Experts say new scientific evidence helpfully justifies massive pre-existing moral prejudice.

April 18th, 2009 by Ben Goldacre in dodgy academic press releases, mail, medicalisation, MMR, scare stories, telegraph | 72 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Saturday April 18, 2009
The Guardian

Is it somehow possible – and I know I’m going out on a limb here – that journalists wilfully misinterpret and ignore scientific evidence, simply in order to generate stories that reflect their own political and cultural prejudices? Because my friend Martin, from the excellent layscience blog, has made a pretty excellent discovery.

First we have some inevitable scare headlines from the Daily Mail about the cervical cancer vaccine in the English Edition. Endure them, the punchline is worth the effort. “Revealed: The serious health concerns about the cervical cancer jab” “Alert over jab for girls as two die following cervical cancer vaccination” “Twelve-year-old girl paralysed ‘after being given cervical cancer jab’” How safe is the cervical cancer jab? Five teenagers reveal their alarming stories” That’s enough.

But get this. In Ireland, where the government refused to fund the vaccine, the Daily Mail are campaigning – vigorously – for the jab. Apparently it’s lifesaving: “Join the Irish Daily Mail’s cervical cancer vaccination campaign today” “Europe will shame FF into providing Ireland’s life-saving cervical cancer jabs” “Ditching cancer vaccine is a big step back, says expert” “Health campaigners in Ireland take fight for cancer jabs to Washington” “Cervical cancer vaccine for Ireland’s girls: online poll slams decision to pull funding”.

In fact they even have a graphic, with the Daily Mail logo and everything. Like something from a parallel universe, it reads: “Daily Mail Campaign: Roll out the vaccine now!” Presumably the reasoning is to attack any government healthcare decision, by pretending it is medically dangerous.

Meanwhile the isolated “facebook causes cancer” headline from two months ago has evolved into a small industry. Many newspapers made huge stories out of the utterly banal survey observation that kids who mess about on the internet with their friends do less schoolwork.

And now science has proven these sites are a moral threat. “Facebook and Twitter ‘make us bad people’” said the Metro. The Telegraph was graver: “Twitter and Facebook could harm moral values, scientists warn.” “Twitter can make you immoral, claim scientists” was the Mail headline. “Social networks such as Twitter may blunt people’s sense of morality, claim brain scientists. New evidence shows the digital torrent of information from networking sites could have long-term damaging effects on the emotional development of young people’s brains.”

Egged on by a rather fanciful press release from the University media office, and a quote from a sociologist, the story was unstoppable. I got hold of the research paper, with some hassle. In fact, before we even begin to read it, I don’t think it’s very good behaviour to pimp a study to the media before it’s published, before academics can read it and respond, since the media commentariat have proven themselves to be morons.

Anyway: in a sentence, the study finds that the brain bloodflow changes which are observed when a subject is experiencing compassion for social pain peak, and dissipate, at a slightly slower rate to those seen with compassion for physical pain. It does not mention Twitter. It does not mention Facebook. It does not mention social networking websites. It makes – and I’m being generous here – a single, momentary, passing reference to the rapid pace of information in “the digital age” in the discussion section, but that is all. These news stories were bullshit.

Am I a lone, potty-mouthed pedant? I emailed Professor Antonio Damasio, the senior academic and “corresponding author” on the paper, and one of the “scientists” “warning” that Twitter and Facebook will make us immoral.

“Thank you for your inquiry. As you can see if you read our study, we made no connection whatsoever with Twitter. Some writers did make that connection but it is not ours. There is no mention whatsoever of Twitter or of any social network in our study. We have nothing whatsoever to say about them.”

Where did it come from, I asked? He dug. “I found the press release from USC where the writer made, on his own, a connection to social networks. We, the authors, certainly didn’t and don’t. The only connection that could be speculated upon has to do with fast presentation of a story without appropriate context. The connection to Twitter and other social networks, as far as I can see, makes no sense. I presume you will reach the same conclusion after reading our article.”

This is how I think it works. Journalists have a 1950s B-movie view of science. To them, it offers a feeling tone of cold, unquestionable truth that can be used to paste a veneer of objectivity over any moral prejudice you might have, and we’ve seen it a hundred times in this column.

The Independent on Sunday campaigned for a decade to have cannabis legalised: then they changed their minds, but without the strength of character to admit that their moral views had changed, they had to pretend that the cannabis had changed, and was 25 times stronger. In England the cervical cancer vaccine is about a government promoting promiscuity, therefore it causes paralysis and other symptoms; in Ireland the vaccine is withheld by penny pinchers, so it is a lifesaver. And Facebook causes cancer. It does: it makes you immoral, scientists have warned.

References:

You can’t read the study that’s not about Twitter. It’s not out yet.


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72 Responses



  1. Andrej Bauer said,

    April 18, 2009 at 6:06 am

    You’re allowed to write “bullshit” in the Guardian? How liberating.

  2. drunkenoaf said,

    April 18, 2009 at 6:52 am

    I remember a sub headline on the front page story of the Guardian about Stephen Byers — the then Tramsport Sec– had “goatfucker”in it. :)

  3. tmurphy said,

    April 18, 2009 at 7:09 am

    Bad journalism can mislead the public in dangerous and unsafe ways.

    Reports and articles that totally misinterpret scientific papers can make honest, upstanding scientists want to rush out and buy automatic weapons on the black market.

    However, blaming the newspapers alone for the world of misinformation that we live in doesn’t help.

    The prime purpose of newspapers is to sell newspapers.

    To be successful at that they are going to print the stories, true or false, that will engage the interest of the reader.

    Web developments such as RSS and social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook are ripping apart their universe so we can only expect the sensationalism to get worse as the industry convulses in its death throes

    But even in that brave new online world scientists are still going to be misquoted and misrepresented.

    Why? Because they believe that facts stand up all by themselves and that is marvellous enough.

    They beaver away daily to find the underlying organization of our natural world and find ways that those discoveries can be of benefit to us and expect the public to be enthralled. The believe that the truth is exciting all by itself.

