+(D-d)]xTQ MxNA), and so many more. Enough! Every paper – including this one – covers them: and before anyone bleats excuses on their behalf, these stories are invariably written by the science correspondents, and hotly followed, to universal jubilation, with comment pieces, by humanities graduates, on how bonkers and irrelevant scientists are.

A close relative of the wacky story is the paradoxical health story. Every Christmas and Easter, regular as clockwork, you can read that chocolate is good for you (www.badscience.net/?p=67), just like red wine is, and with the same monotonous regularity, in breathless, greedy tones you will you hear how it’s scientifically possible to eat as much fat and carbohydrate as you like, for some complicated reason, but only if you do it at “the right time of day”. These stories serve one purpose: they promote the reassuring idea that sensible health advice is outmoded and moralising, and that research on it is paradoxical and unreliable.

At the other end of the spectrum, scare stories are – of course – a stalwart of media science. Based on minimal evidence and expanded with poor understanding of its significance, they help perform the most crucial function for the media, which is selling you, the reader, to their advertisers. The MMR disaster was a fantasy entirely of the media’s making (www.badscience.net/?p=23), which failed to go away. In fact the Daily Mail is still publishing hysterical anti-immunisation stories, including one calling the pneumococcus vaccine a “triple jab”, presumably because they misunderstood that the meningitis, pneumonia, and septicaemia it protects against are all caused by the same pneumococcus bacteria (www.badscience.net/?p=118).

Now, even though popular belief in the MMR scare is – perhaps – starting to fade, popular understanding of it remains minimal: people periodically come up to me and say, isn’t it funny how that Wakefield MMR paper turned out to be Bad Science after all? And I say: no. The paper always was and still remains a perfectly good small case series report, but it was systematically misrepresented as being more than that, by media that are incapable of interpreting and reporting scientific data.

Once journalists get their teeth into what they think is a scare story, trivial increases in risk are presented, often out of context, but always using one single way of expressing risk, the “relative risk increase”, that makes the danger appear disproportionately large (www.badscience.net/?p=8). This is before we mention the times, such as last week’s Seroxat story, or the ibuprofen and heart attack story last month, when in their eagerness to find a scandal, half the papers got the figures wrong. This error, you can’t help noticing, is always in the same direction.

And last, in our brief taxonomy, is the media obsession with "new breakthroughs": a more subtly destructive category of science story. It’s quite understandable that newspapers should feel it’s their job to write about new stuff. But in the aggregate, these stories sell the idea that science, and indeed the whole empirical world view, is only about tenuous, new, hotly-contested data. Articles about robustly-supported emerging themes and ideas would be more stimulating, of course, than most single experimental results, and these themes are, most people would agree, the real developments in science. But they emerge over months and several bits of evidence, not single rejiggable press releases. Often, a front page science story will emerge from a press release alone, and the formal academic paper may never appear, or appear much later, and then not even show what the press reports claimed it would (www.badscience.net/?p=159).

Last month there was an interesting essay in the journal PLoS Medicine, about how most brand new research findings will turn out to be false (www.tinyurl.com/ceq33). It predictably generated a small flurry of ecstatic pieces from humanities graduates in the media, along the lines of science is made-up, self-aggrandising, hegemony-maintaining, transient fad nonsense; and this is the perfect example of the parody hypothesis that we’ll see later. Scientists know how to read a paper. That’s what they do for a living: read papers, pick them apart, pull out what’s good and bad.

Scientists never said that tenuous small new findings were important headline news – journalists did.

But enough on what they choose to cover. What’s wrong with the coverage itself? The problems here all stem from one central theme: there is no useful information in most science stories. A piece in the Independent on Sunday from January 11 2004 suggested that mail-order Viagra is a rip-off because it does not contain the “correct form” of the drug. I don’t use the stuff, but there were 1,147 words in that piece. Just tell me: was it a different salt, a different preparation, a different isomer, a related molecule, a completely different drug? No idea. No room for that one bit of information.

Remember all those stories about the danger of mobile phones? I was on holiday at the time, and not looking things up obsessively on PubMed; but off in the sunshine I must have read 15 newspaper articles on the subject. Not one told me what the experiment flagging up the danger was. What was the exposure, the measured outcome, was it human or animal data? Figures? Anything? Nothing. I’ve never bothered to look it up for myself, and so I’m still as much in the dark as you.

Why? Because papers think you won’t understand the “science bit”, all stories involving science must be dumbed down, leaving pieces without enough content to stimulate the only people who are actually going to read them – that is, the people who know a bit about science. Compare this with the book review section, in any newspaper. The more obscure references to Russian novelists and French philosophers you can bang in, the better writer everyone thinks you are. Nobody dumbs down the finance pages. Imagine the fuss if I tried to stick the word "biophoton" on a science page without explaining what it meant. I can tell you, it would never get past the subs or the section editor. But use it on a complementary medicine page, incorrectly, and it sails through.

Statistics are what causes the most fear for reporters, and so they are usually just edited out, with interesting consequences. Because science isn’t about something being true or not true: that’s a humanities graduate parody. It’s about the error bar, statistical significance, it’s about how reliable and valid the experiment was, it’s about coming to a verdict, about a hypothesis, on the back of lots of bits of evidence.

But science journalists somehow don’t understand the difference between the evidence and the hypothesis. The Times’s health editor Nigel Hawkes recently covered an experiment which showed that having younger siblings was associated with a lower incidence of multiple sclerosis. MS is caused by the immune system turning on the body. “This is more likely to happen if a child at a key stage of development is not exposed to infections from younger siblings, says the study.” That’s what Hawkes said. Wrong! That’s the “Hygiene Hypothesis”, that’s not what the study showed: the study just found that having younger siblings seemed to be somewhat protective against MS: it didn’t say, couldn’t say, what the mechanism was, like whether it happened through greater exposure to infections. He confused evidence with hypothesis (www.badscience.net/?p=112), and he is a “science communicator”.

So how do the media work around their inability to deliver scientific evidence? They use authority figures, the very antithesis of what science is about, as if they were priests, or politicians, or parent figures. “Scientists today said … scientists revealed … scientists warned”; And if they want balance, you’ll get two scientists disagreeing, although with no explanation of why (an approach at its most dangerous with the myth that scientists were “divided” over the safety of MMR). One scientist will “reveal” something, and then another will “challenge” it. A bit like Jedi knights.

The danger of authority figure coverage, in the absence of real evidence, is that it leaves the field wide open for questionable authority figures to waltz in. Gillian McKeith, Andrew Wakefield, Kevin Warwick and the rest can all get a whole lot further, in an environment where their authority is taken as read, because their reasoning and evidence is rarely publicly examined.

But it also reinforces the humanities graduate journalists’ parody of science, for which we now have all the ingredients: science is about groundless, incomprehensible, didactic truth statements from scientists, who themselves are socially powerful, arbitrary, unelected authority figures. They are detached from reality: they do work that is either wacky, or dangerous, but either way, everything in science is tenuous, contradictory and, most ridiculously, “hard to understand”.

