Today I'm participating in the launch of Newton's Apple, Britain's first science think tank, and about time too. It's the brainchild of Dr Ian Gibson MP and the whole thing kicks off with an essay collection being launched today, featuring Sir Crispin Tickell, Colin Pillinger, Sir Richard Sykes, er, me (I am not a knight) and lots of fabulous other people looking at education, space, politics, and lots more. My contribution is below, and I think all the essays might be on the website. There's also a press party launch thing today at which I will eat free food.
Now, for my own part, I am almost pathologically not a joiner, because I always worry about what collective hive opinions I might be signing up to, but this strikes me as being a thoroughly wholesome operation. Firstly, it's not a pressure group, it's a thinktank, and what could be healthier than thinking, even better if it turns out to include some people you disagree with? Secondly, Ian Gibson MP is quite unambiguously the man and is generally right about everything that matters. Here he is extolling the virtues of open access scientific journal publishing on biomedcentral, for example. Most importantly he chaired the Parliamentary Science and Technology Committee for an extremely long time.
For those who haven't got your head around our so-called democracy, select committees are as close as politicians get to doing what you'd hope they should be doing. Each select committee is made up of MPs from all parties, and their job is to scrutinize Government departments: they have an investigation, hear evidence, think about it carefully, prepare a report, request a reply from the Government, and so on. They're like a secret hidden "easter egg feature" in government, and the SciTech select committee's reports are among the most readable, entertaining documents on science that have been published. I'm being entirely serious, if you find one that's not about boring managerial government nonsense then they're like really good mini-books, or extremely long articles from Prospect magazine on science and society.
Here are the most contemporary ones so you can feel the force of the scitech committee:
And here's my essay. Do read the others (the index looks extremely promising) and here's to thinking in tanks.
Media scares: Where are all the science journalists?
You could spend your whole life talking to the media about scientific and medical research, and yet never meet a single one of the incompetent and nefarious journalists who were driving the MMR vaccination “scandal” for so long. If there is one insight which could improve communication between scientists, journalists, and the public, it is the simple observation that science journalists do not cover major science news stories.
During the crucial two days after the GM ‘Frankenstein Foods’ story broke in February 1999, for example, not a single one of the news articles, opinion pieces or editorials on the subject was written by a science journalist. Only 17 per cent of all the feature articles were written by science journalists . Similarly, a survey in 2003 by the Economic and Social Research Council during the crucial period of the MMR crisis found that only 20 per cent of stories about the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine were written by specialist correspondents . Parents found themselves in the strange position of receiving advice on complex issues of immunology and epidemiology from lifestyle columnists.
The sidelining of specialist journalists, when science becomes front-page news, and the fact that they are not even used as a resource at these times, has predictable consequences. First, the scientific content of stories – the actual experimental evidence – is brushed over and replaced with didactic statements from authority figures on either side of the debate. This contributes to a pervasive sense that scientific advice is somehow arbitrary, and predicated upon a social role – the ‘expert’ – rather than on transparent and readily understandable empirical evidence.
Worse than this, the case against the MMR vaccine consisted of emotive appeals from parents, a lionised ‘maverick’ scientist (“a handsome, glossy-haired hero to families of autistic children”, according to The Daily Telegraph), and Tony Blair's refusal to say whether his baby had received the vaccine. This last factor was shown in survey data to be the single most well-recalled fact about the story of the supposed link between MMR and autism .
A reasonable member of the public, primed with such a compelling battery of human narrative, would be perfectly entitled to regard any expert who claimed MMR was safe as thoughtless and dismissive, especially if that claim came without any apparent supporting evidence.
The solution is clear on one level: make the science part of the story, and have it written by specialist journalists. There is nothing particularly complicated about the scientific evidence on either side of the MMR safety debate. As a one-sentence example, it is a central tenet of the anti-MMR lobby that the vaccine is responsible for the increasing incidence of autism, but in the mid-1990s Japan stopped giving MMR entirely, and yet rates of autism have continued to rise there. Let me promise you right now that constructing the preceding sentence was in no sense a challenge to my “science communication skills”.