    Well it may be for them. The unadorned and unvarnished is what they are in pursuit of.

    So what could be more exciting then revealing and manipulating the secrets of the Universe?

    Answer: A good story.

    The newspaper audience wants a good tale told well and its relationship to truth only has to be incidental at best. It is not just newspapers, our democratic system works on the same premise. Look at how closely our politicians stick to the truth in their bid to win votes.

    To build a bridge across this abyss of verity scientists, researchers and technicians ought to take some creative writing classes and spend at least a summer in college working as an intern in a direct marketing ad agency or better still the newsroom or a red-top.

    Then, when they make the discoveries that can benefit us all they will know how to get the message out in the most direct way with the minimal amount of nonsense.

  4. BobP said,

    April 18, 2009 at 8:02 am

    The key difference is that Ireland is a very moral country, whereas Britain isn’t. I think it’s commendable that the Mail is campaigning for moral improvement in Britain; they obviously tune their campaigning to focus on the most important issue in each country where they have a presence.

    It’s got nothing to do with headline grabbing scandalmongering at all.

  5. Rhodri said,

    April 18, 2009 at 8:23 am

    For a moment, there, I was about to launch into an extended attack on Bob’s ludicrous statement and everything it stood for, but then I realised it was a trap deliberately set to make me angry and ruin my weekend. Phew.

  6. Steve Page said,

    April 18, 2009 at 8:34 am

    I didn’t pay a great deal of attention to those headlines, but I was curious to see Damasio, a neuroscientist of some note, involved with the research. I’m glad to see that he’s clarified his position, and refuted the suggestion that his study supports the tenuous link between morality and social networking sites.

  7. ziggysden said,

    April 18, 2009 at 8:59 am

    Seems to me there could be a case for a PCC complaint. Article 1 of the Code of Conduct relates to accuracy and states

    “i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures.”

    The preamble also makes clear that the spirit of code as well as the letter must be adhered to. There might also be a case to answer in getting the Mail to explain how the disparity in positions can be justified as being in the public interest when this is partly defined by the PCC as “protecting public safety”

    I realise that a PCC complaint is not going to stop the Mail from doing this but it may cause them some temporary embarrasment at least.

    www.pcc.org.uk/cop/practice.html

  8. thepoisongarden said,

    April 18, 2009 at 9:00 am

    Rhodri

    ‘For a moment, there, I was about to launch into an extended attack on Bob’s ludicrous statement’

    Me, too and I probably would have if I hadn’t read your post.

    I must find, and bookmark, appropriate pages from the UK and Irish Mails. Then, the next time someone tells me I’m just anti-Daily Mail and there’s nothing wrong with them I’ll print them off and roll them up and……….

    But I’m sure it’s not just the HPV vaccine where the Mail is facing both ways. I’m sure I remember them criticising people for becoming tax exiles.

  9. CDavis said,

    April 18, 2009 at 9:06 am

    Best illustration EVAR of the fact that the content of newspapers is there to sell newspapers, not inform or educate.

    Which would be OK, if they were positioned as entertaining, rabble-rousing comics – but considerably less OK when they are historically established as bastions of truth and the public interest, have laws protecting their right to say whatever they want, and exercise enormous influence over the government.

    I hate to find myself in the position of thinking this, but it seems to me that the power of the Press is now completely out of whack with their true position in society.

  10. muscleman said,

    April 18, 2009 at 9:12 am

    Yes Damasio is a good scientist, proved in part by his refusal to say his study was about Twitter etc. You can only say such things in speculative musings in the discussion section. Since they didn’t scan the brains of their subjects while they were perusing Twitter they can say nothing about them.

    Anyway I have an alternative suggestion. Twitter et al don’t make you immoral, they just attract and select shallow narcissists which is why the rest of us look on in horror.

    I’m in the phonebook. I do stuff.

  11. nswetenham said,

    April 18, 2009 at 9:14 am

    This hypothesis could also explain why prostate screening research is reported differently in the US and UK –
    US: It’s bad for you, say scientists. Stop asking for it!
    UK: They’re not giving you this life-saving screening. Ask for it!

  12. JonDurham said,

    April 18, 2009 at 9:26 am

    C’mon, BobP is just being heavy on the irony – the last sentence says it all: “It’s got nothing to do with headline grabbing scandalmongering at all”.

    Personally, I love the idea of finetuning news / editorial opinion according to a local morality index. What a project!

  13. Bob Ward said,

    April 18, 2009 at 9:28 am

    Dear Ben,

    Well done on another excellent article, and particularly on exposing the role of the USC press office in generating the spurious story about Facebook and Twitter. It seems like the university press office did not even check the content of the press release with their own researchers. Such examples of bad conduct and practice by university press offices are, I fear, quite widespread and the cause of much inaccurate and misleading media coverage. And they appear to be completely unaccountable for their deeds. In fact, I would be surprised if, in this case, the press officer concerned did not receive much congratulations for having generated such extensive publicity from such an obscure research paper!

  14. I'm not a real doctor but.... said,

    April 18, 2009 at 9:36 am

    I was a bit concerned that, if Facebook and Twitter can make us bad people, what will contributing towards the comments on psuedo science debunking websites might do to us. So I decided to do some research (i.e. decided to make some stuff up) and have evidence (well wild baseless speculation) that you are all a bunch of morally bankrupt degenerates!

    Unfortunately this now obviously includes me as well :-(

  15. MrSamuel said,

    April 18, 2009 at 10:08 am

    Maybe spending time on the internet in general can lead to reading stuff that isn’t printed in crap newspapers, which leads to liberal thinking, or as the aforementioned crap newspapers like to put it, “moral decline”.

  16. SteveGJ said,

    April 18, 2009 at 10:25 am

    It’s almost a truism that most human intellectual effort goes into finding evidence to support conclusions that people have already come to through other means. We might call that prejudice, preconceptions, principles, faith, instinct or any number of other things. Many professions are almost institutionalised versions of this approach (politics, most obviously).