This misrepresentation of science is a direct descendant of the reaction, in the Romantic movement, against the birth of science and empiricism more than 200 years ago; it’s exactly the same paranoid fantasy as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, only not as well written. We say descendant, but of course, the humanities haven’t really moved forward at all, except to invent cultural relativism, which exists largely as a pooh-pooh reaction against science.

And humanities graduates in the media, who suspect themselves to be intellectuals, desperately need to reinforce the idea that science is nonsense: because they’ve denied themselves access to the most significant developments in the history of western thought for 200 years, and secretly, deep down, they’re angry with themselves over that.

That’s what I’d have said three years ago. But now I’m on the inside, I can add a slightly different element to the story. I’m an all right-looking bloke, I get about: maybe I’m not the most popular bloke at science journalist parties, but I’m certainly talkative. For many months I had a good spirited row with an eminent science journalist, who kept telling me that scientists needed to face up to the fact that they had to get better at communicating to a lay audience. She is a humanities graduate. “Since you describe yourself as a science communicator,” I would invariably say, to the sound of derisory laughter: “isn’t that your job?” But no, for there is a popular and grand idea about, that scientific ignorance is a useful tool: if even they can understand it, they think to themselves, the reader will. What kind of a communicator does that make you?

There is one university PR department in London that I know fairly well – it’s a small middle-class world after all – and I know that until recently, they had never employed a single science graduate. This is not uncommon. Science is done by scientists, who write it up. Then a press release is written by a non-scientist, who runs it by their non-scientist boss, who then sends it to journalists without a science education who try to convey difficult new ideas to an audience of either lay people, or more likely – since they’ll be the ones interested in reading the stuff – people who know their way around a t-test a lot better than any of these intermediaries. Finally, it’s edited by a whole team of people who don’t understand it. You can be sure that at least one person in any given “science communication” chain is just juggling words about on a page, without having the first clue what they mean, pretending they’ve got a proper job, their pens all lined up neatly on the desk.

Of course a system like that will cock up. The proof is in Bad Science, every week. See you in Berlin.

Bad Science will be continuing in the Guardian next week

[This article won Best Feature (£2,000!) at the Science Writers Awards for 2005]


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85 Responses



  1. stu said,

    September 8, 2005 at 9:43 am

    I was enjoying this article until about the forth or fifth jibe at humanities graduates.

    Surely, you are falling into your own trap of logical falacy – Science journalists are rubbish, science journalists are humanities graduates therefore humanities graduates are rubbish.

    Humanities graduates are allowed to be interested in science (and we do read your articles) and some of us are even mildly intelligent. I agree with your criticisms about mainstream science journalism being dummed down and creating self-serving criticisms but this does not mean that science articles should not be comprehensible to those without a PhD.

  2. Rob said,

    September 8, 2005 at 10:53 am

    Most journalists, national and even more so in local press, seem to be ignorant of science.
    The Daily Mail seems to make a habit of copying out press-releases for vaguely medicinal items almost word-for-word. It’s quite evident from the “evidence” that they print that they are a stranger to scientific method. It’s always a variation on wonder diets/cellulite removal and the dangers of Seroxat/Ibuprofen/Atenolol/Tamoxifen.
    It’s never a good idea to write about something that you don’t understand whether it is sciences or humanities. I am always amazed at the drivel that actually gets printed in supposedly serious broadsheets in the guise of science.

  3. stu said,

    September 8, 2005 at 11:07 am

    “serious broadsheets”

    surely this phrase should never be in the same paragraph as “The Daily Mail”?

  4. Charles said,

    September 8, 2005 at 12:12 pm

    Ah, the humanities graduate. Such an easy target. But aren’t they just half the problem? Surely the scientist must take more responsibility for his/her life’s work. I believe there is a small group known as the Science Media Centre that tries to ease the science-media relationship.

  5. amoebic vodka said,

    September 8, 2005 at 12:36 pm

    Yay, we’re all happy now and for once it isn’t because we are about to go for a swim in vodka. The media reporting of science is really awful and has been getting worse. Anyone with videos of old Horizon programmes from 10-15 years ago sitting around will realise this. What’s the point of calling it a science story if the science bit is relegated to half a sentence or so?

    To be fair, the Guardian’s science section tends to do a reasonable job of covering science and we think it manages to do so without making it either incomprehensable or overly sensational. It’s just a pity that the science articles appearing in the rest of the paper often fall into the kind of rubbish journalism mentioned. It’s almost like *gasp* they have a different editorial line for Life compared with the rest of the paper.

    As for scientists taking responsiblilty for communicating science to the public, we have to ask why? In most cases companies and government bodies don’t expect the people responsible for decision making and doing the job to talk to the media. They employ spokespeople or entire PR departments to do that for them.

    Often it is these very PR experts that scientists have to speak directly against. Why do scientists often come off in a bad light in the media for doing work involving (pulls ‘controvertial’ research out of the air) animal experiments, GM food, stem cell research for example? Usually because the opposing point of view is presented by a PR expert. Someone not trained in how to handle the media has no chance.

    We’re not saying that scientists shouldn’t communicate their science, just that there is no reason they should do so directly. After all if a scientist could do PR well, do you really think they would stay in science? PR does pay better after all.

  6. MostlySunny said,

    September 8, 2005 at 12:49 pm

    Congratulations on one of the best Bad Science articles to date. However, I’m with Stu on being slightly irked at the jibes at “Humanities Graduates”. Please don’t assume that because we are not “scientists” that we do not have the critical faculties required to analyse and disect information. The scientific method that you described could be applied across all disciplines of academia. Evidence, hypothesis, peer review are all familiar concepts…

    What you have quite rightly highlighted in your column is the powerful effect the media has on society in shaping popular “opinion” and “morality”. The media defines for society “good”, “bad”, “right” and “wrong”.

    This phenomenon is familiar to sociologists and has been studied in great detail over the past few decades and in fact gave birth to the much maligned “Media Studies” discipline. The influence of the media on societal values was first analysed in Stanley Cohen’s excellent “Folk Devils and Moral Panics”. The term “moral panic” relates to the media’s manipulation of something small and insignificant into a full blown panic. The MMR debate being a prime example of this.

    My focus has always been on the effect of this media manipulation in the context of criminology and in particular the definition of “deviancy” and I am not aware of any research done on the effect of media generated Moral Panics on science and health issues.

    would make a humdinger of a masters thesis…

    sarah

  7. John A said,

    September 8, 2005 at 1:12 pm

    Stu, your propositional statement is fallacious but it is an unfair representation of the original argument. The argument is instead that if “humanities graduates are rubbish” then it follows that “science journalists are rubbish”. Thus (reintroducing the original subtleties) we are in fact asking the question to what extent the bias towards humanities graduates within science journalism and within in the media as whole is distorting the presentation of science.

    I don’t believe that all humanities graduates are stupid nor that they are unqualified to work in science communication but leaving scientific reporting exclusively in their hands has resulted in a failure to report science in an accurate and balanced way. I have often read both scientific papers and the newspaper reports and have found that the reporter has completely misunderstood the paper and even added conclusions that just didn’t hold. If a factually false and conceptually misleading article is written concisely and clearly is that good science reporting?