How else can we explain the conspicuous absence of such information, even now, from routine MMR coverage? Non-specialist journalists may be unaware of background data, and there may be scope for more good briefings here. But there is a more fundamental problem about how information is critiqued. Journalists are used to listening with a critical ear to briefings from press officers, politicians, PR executives, salespeople, lobbyists, celebrities and gossipmongers, and we don't like to be seen as passive mouthpieces for other people’s briefings. Consequently journalists often show considerable scepticism. This is where the sidelining of specialist journalists is so damaging. They have the knowledge to critically appraise a piece of scientific evidence. But instead, while they are left writing "scientists have found the formula for the perfect boiled egg", their more glamorous colleagues cover MMR and GM. These generalists critique scientific evidence in the only way they know how: by questioning the character and vested interests of the source, rather than appraising the science. (It’s worth noting that the anti-MMR lobby are said to target generalist journalists where possible.)
There are other more subtle indices of how little insight media commentators have into the basic processes of science. Newspapers often refer to original academic research as being “published in the journal New Scientist”, a popular science magazine that merely reports on such work.
There is also a conspicuous over-reliance by newspapers on scientific research that has not been published at all. This is true of almost all of the more recent headline stories on new MMR research. One regularly quoted source, Dr Arthur Krigsman, has been making widely reported claims for new scientific evidence on MMR since 2002, without publishing his work in an academic journal. Similarly, the unpublished ‘GM Potato’ claims of Dr Arpad Pusztai created Frankenstein Food headlines for a whole year before the research was finally published, and could be read and meaningfully assessed.
Sometimes it is hard to ignore the possibility that the media may deliberately exploit the technical complexity of an issue to create headlines. It transpired this year, for example, that every single tabloid story about an “undercover MRSA swab scandal” had got its results from one man, with no microbiology training or knowledge, a non-accredited mail-order PhD from an American correspondence course, and a laboratory consisting of kitchen fittings in a garden shed. His results could not be replicated by other labs and the newspapers were told he and his methods were unreliable. He mispronounced the names of common bacteria. Yet the tabloid press described him as “Britain's leading medical microbiologist”. When he finally gave over his MRSA samples for proper forensic analysis, the inevitable false positives were finally exposed, although not by the tabloids.
Another background issue here is the media’s tendency to make medical and scientific stories fit the simple dramatic narratives of “miracle cure” and “hidden threat”, which were viable models until relatively recently. Between 1935 and 1975, almost everything we associate with modern medicine was discovered: antibiotics; dialysis; transplants; intensive care units; CT scanners; heart surgery; almost every major class of drug, and more. As well as the miracle cures, science was finding the hidden killers that the media still pine for. In the 1950s, for example, and to everybody's genuine surprise, smoking turned out to cause 97 per cent of all lung cancers.
These are now widely regarded as the halcyon days of medicine. By contrast, medical science now moves at a slower pace, in subtle refinements. There has been a huge reduction in premature deaths since 1975, but it has come about through an accumulation of marginal gains, which do not grab headlines.
Similarly, there has been an acceleration in complexity. Fifty years ago you could sketch out how an AM radio worked on the back of a napkin, using a basic school-level knowledge of science. You could fix your own car and understand the science behind most of the everyday technology you encountered, but this is no longer the case. Technology has become more difficult to understand and explain, and everyday gadgets have taken on a “black-box” complexity that can feel both sinister and intellectually undermining.
This has created further problems. As someone with an interest in science who buys newspapers and watches TV, what disappoints me most is not the foolish errors in media coverage of science, but how little science there is for me. I’m not an expert in all forms of science – nobody is – but I’m interested in reading about most of it. While the media and the ‘engagement’ lobby are trying desperately to seduce a disinterested public, the eager audience – the people with an interest in science, and some background knowledge, who could act as spokespeople for science in the pub – are neglected.
In fact, I would argue for a “Viral Model” of promoting science in society, focused on giving challenging and informative material to people who already have a modest background and interest in some form of science, and who can understand this information, and advocate for it in whatever their community might be. You could be wrong about MMR in an almost infinte number of different and varied ways, and people are best disabused of their ignorance in a tailored one-to-one discussion.
There is a popular idea amongst those ignorant of science that somehow “scientists”, perhaps meaning “anyone who did a degree that wasn’t in the humanities”, must know the entire canon of all the science in the world. This is of course not the case, but those with a science background will retain a good chance of understanding complex material, as well as an interest and passion for it.