    It should not be considered surprising that the ranks of politicians are swelled from the ranks of barristers. A barrister’s primary job is not to seek the truth – it is to win the case for their client. To do so means marshaling all the evidence in their favour and using various techniques to convince juries and judges of their case. One might also argue that this is what the police often do when investigating cases – take the Colin Stagg affair, where the relevant policeman were convinced of his guilt to the point where they blatantly looked, even tried to generate, evidence to support that case (and not a few journalists colluded).

    On the crusading journalistic side, Paul Foot campaigned (and made money from) from the Hanratty case with a very selective presentation of evidence and was in denial about the result to his very end. Now not all journalists are quite so strident as polemicists like Paul Foot, but I think the thread of conviction runs deep (or maybe now the thread of opportunism on what is increasingly an industry in serious commercial decline). Whatever the mistakes, and venality of individual journalists and papers, then I rather think that it is the diversity that matters – the correction mechanisms. It may be that the opposing views of two different outlets of Associated Newspapers does at least limit the damage that might have been wreaked by a single, wrong-headed, principled position.

    We shouldn’t really be surprised about this. It’s clearly a fundamental part of human nature and there have been plenty of studies which have demonstrated just how much we will defend our own pre-conceptions. What is important in society is to support the corrective mechanisms that stop these in-built preconceptions running to excess. Communist China under Mao appeared to have social mechanisms that appeared to amplify the nature and impact of dogmatic policy mistakes with resultant deaths of millions in mass starvation.

    As for the various very superficial measurements of the social and personal impact of changes in society, I have to own up to my own preconception here. I have very grave reservations of the true objectivity of many social sciences (a preconception which I guiltily had reinforced through reading The History Man). My educational background was in physics, that most reductionist of subjects. That has, perversely told me more about the limitations of the approach than encouraged me to think it is widely applicable. In the case of social sciences (under which studies into social networking must surely come), then I simply feel the number of variables is just too difficult to deal with. Just maybe there are some psychological and physiological studies that are possible, but beyond that I perceive difficulties. I should add that for much the same reason, I am sceptical about Ben’s oft-stated position that proper evidence-based studies can be commonly used for examining the effects of social policies. I just think the whole social model is often too complex for such trials. In necessarily narrowing down to only some measurable effects then all sorts of other, unexpected results may emerge in the long run.

    Now none of this is to say that social policies shouldn’t be investigated, but we need to come clean on the limitations of the approach and a bit less idealistic on the purity of the approach (itself a preconception).

    On the issues of social networks, the Internet, legalising cannabis and all these other things, then I think it undoubted that at least some will have profound social affects; maybe positive, maybe negative, maybe neutral. We might be able to come to a conclusion (possibly) over the medical affects of cannabis, but the social affects on individuals, and especially society, are far less measurable. So I’m not so inclined to think these things are necessarily benign, and very probably we might never know for sure. We need a little humility on the limitations of these approaches, as well as to point them out to journalists. There is, I think, no magic bullet of objectivity in social policies.

  17. muscleman said,

    April 18, 2009 at 10:29 am

    @nswetenham

    What is perhaps slightly depressing is that in our supposedly highly connected world they can get away with it to most of the people most of the time. I suspect it is more evidence that only a minority of people are highly connected. The biggest seller in our local newsagent is neither a national broadsheet or tabloid but the local paper. Many people seem not to want to know about anything else. Which is not in itself a problem, except it makes them vulnerable to this sort of manipulation.

  18. Rhysickle said,

    April 18, 2009 at 10:56 am

    To be fair though, a good friend of mine tells me that on your syndicated French language blog you’re a big supporter of alternative medicine.

  19. The Biologista said,

    April 18, 2009 at 1:27 pm

    Doublethink from the Daily Mail? Surely not! This does appear to be just about the most striking example so for though. It’s one thing to go from anti-MMR to blaming scared parents for the measles upsurge in the space of weeks, quite another to simultaneously hold contradictory views.

  20. David Mingay said,

    April 18, 2009 at 1:48 pm

    @SteveGJ

    More MPs are teachers rather than barristers (47 v. 34). You’d expect them to know better. Maybe.

  21. MarkH said,

    April 18, 2009 at 2:02 pm

    I didn’t think it was possible to hate the daily mail even more. Guess I was wrong.

  22. muscleman said,

    April 18, 2009 at 3:31 pm

    @StevenGJ

    The research is neuroscience, not social science. I am as a biologist familiar with the idea that we cannot possibly do ‘proper science’ with all our ‘uncontrolled variables’. Well for one thing that’s why stats, and inbred mouse strains and case matched controls and why modern genetics have revolutionised our understanding since we can pin so much on genetic mutation and variation. Sure we are not yet a predictive science (beyond that if you carry the Huntingtin gene you are in trouble), but some are now predicting that we are close.

    What is remarkable is not the ‘uncontrolled variables’ but that we can do good solid, replicatable science despite them. It’s a bit of a blood sport to diss the other guy’s science and us biologists sneer at the social scientists too, but that is partly because we wouldn’t want to work under the restrictions they do, I mean they can’t even ethically do experiments. They can just use the natural ones (poor vs rich upbringing etc). It would be like us being restricted to natural mutations and not being allowed to make knockouts and transgenics. You would like molecular biology, lots of very cool precision and the selection tools would blow your mind. I once did a ligation (stitched pieces of dna together) and put the results into several hundred million bacteria to grow up for me. There were iirc 8 possible configurations, only one of which was useful. I got but one colony, the result of one bacterium taking up the dna and it was the right configuration. One out of hundreds of millions. And that is routine.

  23. henrywilton said,

    April 18, 2009 at 4:37 pm

    StevenGJ

    There is, I think, no magic bullet of objectivity in social policies.

    Nor is there in anything! You’ve only got to scratch the surface of the controversy about string theory to see that there are plenty of methodological problems with physics too. Ben is at pains to point out that every piece of research is flawed – it’s up to us to decide how serious the flaws are.