    Disseminating knowledge from the scientific community to a scientifically undereducated public requires effort on the part of all those involved. Scientists communicate all the time at conferences, in papers and indeed to anyone who shows the remotest interest (as many have learned to their cost at parties). It is the media’s job to inform and educate the public, not the front-line scientists’. If the media is incapable of understanding scientists and unwilling to employ those who can, it is lazy and unfair to demand that scientists should come to them while they remain resolutely fixed.

  8. Ben Goldacre said,

    September 8, 2005 at 1:30 pm

    Can I just say, again, that my problem is not with humanities graduates in general, it’s with humanities graduates who grandiosely appoint themselves to pass comment on science without knowing the first thing about the subject, to the detriment of us all.

    Being a bit obsessive, I’ve just checked: there are six instances of the phrase “humanities graduate”, every one referring to journalists. The rest of them we’ll deal with later.

  9. Selvy Emmanuel said,

    September 8, 2005 at 2:00 pm

    Nothing wrong with jibes at humanities graduates – a simple case of redressing the balance! It is rather a pernicious idea some have that only such people can be seen as intellectuals and dropping them a peg or two does no harm….

    And I quite agree that science articles seem heavily dumbed down compared to finance and book reviews. I don’t mind looking up references from reviews and am quite happy to do the same with science.

  10. Tom said,

    September 8, 2005 at 3:01 pm

    Although this doesn’t apply to the esteemed Mr Goldacre, and not wishing to stereotype, it would seem logical that while humanities graduates often have an inadequate grasp of science (not the greatest sin, but as Ben says, one compounded by the pretence of understanding), a possible reason they are given so much influence in science journalism is that scientists often have an equally inadequate grasp of effective, interesting communication. I do not believe that scientific detail (definitely lacking in ‘science’ journalism) makes it incomprehensible to non-scientists. People who read scientific journalism are interested in science even if they have a limited knowledge of it they are willing to put in a little extra effort to find out what, say ‘biophotons’ means. I am going onto google in a minute to find out, because I don’t know.

    Summary: humanities people, try to understand better. Science people, try to communicate better. Or maybe, just maybe, one day the two won’t be viewed as separate, oppositional disciplines. Both are really just trying to understand how stuff works.

  11. amoebic vodka said,

    September 8, 2005 at 3:49 pm

    We disagree that it is the job of the media to educate and inform. it is the job of the media to sell more copies, get more viewers or whatever it is the company in question needs to make money. In most cases this means the purpose of the media is to entertain (the exception perhaps being the BBC).

    It’s not just science, the media misinterpretation of statistics in particular affects other subjects too. The annual ‘exams are getting easier’ stories for example.

  12. Frank said,

    September 8, 2005 at 5:28 pm

    Hmm, a prickly two thousand words attacking this that and the other, and all anyone can talk about is humanities graduates.
    Diversionary tactics aside, what does this imply for us scientists? Can we expect to see an increase in demand for science editors? I certainly hope so, as both my science degrees have so far proved no more effective than a jar of red sugar pills.

    More importantly, where is Bad Science going to be found next week? Will the Life articles be under a non-science editor now it’s to be integrated into the main paper? Will Life articles now maintain the same level of impenetrability as the Finance pages? Questions, questions…

  13. amoebic vodka said,

    September 8, 2005 at 5:39 pm

    Huh? We didn’t mention humani… hang on, we know what your up to… We haven’t mention *them* once. Yet.

    Who knows if Life’s integration into the main paper will reduce it’s scientific content? We suspect the change will be gradual and, like Horizon, we’ll suddenly realise it smells of wee and not be able to work out how that crept up on us without us noticing.

  14. Charles said,

    September 8, 2005 at 5:44 pm

    I like the fact that Mr Goldacre goes on a rant about science in the media dumbing down, humanities graduates misconstuing the facts, science parodies… and yet, no less than two clicks away, Alan Rusbridger tells us of how we’re essentially going to see more of this. With the Guardian life section taking on a new format. Daily sensationalism, daily scare stories, and daily breakthroughs of science…

  15. Richard said,

    September 8, 2005 at 9:43 pm

    Just to clarify, Frankenstein was a story about how an intelligent and decent person can be driven to do terrible things when badly treated by other people – people who abuse him and reject him because of his appearance. The scientific element was a conceit to set up the moral tale and add a nice touch of creepiness to the story.

    You know, it always bugs me when “science graduates” presume to report on humanities stories…

  16. Ray said,

    September 8, 2005 at 9:52 pm

    I very much fear for the Guardian science coverage. For starters, a “daily page” means no room for in-depth articles.

  17. Phil Wilson said,

    September 8, 2005 at 10:22 pm

    Frank, “Bad Science will be continuing in the Guardian next week”.

  18. That Science Coverage We All Hate | Cosmic Variance said,

    September 9, 2005 at 12:20 am

    [...] Update: seems that Ben Goldacre actually has a blog, called Bad Science, where these articles are posted, and you can go in and duke it out with the man himself if you want to take issue with what he writes. (He’s arguably a bit unkind to humanities graduates in this article for example.) The link for this article on the blog is here. The other links in the quoted text above are also links to the blog. [...]

  19. Martin said,

    September 9, 2005 at 9:22 am

    To expand on a point in an earlier comment, that ‘scientists often have an equally inadequate grasp of effective, interesting communication'; I feel that this is harsh. Scientists can often communicate very effectively with other scientists. However, the styles of writing employed by scientists in scientific papers and by journalists in the media are very different. Scientists want to state their methods, describe their results and then draw conclusions, whereas journalists want to grab your attention in the first paragraph. (I know that this is a massive over-simplification.)

    A properly written scientific paper wouldn’t make a good story in a newspaper, for a start the paper would be too long. However, many papers will include a summary of the main conclusions. This could be suitable for a newspaper, but isn’t often used. Maybe the journalist wants to re-write the summary to the paper’s style, or what he thinks the readers want to hear, or to justify his salary, or even to satisfy his own particular agenda. Either way, if the scientific paper is at the cutting edge of research the journalist is unlikely to be able to fully understand the subtleties of the paper’s conclusions, and therefore is likely to alter the meaning of those conclusions.

    In the scientific world this form of re-write, without passing it back to the original author for comment, would be unthinkable. However, I suspect that the pressures of meeting a daily deadline make this an onerous restriction on the journalist who wishes to publish before someone else scoops him.

  20. Charles said,

    September 9, 2005 at 12:54 pm

    Following on from “scientists often have an equally inadequate grasp of effective, interesting communication”: that’s not true.

    I’ve spoken to lots of scientists and lots of academics (in, oh, 15 years of science reporting, the most recent 10 for The Independent) and lots of other people, and there are scientists who are fantastic communicators – ever heard Steve Jones or Colin Blakemore? – and non-scientist communicators who are rubbish at it.

    There’s a cultural difference, perhaps related to how scientists are viewed: in the US one tends to find that scientists are more bombastic and ready to talk about their work in ways that, to a journalist, say “soundbite”. In the UK such people are less easily found.