The extent to which science coverage is dumbed down becomes clearer when we compare it with the finance pages, the sports pages, and the literary supplements, where arcane knowledge and complexity are worn as badges of honour. It is hard not to see this as a reflection of the demographic of the kind of people who work in the media. And meanwhile the word ‘biophoton’ can appear in newspapers – but only when used incorrectly – on the alternative health pages.
Most attempts to make science popular by presenting everything as “news” or a “breakthrough” strike me, at any rate, as trite and undermining. The newspapers’ recurring favourite is “scientists have found the formula for”. Recently the newspapers have covered the formulae for the perfect way to eat ice cream (A x Tp x Tm/Ft x At + V x LT x Sp x W/Tt = 3d20), the perfect TV sitcom (C = 3d[(R x D) + V] x F/A + S), the perfect boiled egg, love, the perfect joke, and the most depressing day of the year ([W + (D - d)] x TQM x NA).
These are stories without any content, and a popular way to reinforce a parody of science as the preserve of irrelevant, detached boffins. In the same bag we might place stories about (unpublished) research claiming that watching Richard and Judy can improve your IQ more than exercise or caffeine: a science story that was thought worthy of an editorial in The Independent on Sunday, no less.
And while this material grabs the headlines, we are in danger of daydreaming through some of the most important technology-driven cultural and political changes for a generation. In a knowledge economy, issues surrounding intellectual property rights are key, and yet in 2001 the European Union Copyright Directive – potentially a land grab on a par with the Enclosure Act – passed through largely unscrutinised by the popular media. Likewise the open-source software movement is making huge contributions to the way we collaborate and use computers, with significant ramifications especially for the developing world, but in the midst of a mainstream media blackout. Similarly, the linkage of personal information between different databases is a far greater threat to privacy and liberty than ID cards, but is a more complex and less tangible issue, and so it is consequently ignored.
This is all a function of the lack of ‘geek’ fluency in media circles. Problems that are so complex and deeply entrenched have no simple solution, but there is so much that scientists and journalists could do to improve communication, at very little personal cost.
Scientists and doctors, for example, can take care to be clear about the status and significance of their work when talking to journalists. Are the results preliminary? Have they been replicated? Have they been published? Do they differ from previous studies? Can you generalise, say, from your sample population to the general population, or from your animal model to humans? Are there other valid interpretations of your results? Have you been clear on what the data actually show, as opposed to your own speculation and interpretation? And so on.
It is naive to imagine that such basic guidelines will be heeded by the irresponsible characters on the fringes who produce so much media coverage. However, they do represent best practice, and so they are always worth reiterating: they deserve to be incorporated into codes of practice from professional bodies and research funding bodies.
Scientists and doctors would also be well advised to take some even simpler steps: to think through the possible implications of their work, inform interested parties before publication, and seek advice from colleagues and press officers. This advice and more is all covered in the Royal Society’s excellent Guidelines on Science and Health Communication, published in 2001 .
Journals, too, can take a lead, since they often produce the promotional material for research. Risk communication is a key area here, and although it is tempting to present risk increases, and indeed benefits, using the largest single number available (the “relative risk increase”) it is also useful to give the “natural frequency”. This figure has context built-in and is more intuitively understandable: it is the difference between ibuprofen causing “a 24 per cent increase in heart attacks” (the relative risk increase) and “one extra heart attack in every 1,005 people taking it”.
Similarly useful guidelines have been produced for journalists by several sources (including the Royal Society , the Social Issues Research Council , and the Royal Institution) over several years but these remain essentially ignored. They represent what any specialist science journalist would consider to be the most basic skills of their profession, such as checking the trustworthiness of sources, the validity of the research methods, the status of publication, and the credibility of any conclusions drawn.
But the key problem for the public misunderstanding of science remains, that these science journalists are ignored, and sidelined, when they are needed the most. And the single most important thing we can do to change this is simply to notice, and point it out, at every available opportunity.
Ben Goldacre is a medical doctor and writes the “Bad Science” column for The Guardian.
 Select Committee on Science and Technology Third Report Chapter 7 www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld199900/ldselect/ldsctech/38/3810.htm
 “Towards a better map: science, the public and the media” I Hargreaves, J Lewis, T Speers. ESRC 2003
 Guidelines on science and health communication. Royal Society, UK 2001. www.royalsoc.ac.uk/document.asp?tip=0&id=1412
 Social Issues Research Council 2001 www.sirc.org/publik/revised_guidelines.shtml