    Of course social scientists (and other academics involved in social policy) face particularly serious methodological difficulties. But, unlike physicists (or, for that matter, mathematicians like myself) they address some of the most serious questions that face our society. And I’m not talking about the soundbite-spouting idiots that make it onto the front pages of the Daily Mail. I’m talking about people who devote their lives to understanding drug addiction in poor northern towns, or for that matter who can tell us that Labour have significantly reduced childhood poverty since coming to power in 1997.

  24. wiz5 said,

    April 18, 2009 at 4:48 pm

    String theory is not mainstream physics.

  25. muscleman said,

    April 18, 2009 at 5:00 pm

    “String theory is not mainstream physics.”

    Tell that to those who hire physics faculty. Go read some of Lee Smolin’s stuff on how in many places you won’t be hired unless you profess belief in the great net in the sky.

  26. wiz5 said,

    April 18, 2009 at 5:09 pm

    I have read Lee Smolin’s work. I am also a Physics student and I have not been taught a single piece of string theory.

    The issue is not the research that is being done, but if it passes into mainstream physics without being adequately tested.

    And hiring practices are political problems not methodological.

  27. henrywilton said,

    April 18, 2009 at 5:57 pm

    wiz5,

    String theory is mainstream physics. You’ve only got to look at the research interests of the faculty of any theoretical physics department to see that. Many undergraduate physics courses don’t teach string theory because it’s mathematically quite difficult.

    I didn’t intend to start a debate on the merits or demerits of string theory (you could try Peter Woit’s blog Not Even Wrong if you want that). Rather, I wanted to point out that even physics, “that most reductionist of subjects” as SteveGJ put it, has serious methodological differences of opinion at its heart. The good news is that, in the end, it probably matters very little whether or not string theory gets the thumbs up or the thumbs down.

    SteveGJ’s position is faint-hearted. Of course social scientists have to confront the “limitations” of their methods. But, unlike most of the rest of us (here by “us” I mean “academics”, I suppose), many of them are actually doing something to help.

  28. kerledan said,

    April 18, 2009 at 6:38 pm

    tmurphy@

    tremendous post, you are probably horribly right and prescient…

    tmurphy wrote: “Web developments such as RSS and social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook are ripping apart their universe so we can only expect the sensationalism to get worse as the industry convulses in its death throes

    But even in that brave new online world scientists are still going to be misquoted and misrepresented.

    Why? Because they believe that facts stand up all by themselves and that is marvellous enough.

    They beaver away daily to find the underlying organization of our natural world and find ways that those discoveries can be of benefit to us and expect the public to be enthralled. The believe that the truth is exciting all by itself.

    Well it may be for them. The unadorned and unvarnished is what they are in pursuit of.

    So what could be more exciting then revealing and manipulating the secrets of the Universe?

    Answer: A good story.

    The newspaper audience wants a good tale told well and its relationship to truth only has to be incidental at best. It is not just newspapers, our democratic system works on the same premise. Look at how closely our politicians stick to the truth in their bid to win votes.

    To build a bridge across this abyss of verity scientists, researchers and technicians ought to take some creative writing classes and spend at least a summer in college working as an intern in a direct marketing ad agency or better still the newsroom or a red-top.

    Then, when they make the discoveries that can benefit us all they will know how to get the message out in the most direct way with the minimal amount of nonsense.”

  29. SteveGJ said,

    April 18, 2009 at 6:49 pm

    @muscleman

    I did allow for the neurological element you refer to. A quote – “Just maybe there are some psychological and physiological studies that are possible, but beyond that I perceive difficulties.”, The neurological studies would fit into that, but I’m with those that would say extrapolating this into the impacts on a social context is dubious. I’ve no doubt that sticking somebody’s head into a CAT scanner whilst playing a violent video game could reveal something, but that’s a million mile from a supportable conclusion over what it means to the effect on the crime rate.

    Biology, has, of course, been revolutionised by the introduction of reductionist techniques. There’s a direct route, from physics, to chemistry, to biochemistry, to biology. The prising apart of the genome, the supporting evidence for evolution (far more convincing to my mind than even the fossil records) has changed the subject out of all recognition from my days. I’ve no doubt that some of this will continue. But it has its limitations. It may be that the problems are too difficult of computationally infeasible.

    As for “dissing” somebody else’s science. Well I think there are lines to be drawn here. To take an extreme example, if homeopathy claims to be a science with obvious methodological problems should be keep quiet about it? To take something with more grey area, what about psychotherapy? What about some of the more speculative areas in psychotherapy? It’s honest recognition of the limitations that matters. The uncertainties – Jacob Bronowski was very strong on that. (I am, of course, using science in the very narrow sense of natural science).

    @henry wilton
    On the area of string theory, many physicists would concede that it is more an elegant, if difficult, mathematical model than a testable scientific theory – at least at this stage. But there is an element of faith in physics in that none that I have ever known don’t really, at heart, hope for. That is eventually there will be a theory-of-everything which will, in one incredibly elegant model, bring everything together. For very many years many physicists avoided the subject of the very fine tuning of the laws of physics to make our very existence possible (the zealots somehow thought a law would come out showing these laws an values were inevitable). However, the pragmatists have now, I think, settled on multiverses – for want of a better term – (which I long ago thought the only credible, if probably unprovable, explanation).

    Physics has its boundaries as, indeed even does maths – Godel demonstrated that. However, what I would say, is despite all that, the predictions made from, say, thermodynamics are far more precise than, for instance the role of education in preventing drug-related crime. It’s not that the practitioners of the former are are necessarily better at their job than the latter, just that the basic problem is more difficult to deal with. Conversely, it is also, of course, far more difficult to show who are the better practitioners of the latter. All academic subjects, like everything else in life, have an element of both professional excellence and other necessary characteristics for success. With 100 metre sprinters the former is easier to demonstrate objectively than for a historian.

    It is the certainty with which so many social scientists appear to be prepared to present their conclusions that I have trouble with. If properly controlled trials are difficult and expensive and bound with ethical issues in medicine, then experiments on social policy are even more difficult.