    But also scientists tend to want to say what their work actually says, and they’re wary of how it might be distorted. That can make them reluctant to shoot their mouths off. And who can blame them, when you see the sort of things that can happen to straightforward science, or straightforward news?

  21. Phil Wills said,

    September 9, 2005 at 2:30 pm

    To counter ameobic vodka’s cynicism about the media, in the case of the Grauniad, the role of the paper’s propietors, is

    “To secure the financial and editorial independence of The Guardian in perpetuity: as a quality national newspaper without party affiliation; remaining faithful to liberal tradition; as a profit-seeking enterprise managed in an efficient and cost-effective manner. ”

    www.gmgplc.co.uk/gmgplc/scott/role/

    I’ll be interested to see how the science coverage pans out in the future. I think it is a good thing to have daily coverage of scientific news, but would be sad to see the decline of the longer features. Very relieved to know the end of Life won’t mean the end of Bad Science.

    P.S. I work for the Guardian, but I’m a not a journalist.

  22. amoebic vodka said,

    September 9, 2005 at 3:13 pm

    We notice that this makes no mention of educating or informing. The media will always put the story first. They have no responsibility to educate their audience or to give balenced reporting, just entertain them. There can be educational value in reading a newspaper etc, just that there is an agenda behind the way a story gets covered. Otherwise every media source would be saying the same thing, right?

    The trouble is, while PR people, politicians and the like realise this when dealing with the media, scientists don’t tend to. They just learn from bitter experience.

  23. John A said,

    September 9, 2005 at 4:03 pm

    Amoebic: “The trouble is, while PR people, politicians and the like realise [that the media will always put the story first] [...], scientists don’t tend to.”
    I think everybody realises this (yes, even naive scientists).

    However, the question is one of responsibility. You believe they have no responsibility to inform or educate their audience. And yet scientists do? By that argument a scientist’s only responsibility is to get high profile publications by whatever means necessary. Like Jan Hendrik Schon?

    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jan_Hendrik_Schon

  24. amoebic vodka said,

    September 9, 2005 at 5:09 pm

    Oh, scientists (and non-scientists too) can be quite naive about what the media will do with what they say.

    news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/tv_and_radio/2018523.stm (it was a fictional programme, but still…)

    The media *does* have a reponsibility to not go around making stuff up. This is not the same as educating or informing – this implies an attempt at impartiality for starters. Newspapers and journalists do have an agenda, hence the difference in the way two papers will report the same story. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but neither is it education.

  25. Art said,

    September 12, 2005 at 2:12 pm

    Great article on one of my big peeves, but you commit one of the biggest crimes right in your paper – reporting something as fact that is not known to be a fact. You state ” MS is caused by the immune system turning on the body.” This is merely a prevailing theory that has yet to be proven. There is significant recent evidence that the immune response in MS is secondary and not primary. It would have been better to state “MS is thought to be caused by…”

    Shame!

    Art Mellor
    President, Accelerated Cure Project for Multiple Sclerosis

  26. Janey said,

    September 12, 2005 at 2:20 pm

    Smile, you’re on Slashdot:

    science.slashdot.org/science/05/09/11/2051248.shtml?tid=14

    science.slashdot.org/comments.pl?sid=161894&threshold=-1&mode=nested&commentsort=0&op=Change

  27. Eric Bresie said,

    September 12, 2005 at 6:18 pm

    This article reminds me of a common problem in the computer sciences regarding documentation for a given software product.

    Often times the software is written by programmers, who are often times good techie types capable of writing Shakespeare-ian quality computer code, but as far as writing documentation in plain English goes, they are limited at best.

    As a result of this, documentation for commercial products (whether it be installation instructions, user manuals, etc) gets turned over to tech writers, who may be fluent in proper way to write documentation, understand some of the terminology and basic operational understandings of the product, do not always know how the software is intended to run, or how it was designed. As a result, the software and the documentation for the software often has a disconnect.

    I think the same sort of idea is occurring here.

    Comptuer scientists (programmers) are able to communicate between each other to discuss how to make a given segment of code to work better, or where there is a problem (bug) in the code. They are expert in their domain of expertise, while those outside of the domain have limited expertise and are confuses when discussion of the domain.

    The scientific community are quite able to provide commentary to others in the scientific community but outside the community, they are limited.

    This seems to me to show a weakness in acceptance and educating of the sciences as a whole, but that’s a commentary for another time.

  28. martin g said,

    September 12, 2005 at 8:23 pm

    Excellent work Ben.

    I’ve tried, but I couldn’t put it better myself.

    Readers might like to have a look at my tongue-in-cheek science tech mag

    www.ohupurleese.com

    where I take apart ironic science items on a daily basis . . .

  29. Jason said,

    September 13, 2005 at 1:18 am

    I agree completely. In fact it isn’t only the press, it is even done in areas where science is supposed to be the language used. Where I am I get the Science Channel, a spin off from discovery channel. On rare occasion there is a show that will go to a depth that will challenge a high-school graduate. The majority of the time the level of technology is less than that of Don Herbert as Mr. Wizard.

    I was once confused about this until just yesterday I read this Wikipedia Article and it cleared allot of it up for me. Don’t get me wrong it is still frustrating.

    The cause isn’t that they are angry at the science, more so they have to deliver to their demographic. At least the mainstream news does. That sinks us to the lowest common denominator (idiot).

    This is even more evident in some commercials. I saw one the other day that described its enzymes as “eating” away stains. They still continue to sell their product to a misinformed, science dumb society.

    I could spend hours listing the myths that I grew up with that I have dispelled as education took the place of wives tales. I try to tell people but it just comes off as pretentious.

    In the end there is nothing we can do

  30. Paul Ferguson said,

    September 13, 2005 at 2:48 pm

    Martin G, shouldn’t that be:

    www.ohpurleese.com/

    ?

  31. Bill Beaty said,

    September 14, 2005 at 2:37 am

    Now me, I get all my science news from this popular US newspaper:

    New Technological Breakthrough To Fix Problems Of Previous Breakthrough
    www.theonion.com/content/node/28104

    Third-Grade Scientists Successfully Vaporize Water
    www.theonion.com/content/node/28014

    World’s Scientists Admit They Just Don’t Like Mice
    www.theonion.com/content/node/30800

    Study Finds Jack S&!t
    www.theonion.com/content/node/28756

  32. Alexis said,

    September 14, 2005 at 5:26 am

    Are you allowed to slate your own paper? If so, Emma Mitchell in the Guardian Weekend should provide you with oodles of columns. Remember, fluoride is poison and an herbal remedy can cure OCD!

  33. Ben Goldacre said,

    September 14, 2005 at 11:11 am

    I’ll let you guess the answer to that question for yourself.

  34. amoebic vodka said,

    September 15, 2005 at 12:15 pm

    www.google.co.uk/search?hl=en&q=humanities+graduates+science

    Feeling lucky? You appear to be the number one site for all our science and humanities graduate needs ;)

    Um…when’s Bad Science next going to be in the Guardian?

  35. MostlySunny said,

    September 15, 2005 at 12:30 pm

    was wondering that myself – Thursday mornings just aren’t the same without Bad Science…

  36. bwanadik said,

    September 15, 2005 at 3:03 pm

    Thirded. What’s happened to Bad Science? And how is a pithy technology supplement and a few pages of science in the main paper a substitute for the Life? Do we need to start spamming the editors blog like the Doonesbury fans?

  37. bwanadik said,

    September 15, 2005 at 3:26 pm

    A page, even.

  38. Nick Eden said,

    September 16, 2005 at 6:15 pm

    So where is it then? Next week has happened and the closest to bad science I’ve so far seen was that the Thursday science page was more than 50% taken up with a single photograph.

  39. Michael Dunn said,

    September 17, 2005 at 6:31 am

    Where does that leave all us combined Humanities AND Science graduates?

  40. amoebic vodka said,

    September 18, 2005 at 1:29 pm

    “Where does that leave all us combined Humanities AND Science graduates?”

    Presumably as the ideal people to write science journalism that isn’t wrong?

  41. exemplar said,

    September 19, 2005 at 8:39 pm

    Or people who can sling mud at everyone ?

  42. Glúon /blog » Má ciência e mau jornalismo, artigo de Marcelo Leite said,

    September 20, 2005 at 3:33 am

    [...] O autor é Ben Goldacre e o texto foi publicado no espaço de sua coluna, “Má Ciência” (www.badscience.net/?p=172). [...]

  43. Joe D said,

    September 20, 2005 at 4:08 am

    The American Association for the Advancement of Science run quite a nice website, EurekAlert, full of press releases on science, most of which aren’t too dumbed down, and many of which explain not just the outcome of the study, but some info on how it was carried out.

  44. Michael L said,

    September 20, 2005 at 7:17 pm

    There are two studies that reinforce what you are saying. In the US it was the Television study that came to the conclusion that children who watch too much TV have attention problems. It was reported on NPR’s ScienceFriday and yet the actual data was never mentioned. For if it had, we would have seen that there was a greater correlation between the mothers self-esteem and attention problems. See teachertech.mine.nu for a better synopsis.

    The other study was a few years ago and was published on the American Psychological Assocation’s website. It was a twin study that presented data that show that peers were more influential in the lives of adolescents than their parents. In the study the researcher said that her findings were only for this group of subjects: twins and should not be extrapolated to the larger population. Yet when she appeared on the Today show Matt Lauer asked her what it meant for the larger population and she proceeded to answer.

    The other item I have noticed is the reference to non-scientists when dealing with issues of global warming. It should always be remembered that science is a process not a person.

  45. Anacronista » Ben Goldacre agitó las aguas said,

    September 23, 2005 at 6:44 am

    [...] El 8 de septiembre, Ben Goldacre publicó en The Guardian, y luego en su blog, un texto largo titulado “Don’t Dumb me Down”, que podría traducirse como “No me trates como zonzo” y en el que disecta con su habitual humor las actividades del periodismo científico. Diez días más tarde, Lisa Randall publicó en The New York Times un editorial titulado “Dangling Particles”, que acaso podría trasladarse como “Partículas jijas de su…” (creo), y que toca en un estilo distinto y más serio el mismo problema. Ambos artículos deben ser leídos por todo aspirante a practicar el periodismo científico, y por no dejar, agrego otros tres que me parecen más que apropiados: la respuesta de Bryan Adams (“Writing about Writing About Science”: “Escribiendo sobre el escribir sobre ciencia”) al texto de Randall, y una pieza anterior de Michael Crichton (“Aliens Cause Global Warming”: “Alienígenas causan el calentamiento global”) que cubre aspectos parecidos. El asunto se presta, por supuesto, para largas discusiones (algo que ya emprendieron con su habitual denuedo y verbosidad los amigos de slashdot). Por último, del grupo Acronym Required vale la pena leer “Science communication”: “Comunicación de ciencia”. En conjunto, estos cinco textos valen por un seminario de periodismo científico. [...]

  46. Anacronista » Ben Goldacre agitó las aguas said,

    September 23, 2005 at 6:47 am

    [...] El 8 de septiembre, Ben Goldacre publicó en The Guardian, y luego en su blog, un texto largo titulado “Don’t Dumb me Down”, que podría traducirse como “No me trates como zonzo” y en el que disecta con su habitual humor las actividades del periodismo científico. Diez días más tarde, Lisa Randall publicó en The New York Times un editorial titulado “Dangling Particles”, que acaso podría trasladarse como “Partículas jijas de su…” (creo), y que toca en un estilo distinto y más serio el mismo problema. Ambos artículos deben ser leídos por todo aspirante a practicar el periodismo científico, y por no dejar, agrego otros tres que me parecen más que apropiados: la respuesta de Bryan Adams (“Writing about Writing About Science”: “Escribiendo sobre el escribir sobre ciencia”) al texto de Randall, y una pieza anterior de Michael Crichton (“Aliens Cause Global Warming”: “Alienígenas causan el calentamiento global”) que cubre aspectos parecidos. El asunto se presta, por supuesto, para largas discusiones (algo que ya emprendieron con su habitual denuedo y verbosidad los amigos de slashdot). Por último, del grupo Acronym Required vale la pena leer “Science communication”: “Comunicación de ciencia”. En conjunto, estos cinco textos valen por un seminario de periodismo científico. Vale. [...]

  47. Humanities graduate said,

    September 25, 2005 at 7:03 pm

    Ben, when you say “humanities graduate”, you are talking about all humanities graduates. You are not talking about “humanities graduates who grandiosely appoint themselves to pass comment on science without knowing the first thing about the subject” unless you say so. You do your cause no good when you insult a whole class of people simply because some of them display inexcusable arrogance and unapologetic ignorance – whether the insult was intended to apply to the whole class or not.

    If you don’t want to be misinterpreted as someone who is breaking the rules for clear writing that he himself advocates, by using the same unclear language and overgeneralisations that you rightly lambast in scientific reporting, then I would suggest that you find a better way of describing the people you so rightly despise. How about “ignorant journalists”, which is what they are, and what they would remain regardless of their degree subject?

    After all, we can easily postulate someone who graduated with a degree in engineering being given a science-reporter job because “he’s a sciency type”, and proceeding to screw it up just the same because he knows no more about medicine than your average women’s studies graduate.

  48. Ben Goldacre said,

    September 26, 2005 at 1:02 am

    “Ben, when you say “humanities graduate”, you are talking about all humanities graduates. You are not talking about “humanities graduates who grandiosely appoint themselves to pass comment on science without knowing the first thing about the subject” unless you say so.”

    Ok, how difficult can this be for you: I did say so. And by excellent good fortune the very article you’re talking about is right here on the same page as the one we’re speaking on right now, so this won’t be too difficult for you. Press “Control-F” on your keyboard and type “humanities graduate” and see what you get. Seriously. Do it now. I mean, I can understand there are issues around interpreting a text, but every single instance of that phrase is in black and white and bracketed with “in the media” or something similar, therefore you [holds finger aloft] are a fool.

  49. Brian Carnell said,

    September 26, 2005 at 6:16 am

    “Scientists never said that tenuous small new findings were important headline news – journalists did.”