  30. SteveGJ said,

    April 18, 2009 at 6:59 pm

    @David Mingay

    I’m grateful for the statistic, and it’s certainly interesting that there are more teachers than barristers. However, given that the total number of teachers in the UK is surely vastly higher than the number of barristers (anybody have the statistic to hand?), then I still suspect that barristers are disproportionately represented in parliament by profession.

    What I think would be even more interesting to know is if the barristers are represented even more disproportionately at higher levels in the government. If my, admittedly, preconceived notion that barristers are particularly suited by personality and aptitude to roles in government is true, that would fit in. Certainly a lot of the cabinet seem to have that background.

    I should add that I do have this picture of barristers as intelligent, legally trained actors. But then maybe I’ve seen to many courtroom TV and film dramas (or, maybe, Tony Blair in action).

  31. henrywilton said,

    April 18, 2009 at 8:34 pm

    @SteveGJ

    It is the certainty with which so many social scientists appear to be prepared to present their conclusions that I have trouble with.

    Do you have “so many” concrete examples? The social scientists I know are very aware of the difficulties of finding accurate information about and performing rigorous trials on the issues they are trying to address.

    Or are you talking about the way their conclusions are presented in the media? As Ben’s article shows, it may not be the researchers themselves who are at fault.

    To be honest, I think you’re falling into a lazy physicist’s caricature of the “soft” sciences. It’s very easy to adopt a “more rigorous than thou” attitude. But what have you got to offer that’s actually useful?

  32. Robert Carnegie said,

    April 19, 2009 at 1:33 am

    @2, was the Guardididian perhaps attempting to report that the Tramspot Secretact might be made the gofaster of the chiuld of a politechnic college in another politechnic pratty? (Or indeed of young Lio Bluer.) Or doesn’t that sort of coverage happen since computers?

  33. JustAsItSounds said,

    April 19, 2009 at 6:40 am

    @SteveGJ

    tl;dr

  34. EmilyF said,

    April 19, 2009 at 9:22 am

    “fast presentation of a story without appropriate context.”

    So, reading spurious tabloid science journalism ‘makes us bad people’, then?

  35. SteveGJ said,

    April 19, 2009 at 11:55 am

    @henrywilton

    I’m sure that there are social scientists who are very careful over the uncertainties and limitations of their conclusions. However, as many people who can attest in the 1970s (at least) many sociology departments were heavily politicised, and it was often academics that caught at least the media eye. As an example, Professor Laurie Taylor was a member of Trotskyist International Socialists, as well as being very active (as he is to this day) in the media. It is also undoubtedly true that the writings, findings and views of researchers in these areas are often selectively adopted by politicians, journalists and commentators to support particular views.

    It wasn’t particularly my experience in my days at University that there were many politically motivated “hard” scientists, and in any case, it’s difficult to set out with, say, a free-market libertarian view and somehow apply that philosophy to a theory on superconductivity. It simply isn’t that sort of subject. Political outlook did, of course, used to play a part in sciences dealing with more complex systems – famously Lysenkoism in the Soviet Union. “Creation Science” in the US of course. However, as the subject areas become more amenable to “hard” science techniques, the ambiguities that make this possible start to disappear, unless you live in a society where dogma overrides evidence (usually in either religously conservative or highly dogmatic political environments).

    I simply think that the more we get into the implications on complex sociological issues, the more that interpretations of results can be selected and adopted to support some prejudged position. I also suspect that some people are attracted to these subject areas precisely to specifically research areas to support their views. The extension of, for example, narrow interpretations of genetics into social policy is equally something we’ve seen happen by journalists.

    There isn’t really room to go into the specific evidence for this, but there is an excellent (if slightly turgid) book called “Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science (Paperback)” I should add that it is not written by members of the rabid right; quite the opposite, the two co-authors are American liberals. It is also, of course, largely based on American academic experience. Now it might be reasonably argued that they aren’t really talking about “proper” researchers in social sciences, but for sure the academics who they target would style much of what they do as being in that field, just not research in the way that, say, a geologist or a botanist would recognise it. I’d maintain that, for the most part, sociology has a lot more in common with history as a subject than chemistry. I think if it is recognised that way, and isn’t considered to have the predictive powers of “hard science” subjects then it would be to the benefit of all.

  36. fxnut said,

    April 19, 2009 at 1:08 pm

    @tmurphy (3) said:

    “scientists, researchers and technicians ought to take some creative writing classes”

    You’re kidding right? It’s one thing to say that we should try and open better communication channels to the media, but you seem to be suggesting that we do their jobs for them because they’re too lazy and lacking in integrity to write proper stories about science. Don’t scientists have enough to do already?

    But I honestly doubt if it would make a difference. The only way this situation would change is with a cultural shift from inside the media.

  37. prion said,

    April 19, 2009 at 3:00 pm

    The fantastic thing about social networking is that it is now making newspapers redundant for me. Perhaps that’s why they resort to such ludicrous attention-grabbing. I can find out more about a science story (and do it faster) from facebook, twitter and a handful of blogs and forums that I could from any number of newpaper articles, Bad Science excepted!

  38. gazza said,

    April 19, 2009 at 7:52 pm

    Ben’s found another example of how crap, and cynical, the mainstream print media are on science issues. No surprise – general purpose journalists are rubbish at specialist articles; only specialist journalists have a chance of representing their subject accurately (if given the chance). And newspaper editors have axes to grind – politically, morally and most importantly, commercially. We all know that.

    The good news (sort of) is that print newspapers are in a state of terminal decline – I’m sure in correspondence to the increasing influence of the internet. And we know if we’re discriminating that we can find internet bloggers with detailed knowledge, and a good manner of communication, far surpassing that found in general newspapers.

    From the specialist knowledge point of view I’m happy with that. The Daily Mail can then continue a trend towards a ‘lifestyle’ magazine and other newspapers can fold, or become porn sites if they want. Whether current newspapers can survive in their current form, but in a purely online format, seems problematic to me.