    This claim is simply nonsense. Most of the headline news is generated off of press releases issued by the universities or other organizations that employ the scientists, usually with nice quotes from the researcher making it seem as if their tenous new findings are in fact the Next Big Thing.

    This gets universities in the news which they use as a selling point to donors, etc., which in turn benefits the researchers.

    For example, many times I have seen press releases from universities with extensive quotes on how this or that new finding is revolutionary, and you really have to be paying attention to realize what they’re announcing has yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal. In some cases, you’ll see researchers giving interviews based on unpublished data years later (in one case, I’ve seen a researcher lauding his global warming-related research even though its gone unpublished for almost a decade now).

  50. Heraclitean Fire » Blog Archive » Bad science reporting said,

    September 26, 2005 at 12:00 pm

    [...] Ben Goldacre says (full article here): There is one university PR department in London that I know fairly well – it’s a small middle-class world after all – and I know that until recently, they had never employed a single science graduate. This is not uncommon. Science is done by scientists, who write it up. Then a press release is written by a non-scientist, who runs it by their non-scientist boss, who then sends it to journalists without a science education who try to convey difficult new ideas to an audience of either lay people, or more likely – since they’ll be the ones interested in reading the stuff – people who know their way around a t-test a lot better than any of these intermediaries. Finally, it’s edited by a whole team of people who don’t understand it. You can be sure that at least one person in any given “science communication” chain is just juggling words about on a page, without having the first clue what they mean, pretending they’ve got a proper job, their pens all lined up neatly on the desk. [...]

  51. Kenza78 said,

    September 27, 2005 at 9:29 pm

    Just a thought, but isn’t part of the problem with reporting science distinguishing between opinion and science? I mean, most papers will have a synopsis, aims, methods, results and discussion/conclusions. The science part is contained in the methods (for reproducability and exclusion of interfering factors) and results sections, not the opinions of the people carrying out the research, or their opinions of the data. A scientist might use the discussions or conclusions section to draw his/her attention to parts of the results, but can (perhaps “should”) always form their own opinions.
    The other problems I’ve seen regularly are the confusion of correlations and causes (things can increase or decrease together without causing one another) and, as the initial article states, not including baselines or other relevant data to compare the new findings with.
    I could see why, if all you have is a press release about a forthcoming paper, this sort of thing wouldn’t always be available. That’s probably why it’s such a dangerous thing to report?
    Also, the science doesn’t always say anything particularly clearly or definitely. If you’ve been given the job of communicating something subtle or marginal without the time or column inches to do it justice, what *can* you do but pare down to the “facts” and hope they’re not too wide of the mark?

    As to “Humanities vs. Sciences”, we’ll be stuck with that debate ’till the next Renaissance! At Edinburgh, there was a certain amount of geographical separation involved, most of the science departments being about 40 minutes walk from the humanities departments. A physical metaphor from a far-sighted architect? It certainly didn’t resolve the debate, which is probably why my sister became an English student!

  52. Tom Morris :: links for 2005-09-14 :: September :: 2005 said,

    September 30, 2005 at 9:52 pm

    [...] badscience » Don’t dumb me down Wow. How did I miss this? READ IT! (tags: journalism media science bengoldacre guardian badscience) [...]

  53. Dean Morrison said,

    October 12, 2005 at 6:30 pm

    I came across this article in the Columbia Journalism review which bemoans the reporting of the Intelligent Design/Darwinism “controversy” in the States. The same problem of scientifically illiterate journalists giving equal credibility to both sides of a “debate”

    Undoing Darwin

    By Chris Mooney and Matthew C. Nisbet

    www.cjr.org/issues/2005/5/mooney.asp

    – it does contain this useful advice for editors –

    “So what is a good editor to do about the very real collision between a scientific consensus and a pseudo-scientific movement that opposes the basis of that consensus? At the very least, newspaper editors should think twice about assigning reporters who are fresh to the evolution issue and allowing them to default to the typical strategy frame, carefully balancing “both sides” of the issue in order to file a story on time and get around sorting through the legitimacy of the competing claims. As journalism programs across the country systematically review their curriculums and training methods, the evolution “controversy” provides strong evidence in support of the contention that specialization in journalism education can benefit not only public understanding, but also the integrity of the media. For example, at Ohio State, beyond basic skill training in reporting and editing, students focusing on public-affairs journalism are required to take an introductory course in scientific reasoning. Students can then specialize further by taking advanced courses covering the relationships between science, the media, and society. They are also encouraged to minor in a science-related field.

    With training in covering science-related policy disputes on issues ranging from intelligent design to stem-cell research to climate change, journalists are better equipped to make solid independent judgments about credibility, and then pass these interpretations on to readers. The intelligent-design debate is one among a growing number of controversies in which technical complexity, with disputes over “facts,” data, and expertise, has altered the political battleground. The traditional generalist correspondent will be hard-pressed to cover these topics in any other format than the strategy frame, balancing arguments while narrowly focusing on the implications for who’s ahead and who’s behind in the contest to decide policy. If news editors fail to recognize the growing demand for journalists with specialized expertise and backgrounds who can get beyond this form of writing, the news media risk losing their ability to serve as important watchdogs over society’s institutions.”

  54. Lin B said,

    October 14, 2005 at 3:11 pm

    You say
    “isn’t it funny how that Wakefield MMR paper turned out to be Bad Science after all? And I say: no. The paper always was and still remains a perfectly good small case series report, but it was systematically misrepresented as being more than that, by media that are incapable of interpreting and reporting scientific data.”

    I am not sure it was even a good small case series report – the recommendation for single vaccines made in the paper was completely unsupported by anything in the “perfectly good case series report”. And it was that recommendation that has seen loads of anxious parents fleeced unneccessarily for hundreds of pounds. Perhaps you are being over-generous?

  55. Robert Carnegie said,

    November 5, 2005 at 2:14 pm

    It isn’t the point, but I believe the issue with mail order Viagra, particularly “generic Viagra” (no such thing, I believe), is that non-authentic pills can contain nothing or anything… including Viagra, but in much smaller quantities than authentic pills, presumably so that if the product is tested “is this a tablet containing Viagra” then the answer strictly is “yes”. For other drugs not from licensed pharmacies the principle would be the same.

    I perceive a congruity between “herbal Viagra” (that’s another one) and the case of “Ecstasy”, which I think we originally were told was a term referring specifically to the drug MDMA, but when it got so much publicity lots of other back-alley recreational drugs were re-branded by small entrepreneurs as “Ecstasy”, including boring old amphetamines.

    In neither case am I writing from personal experience, and it troubles me that I can’t reproduce the news coverage where I think I must have read or heard about these things, but that’s small-w wikiquette for you :-)

  56. Nate Dray said,

    November 11, 2005 at 8:04 pm

    Certainly, I don’t wish to sound too neurotic, but there seems to me to be a great deal of laziness, corruption and self-perpetuated prejudice against both the media and the sciences, particularly where they interface. It is behind this “fog” of controversy that the beauracrats and University/Academia insiders hide their utter uselessness. Historically, good science comes from people genuinely interested in a problem or question, personally. There can be no “good science” with social and political agendas controlling it. Really, what do people expect when supposed objective empirical exploration of the universe turns into office politics and Nielson ratings? I don’t think Einstein was worried about crapping out some mechanical survey, calling it “a Scientific Experiment,” pleasing his grantor and publishing it in some journal that only exists to grease the wheels of the “Industry of intellect.” Oh aren’t we all so clever! Everyone pat yourself on the back for a job well done, especially me.