    The only thing that worries me is who then brings MPs and their expenses to account in a popular form? In other words puncturing pomposity, corruption, etc in a sufficiently popular medium for it to affect those being attacked.

  39. mpr2020 said,

    April 20, 2009 at 9:20 am

    BG: “In fact, before we even begin to read it, I don’t think it’s very good behaviour to pimp a study to the media before it’s published, before academics can read it and respond, since the media commentariat have proven themselves to be morons.”

    In fact, since the media generally require a news hook of some kind, this is exactly what happens and it is what the news embargo could have been invented for. In this case, the press release was so removed from the paper in question that it probably didn’t happen like this, but usually a proofed manuscript will be made available under embargo to journalists writing the story. This way they can send it on to other academics for comment but the story doesn’t break until the embargo (timed to coincide with publication in the peer-reviewed journal). Inevitably, research is reported and commented on before the wonderful and infallible process of the scientific consensus has a chance to operate. Because otherwise it would not, by definition, be news.

    By the way, in the interests of pedantry (and I hope it will be tolerated here), the Guardian style guide, no less, says: ‘beware the creeping “proven”, featuring (mispronounced) in every other TV ad; proven is not the normal past tense of prove, but a term in Scottish law (“not proven”) and in certain English idioms, eg “proven record”.’ www.guardian.co.uk/styleguide

  40. SimonCox said,

    April 20, 2009 at 11:20 am

    @BobWard

    The cause of inaccurate and misleading media coverage is not university press offices, it is journalists not doing their job: if journalists are not responsible for the content of a newspaper, then who on earth is?

    Is it really too much to ask for a journalist to actually read a paper before writing about it?

    To paraphrase Prof. Damasio: “The connection to Twitter and other social networks, as far as I can see, makes no sense. I presume [journalists] will reach the same conclusion after reading our article.”

  41. mikey2gorgeous said,

    April 20, 2009 at 11:43 am

    Ben,
    in order to further “the cause”, and with all the insider knowledge you have, I suggest you write the MOTHER of all bad journalism scare stories then when it’s picked up & reported across all the papers jump up & shame them all!
    Put a sign on your shed saying “something something Advanced Research Laboratories”, write your paper showing how which hand you wipe your arse with is an indicator of penis size (first draft in crayon, surely) & send it out as a press release.
    I’m sure you’d be able to come up with something completely outrageous but appearing to the hacks as genuine.
    Love your work – you have a lot of support in the (mostly) silent majority. :D

  42. girth_summit said,

    April 20, 2009 at 12:46 pm

    If twitter and facebook make you a bad person… and they cause cancer… I would have thought the DM would have been all in favour of them. Over time, they would act to preferentially kill off those predisposed to become bad people, saving all that tax payers money in future litigation, incarceration and so on.

    Maybe we can look forward to them starting a campaign for free internet access to prisoners?

  43. psypressuk said,

    April 20, 2009 at 1:33 pm

    Great blog! It’s an age-old media debate that seems to be illuminated brilliantly by some responses I’ve read here!

    You can only blame the reporters/journalists/editors/proprietors to a certain degree. A stupified audience who read and believe only that which comes in the form of mass-media are demanding of this genre of “fiction-writing”.

    The ‘public interest’ is unfortunately an undying love for thriller fiction, which dates back to our earliest literature and which has never been lost in regard to nearly all mainstream writing; so called ‘non-fiction’ and ‘fiction’ alike. The methods of exciting the audience is as standard as the use of the metaphor. Truth is that which excites within the cosy mainframes of culture; both providers and consumers alike are to blame – their’s is a unity, which creates the misaligned whole.

  44. Dr Aust said,

    April 20, 2009 at 2:32 pm

    @SimonCox

    The only (veteran) science journo I know says that he and his fellows:

    (i) take publication in a peer-reviewed journal as a badge of “soundness”; and

    (ii) assume Univ press office folk (who are largely ex-journos or part-time journos) have done the “translating” to plain language for them, AND the checking w the scientists for accuracy of message.

    My source said he “only knew one Fleet St science editor who would actually want to read the original paper before publishing the article” (paraphrasing slightly).

    One can debate whether this is good practice, but it is the way the current system works.

  45. DocM said,

    April 20, 2009 at 2:32 pm

    Germany’s foremost media-critical blog BildBlog had a nice link to this at www.bildblog.de/7352/twitter-macht-journalisten-dumm/. I’m always happy to see my favourite bloggers quoting each other, that makes it feel more like a movement and less like lonely voices in the desert.

  46. TK said,

    April 20, 2009 at 4:07 pm

    I am afraid I am not seeing a clear contradiction in positions here. Perhaps the Daily Mail is in favour of offering a choice of the cervical cancer vaccination, but believes people should be informed of the risks (assuming their stories on the risks are legit)? They don’t come out clearly and campaign against it in England, based on the links above. That said, I never read the Daily Mail and only know of it through Ben’s stories (and reading the stories referenced above), so maybe there’s some background here I don’t understand which makes my interpretation of these stories not particularly credible.

  47. mikewhit said,

    April 20, 2009 at 5:47 pm

    I saw a DM item a couple of weeks ago on the back of a Jade Goody story, in which it was agitating for more smear tests, without once mentioning the HPV jab.

    It is indeed quite possible that had Goody been able to have had the vaccine at the appropriate age (obviously it was not available then) then she may have been spared the eventually fatal illness.

    It just seemed a gratuitously missed opportunity on behalf of the DM to refer to the vaccine for the sake of girls’ future health.

  48. heavens said,

    April 20, 2009 at 8:54 pm

    > Am I a lone, potty-mouthed pedant?

    Don’t most people get over the potty-mouth stuff around age six or seven?

    Oh, that’s right, only the girls get over it then. The boys spend their preteen years writing “Hello” and covering up the last letter so they can titter about how brave they are during school. Some of them never really get past that stage, but do basically the same thing with slightly different words for the rest of their lives. (I can see it now: next week’s headline for the Daily Mail will be “Scientist says potty-mouthed nature make boys fail school”.)