  57. Mark said,

    November 14, 2005 at 3:05 pm

    How much longer is the reporting of science in the mainstream media going to be relevant – except perhaps as a stimulus to discussion and righteous indignation? More and more issues, scientific and otherwise, are being discussed and resolved over the Internet via facilities such as this one. E.g. to learn about climate change – look at the realclimate and climateaudit web sites. Most scientific institutions have their own web sites and many science PR departments are beginning to create their own blogs and develop a strategy for using them. Anyone with a modern PC and an internet connection can listen to literally hundreds of lectures from MIT on a wide variety of topical scientific issues.

    If I see an article about a scientific issue in the newspaper I gloss over it, and if the story looks interesting I go on the internet to try and find out what is really happening (and I am a philosophy graduate). Surely this is going to be the way of the future for anyone who actually cares about the science?

  58. Scix said,

    November 15, 2005 at 1:17 am

    Is *that* what cultural relativism is all about? I thought it was something else entirley.

  59. mogstar said,

    March 3, 2006 at 12:34 am

    Ben, two words: Bill Bryson.

    www.royalsoc.ac.uk/page.asp?id=3115

  60. latsot said,

    July 27, 2006 at 5:15 am

    “Just to clarify, Frankenstein was a story about how an intelligent and decent person can be driven to do terrible things when badly treated by other people – people who abuse him and reject him because of his appearance. The scientific element was a conceit to set up the moral tale and add a nice touch of creepiness to the story.”

    Isn’t it also a story about obsession and its consequences? Quite a lot of the story is taken up with Frankenstein’s descent into obsession and irrational behaviour from a previously promising carreer. His horror at what he achieved and the revelation of his obsession is as much a theme of the story as is the ill-treatment of the monster.

    At least part of the story’s message is that there are boundaries we shouldn’t cross – that scientists shouldn’t play god.

    I think this was what Ben was referring to.

  61. latsot said,

    July 27, 2006 at 5:33 am

    “Often times the software is written by programmers, who are often times good techie types capable of writing Shakespeare-ian quality computer code, but as far as writing documentation in plain English goes, they are limited at best.”

    To some extent this is a cliche. In fact, programmers are not usually given time to properly test or document their code. It isn’t seen as valuable in the short-term by management. And even if they do have budget to do this, they are generally writing documentation for other programmers, not for users. Your analogy is interesting though. Why would you expect programmers to write user manuals? Why would you expect scientists to write press releases? Scientists have all sorts of pressures, just like everyone else. They generally don’t set themselves up as communicators of science. They just want to do their job.

    I don’t think we are responsible if the media decides to misrepresent our work.

  62. angelofthenorth said,

    September 15, 2006 at 11:17 pm

    I have a science degree, I’m training as a theologian/ministry student. The one thing I know about this is that the media gets both religion and science wrong. Instead of being flip sides of a coin “How does the world work?” and “What if?” they’re treated as being opposed. Most of the religious people I hang around with have science degrees.
    There appears to be a lot of laziness among journalists for getting heads round difficult concepts, or rather, the world has diversified so much that it’s impossible to get a coherent view.

  63. EntelliMedia » Blog Archive » Book publishing has become a source of support said,

    January 8, 2007 at 11:05 pm

    [...] badscience ” Don’t dumb me down … Daily Mail is still publishing hysterical anti-immunisation stories, including … (and we do read your articles) and some of us are even mildly intelligent. … [...]

  64. EntelliMediaNet » Blog Archive » … HS heading 8524 ( Records, tapes and said,

    January 10, 2007 at 7:50 am

    [...] badscience ” Don’t dumb me down … Daily Mail is still publishing hysterical anti-immunisation stories, including … training methods, the evolution controversy provides strong evidence in … [...]

  65. EntelliMedia » Blog Archive » … Hussein Obama may be the media _ said,

    January 31, 2007 at 9:59 am

    [...] badscience ” Don’t dumb me down … (and we do read your articles) and some of us are even mildly intelligent. … training methods, the evolution controversy provides strong evidence in … [...]

  66. Lurkinggherkin said,

    February 14, 2007 at 4:14 pm

    Mark said:

    How much longer is the reporting of science in the mainstream media going to be relevant – except perhaps as a stimulus to discussion and righteous indignation?

    It may not be relevant to the readers of this blog, but sadly there are many people who still take stories published in the more established media very seriously indeed. And politicians and other decision makers are either influenced by those stories, or else they are aware of the extent to which others are influenced by them.

    It is tempting to think of all those surfers out there getting their news from the blogosphere or avidly researching things on wikipedia or even reading online scientific journals, but I think a great many people’s online lives consist mainly of shopping on e-bay or amazon. Even people who read news articles on Yahoo! aren’t getting a much better picture than the newspapers offer – since most of those articles originate from the same press agencies, and are just as sensationalist.

  67. TRiG said,

    February 19, 2007 at 12:49 am

    Arrgh! What’s happened to the article? It’s all one nasty block of text. I’m certain it had paragraphs last time I was here.

  68. skeptigirl said,

    April 6, 2007 at 9:53 am

    This blog entry from 2005 is still relevant today and since Trig posted 2/07 I guess it isn’t too late to post today.

    John A said,
    Disseminating knowledge from the scientific community to a scientifically undereducated public requires effort on the part of all those involved. Scientists communicate all the time at conferences, in papers and indeed to anyone who shows the remotest interest (as many have learned to their cost at parties). It is the media’s job to inform and educate the public, not the front-line scientists’. If the media is incapable of understanding scientists and unwilling to employ those who can, it is lazy and unfair to demand that scientists should come to them while they remain resolutely fixed.

    Tom said
    ..it would seem logical that while humanities graduates often have an inadequate grasp of science (not the greatest sin, but as Ben says, one compounded by the pretence of understanding), a possible reason they are given so much influence in science journalism is that scientists often have an equally inadequate grasp of effective, interesting communication.

    What you have here is not a problem with news media and science, it is a problem with news media on the one hand, and media literacy issues on the other. It isn’t just that the reports of science are ‘breakthroughs’, ‘wacky’, or ‘impending doom’ all news in the American market is framed to sell. Everything is dangerous or controversial or the incredibly overused frame, “breaking news”. Is it any wonder then to see science research reported using the same formulas?

    What is needed is for scientists to use their scientific skills to evaluate the problem and find workable solutions, then to disseminate those solutions for all of us to use. This blog entry goes a long way identifying the problem.

    John thinks it isn’t our problem, but it is. I for one, don’t want the neighbor’s kid to go unvaccinated. Nor do I want my health insurance provider to be forced by legislation to cover treatments and medications which are not evidence based. And I would like my government to quit peddling anti-scientific climate change research.