    Seriously, Ben, you clearly have a decently developed vocabulary, and English has, by far, the largest set of words in the history of human language, with dozens of choices that could have worked in that sentence. It would be fun to see more of them, instead of the same old lazy scatological choices.

  49. henrywilton said,

    April 21, 2009 at 2:19 am

    @SteveGJ

    Thanks for the book recommendation – it sounds interesting. (For what it’s worth, I work in American academia, so I’m sure it will be relevant to me.)

    As for the rest, your position seems to be something like the following: “Scientific techniques aren’t relevant to social policy because the practitioners might have political opinions of their own”.

    I grant you that there’s a reduced danger of a researcher’s politics affecting their work in the “hard” sciences, but it’s naive to say that it’s never important. You can’t argue that Oppenheimer’s politics, or Heisenberg’s, were irrelevant. Or more recently James Watson’s? I heard a case nicely made on In Our Time that Darwin’s family background of abolitionism made it easier for him to conceive of speciation by evolution. Everyone has politics, and it’s often important.

    Your example of Lysenko is a good one, and it cuts to the heart of the matter. The problem wasn’t that he was a bad scientist (though he was), nor that his politics marred his science (perhaps it did) but that the political system in which he operated didn’t allow his ideas to be thoroughly criticized.

    We need information to inform social policy. The data is difficult to come by and even harder to interpret, but that’s not an argument for abandoning our best tools (scientific methods). Rather, what’s required is a scientifically literate public sphere – which, as I see it, is what this blog’s all about.

  50. srbishop said,

    April 21, 2009 at 2:00 pm

    tmurphy said:

    ‘The prime purpose of newspapers is to sell newspapers.

    To be successful at that they are going to print the stories, true or false, that will engage the interest of the reader.

    Web developments such as RSS and social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook are ripping apart their universe…’

    I disagree that web developments are changing all of this. I agree that they are for people like us (people who are likely to read Bad Science, those who are likely to read blogs etc.), but a lot of people don’t. They only read the papers. I cite my parents and grandparents as examples – my grandparents don’t even know what the Internet is so would never come anywhere need it, AND they read the Daily Mail. So the only science they pick up is… the biased crap the Mail decide to print. My parents are more tech savvy, but they wouldn’t think to read blogs, and I would guess that they trust only traditional sources.

    On the plus side, my parents also dislike the Daily Mail. But only because I told them to.

  51. SteveGJ said,

    April 21, 2009 at 4:42 pm

    @henrywilton
    Well there is a measure of agreement, but still quite a few differences. Firstly, let’s deal with the issue of Oppenheimer and Heisenberg. Now there is no doubt that there politics had a strong relationship on some of the science they did, and what they chose to do with it. However, that’s a very long way from saying that their politics shaped their scientific theories, although having said that, there is an intriguing twist with Heisenberg over which there is, appropriately, uncertainty.
    Now it might has been that with different motivations, Oppenheimer may not have chosen to be so involved with the Manhattan project. However, that had nothing at all to do with any theories be produced. That’s very different to Lysenko where the “acquired attribute” theory was prompted my Marxism (and disastrously resulted in huge number of deaths through starvation). With Heisenberg, his fundamental work in the foundations of quantum mechanics, most famously the uncertainty principle, are not prompted by a political outlook. However, there is a twist – some claim that he deliberately made miscalculations on the sustainability of a chain reaction in order to prevent the Nazis developing a A bomb. Now, if true, I would consider that a deliberate deceit – something scientists did with enemies all through the war. (And the balance of opinion appears to be that he just made a mistake).

    Now – I’m not claiming that some of the techniques used in “hard” science subjects cannot be used in social sciences. What I’m saying is that some of them are very much harder and less reliable. Compared to “hard” sciences it is very much more difficult to carry out controlled experiments – not only are there practical matters, there are serious ethical issues (nobody is going to try a real “Lord of the Files” experiment). The number of variables is immense, and the number of unknowns similarly. There is also a more profound problem in that the theory of a mechanism of operation is a major problem because human beings and society are so complex. I’d make a case that many of the theories regarding the mechanisms of operation are based on assumptions, and often those based on faith, politics or other ethical patterns. For instance, Marxism is strongly predicated on a theory of the perfectibility of human nature. Economics on rationalism (although that last one is provably wrong).

    Because of the difficulty of controlled experiments (particularly difficult with sentient subjects – you get into the Hawthorne and placebo effects) then often the analysis comes down to one of statistics. It’s very easy to get into correlations and interpret them as causative. For instance, looking at a gun-control site, they state:-

    “Having a gun in the home makes it three times more likely that you or someone you care about will be murdered by a family member or intimate partner.”

    In fact what that shows is that there is a correlation between guns and domestic homicides. Now is might be that a reasonable causal theory that having a gun around in the house makes it easier to kill somebody on the spur of the moment. Another theory just says that people (and it’s mostly men) who commit domestic homicides are just more likely to be attracted to violence and have guns around. If they didn’t have guns, they’d use some other means. Now there are ways of correcting by adding in other factors, but that game is played by both sides of the gun lobby and they come to different answers. Who is right, and how do you tell objectively (and the implications of gun control on domestic policy is an easy one – reliable stats and lots of clear outcomes).

    Ben has a lot of faith in the power of controlled experiments to analyse the outcome of social policies. I’m much more sceptical myself – for instance, changes in the UK education system were made to increase educational levels among the population. There are now plenty of exam result statistics to “prove” this (much beloved by politicians), but the changes in the basis of measurement are such those are virtually worthless as outcome measures (although we do know there has been a massive drop in people studying most “hard” science subjects to higher levels – did a change in education policy cause that? Who knows, and how does that square with the policy that made more pupils study science in the first place?)

  52. mikewhit said,

    April 21, 2009 at 5:03 pm

    So who are the Nick Robinsons, the Mike Cricks and the (go on …) Robert Pestons of the newspaper science journalists ?