    Media literacy is the first place to start. Educate yourself about the tactics and formulas of the junk news you hear everyday. Get over the no longer valid belief, the goal of the news media is to inform. The goal is to sell the news.

    Recognize the language scientists use that hinder public understanding of science. Some examples are:

    1) do not interchange the terms, ‘theory’ and ‘hypothesis';
    2) state the weight of the evidence as it is, ‘equivocal’, ‘overwhelming’, ‘suggestive’, because the lay public doesn’t understand why theories are not ‘proven’ and the anti-science promoters take advantage of the language of uncertainty;
    3) when intelligent design/creation supporters try to turn the argument into one about fairness and allowing alternative theories in science, don’t let them, address where ID evidence fails, don’t argue that science doesn’t address gods and designers, the lay public doesn’t understand that argument but they do understand fairness;
    4) don’t assume everything is a knowledge deficit, we need to look at the reasons people choose to believe unsupportable facts like the MMR-autism connection that has been ruled out, it wasn’t one bad science paper that has been solely responsible for the campaign against MMR and other vaccinations, there is a campaign by people who believe conspiracy theories that government and “Big Pharma” are out to make money at the expense of their child, you have to address those beliefs, the facts are not convincing by themselves;
    5) as we investigate these issues, we need to develop tools that other scientists or reporters or health care workers or anti-climate change lobbyists can use to communicate science effectively to the public.

    The anti-science promoters like those who see scientific discoveries interfering with their profits or challenging their religious beliefs happen to be very good at getting their message across to the public. The one area of science they have expertise in is the science of persuasion. And that is the one science that scientists rarely use.

    Don’t expect the news media to get any better. If anything, you can expect them to get worse as more and more, corporate profits becomes the driving force behind the news, not actual news gathering and reporting. But at the same time, the next generation is already getting most of their news and information from the Internet, not the TV and newspapers as my generation did.

    Scientists need to include the science of communication, education, and persuasion in all fields of science. Why not? We are including such fields as computer science into other fields of science. There is a wealth of research in the science of education and the science of marketing we could be taking advantage of. Why should all the research in marketing be ignored by scientists? You might be surprised to know how well the anti-science crowd uses the scientific method researching marketing and communication.

    It isn’t up to reporters, that is unless we don’t care. I care. And persuasion does not require I persuade you to believe something false. I prefer to have scientists persuading the public to accept research supported evidence and conclusions. I prefer to not leave it up to profiteers and religious proselytizers to choose what they would persuade people to believe given the chance. We should be able to use the news media to our advantage. We shouldn’t merely passively lament.

  69. terry-s said,

    October 11, 2007 at 11:39 am

    Only just read this piece, and I enjoyed it. I agree it has a lot of truth.

    Only one thing spoils it a bit for me: the ‘science grad vs humanities grad’ sparring. That’s good slapstick stuff, but it tends to obscure the point that respect for the truth (or lack of it) cuts in a different direction than the divide between scientists and humanities folk.

    I’ve met non-scientists who are very respectful in practice of the truth (but I can’t name any journalists among them!). I’ve also met some numbers of ‘scientists’ who aren’t.

    I wonder where our tolerance for mistakes and outright lies comes from? By contrast, many of us are so sensitive to the tiniest degree of pollution or contamination of our supplies of air, water and food. What a difference it would make, if we were even a fraction as sensitive as that, about contamination of our word supplies! Maybe the reason for the shortage of truth in the media is that ‘there’s no demand for it’?

    terry

  70. Ben Goldacre: Bad Science Interview « Science Video Resources said,

    October 12, 2008 at 6:21 am

    [...] 1. Don’t Dumb Me Down [...]

  71. PHG Foundation Blog | Beating bad science: embracing evidence said,

    October 22, 2008 at 2:09 pm

    [...] public misunderstanding of science because of what they choose to report, and how they do it (see Don’t dumb me down for a similar [...]

  72. How To Spot A Psychopath :: Minor Crimes Against Science Education, Part 273 :: May :: 2009 said,

    May 28, 2009 at 11:55 am

    [...] toys that’re dumbed down until they’re lying to us are an own [...]

  73. zenoagnew said,

    July 10, 2009 at 11:14 am

    Someone mentioned the BBC educating and informing. Just read the story about the woman with an “electricity allergy”. My question is: Does she feel this “unbearable” pain every time she has a nervous impulse or any thought at all?

  74. zenoagnew said,

    July 10, 2009 at 11:16 am

    Also, she claims to feel pain when walking over underground electrical cables. Surely that’s an allergy to magnetism at best?

  75. How do we change the world? « Francesca Elston said,

    October 9, 2009 at 8:09 am

    [...] obligation to tell the truth, and in particular to report scientific research accurately, and that this obligation is often ignored, and that this is wrong and causes damage. I think it’s wrong to use a personal tragedy to [...]

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  78. Science + poetry « said,

    May 23, 2010 at 8:30 pm

    [...] | by shonaghosh Humanities-students-attempting-science-journalism are the bete noire of certain notable commentators (there are 7 jabs at humanities students in that Goldacre piece alone). Unfortunately us arty [...]

  79. I’ve been hoping to say this for a while: I was wrong. | RSS Lens said,

    August 17, 2010 at 2:15 pm

    [...] www.badscience.net/2006/11/324/http://www.badscience.net/2005/09/dont-dumb-me-down/http://www.apathysketchpad.com/blog/2008/06/21/the-perfect-formula/ [...]

  80. What lies behind the headlines? « Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer said,

    October 18, 2010 at 4:30 pm

    [...] Goldacre, writing in Bad Science, classifies science reporting as falling into three categories – wacky stories, scare stories [...]

  81. … « Oblak Tu i Tamo said,

    January 26, 2011 at 3:46 pm

    [...] in itself and the Bad Science Blogs must be doing the right thing by pointing out to all the wacky stories, scare stories and “breakthrough” stories about science as well as to the pseudo-science and alternative medicine wrong [...]

  82. Science journalists and the papers they don’t read « 2012 And All That… The Fight Against Nonsense said,

    March 29, 2012 at 2:05 am

    [...] irritating bee in the bonnet for nonsense-worrier Ben Goldacre. It is an issue he returns to time and time again. He comments that they create a parody of science and the fact that this parody has been identified [...]

  83. » Button batteries: Threat or menace? How to Spot a Psychopath said,

    June 30, 2012 at 9:01 am

    [...] any neuron-connections on what some attractive ignoramus thinks is going on. See also, jazzed-up, dumbed-down reality shows, some of which make a real effort to get things right, and some of which [...]

  84. Dumbing Down Science | Dumbing Down Science said,

    October 17, 2013 at 1:17 pm

    […] public would understand, could it make them over-simplify science and perhaps miss out key points? This article by Ben Goldacre discusses how science in the media can often be simplistic and sometimes […]

  85. Dumbing down science | BMS3016 2013-2014 said,

    October 17, 2013 at 2:52 pm

    […] public would understand, could it make them over-simplify science and perhaps miss out key points? This article by Ben Goldacre discusses how science in the media can often be simplistic and sometimes […]

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