    I can’t imagine one of the dailies taking on ex-Reg physics graduate Lucy Sherriff, for example …

  53. henrywilton said,

    April 21, 2009 at 5:56 pm

    @SteveGJ

    Well, thanks for the lecture on the difference between causation and correlation. I’m not an idiot, you know.

    Heisenberg and Oppenheimer were extreme examples, intended to point out that there are obviously moments when even a “hard” scientist’s politics can be important, sometimes even to the theories that they develop.

    The examples of Lysenko and Darwin are more pertinent. Your reply ignored Darwin, and missed my point about Lysenko. Let me spell it out. Lysenko was a bad scientist, and perhaps that was because of his politics. But it doesn’t matter. Lots of people are bad scientists, for all sorts of reasons. Lysenko’s theories had disastrous consequences not because his politics were bad, but because the sphere in which he operated didn’t allow his ideas to be criticized.

    It’s very like MMR and Andrew Wakefield. The MMR scare wasn’t caused by Wakefield but by the UK media, ie the public sphere in which he operated. Wakefield was a bad scientist, perhaps even a fraudulent one, but we have to allow people to do science badly if we want them to do it at all. The flipside gives you Darwin, since it’s possible that his politics helped him to do good science. This is why, ultimately, you can’t divorce science from politics. A scientist’s politics and her personality are deeply bound up, and her science is a product of her personality.

    In fact, agronomy is a hopeful example. In the wrong country Lysenko’s ideas led to disaster, but over the course of the twentieth century, in countries with a healthier attitude to scientific debate, crop yields have increased manyfold. (Of course there are various ethical concerns, but that’s another matter.)

    I agree with you that it can be extremely hard to interpret evidence about social policy accurately. But we differ in the conclusions that we draw from this. Your think we should give up, I think it’s too important an enterprise. The best way to do good science is to do it in a public sphere that can provide intelligent criticism. Now, that may not be the public sphere that we have, but it’s a worthwhile aim, don’t you think?

  54. hrt25g said,

    April 21, 2009 at 8:16 pm

    @ Heavens

    ‘Seriously, Ben, you clearly have a decently developed vocabulary, and English has, by far, the largest set of words in the history of human language, with dozens of choices that could have worked in that sentence. It would be fun to see more of them, instead of the same old lazy scatological choices.’

    Which would be fine except that there isn’t a more suitable, accurate or appropriate word in the English language than ‘bullshit’ in this case.

    If the use of a single word (even if that word really was a proper* swear word) distracts you from an entire argument, then it is you that needs to grow up my friend.

    *which was my originally planned one-word answer but I didn’t think it would get past the moderators or be appreciated by the recipient with the humour with which it was intended…

  55. SteveGJ said,

    April 21, 2009 at 11:04 pm

    @henrywilton

    I may have laboured the point of correlation and causation, but that’s because it is the absolute crux of the issue. “Hard” science subjects are distinguished from “soft” sciences essentially because the former have a very well developed causation model with a gradual building of complexity. That reductionist model has its limits though. Several sciences (like medical science) have changed radically in the last 60 years as they have been able to develop such models, but even they hit considerable limits at the moment. It is that causation model gap which I think is really what makes social sciences different.

    I didn’t mean to ignore Darwin – he didn’t really have strong politics as far as I can tell. No doubt he had the social norms of his class, and originally some sort of conventional religious faith, but as far as we can tell that didn’t stop his analysis. Of course many Christians believed that there could be no contradiction between their faith and science would just reveal God’s work.

    I’d certainly agree that Lysenko drove his science through because of the politics and power structure of the Soviet Union at the time. But that’s precisely why science and politics (or any faith structure for that matter) make very poor bedfellows when trying to arrive at some attempt at objective truth (whatever that is). It’s just subjects that involve the humanities are much more difficult to entangle.

    Finally, where on earth did I say give up? What I said was treat the results and predictions as being a lot more uncertain and be prepared for them to be wrong – or accept that we might never know. If Godel demonstrated that this was so for some parts of mathematics, then surely how much more so for these more complex subjects. What I see though is politicians, journalist and all sorts of other interest groups essentially pretending (or even believing) higher degrees of certainty than is warranted. Seriously, if we can’t even get consensus for something as relatively straightforward to analyse as gun control, then just what can we be reasonably certain about?

  56. heavens said,

    April 21, 2009 at 11:11 pm

    hrt25g said: “If the use of a single word (even if that word really was a proper* swear word) distracts you from an entire argument, then it is you that needs to grow up my friend.”

    I don’t find that it distracts me, and I’m not offended by it any more than I am by sloppy grammar. I just think it’s lazy and uncreative. (I agree that it’s not blasphemous and therefore not a “swear” word.)

  57. henrywilton said,

    April 22, 2009 at 12:23 am

    @SteveGJ

    What I said was treat the results and predictions as being a lot more uncertain and be prepared for them to be wrong… What I see though is politicians, journalist and all sorts of other interest groups essentially pretending (or even believing) higher degrees of certainty than is warranted.

    It seems to me that here you’re saying that we have a scientifically illiterate public sphere – and here I agree with you. My point is that it’s better to lay the blame there – and attempt to rectify things by contributing to the discussion – than to dismiss social sciences as inobjective. (Which you did.)

    Seriously, if we can’t even get consensus for something as relatively straightforward to analyse as gun control, then just what can we be reasonably certain about?

    Frankly, I think this sentence is bizarre. I’d have said there’s a pretty clear consensus on gun control everywhere except the US, and there the lack of consensus is mostly down to an anti-scientific and indeed irrational streak in public discourse. Are you American, by any chance? (I presume not from your spelling of “analyse”, but you never know.)

  58. etox said,

    April 22, 2009 at 4:27 pm

    That’s hilarious how they said that Twitter can make you immoral. It’s your cause deep down that decides that, Twitter is just a medium.
    Eric T.
    www.jazdlifesciences.com

  59. Antony Eagle said,

    April 22, 2009 at 5:27 pm

    Just to note that Mark Liberman of Language Log has also picked up on this, gives a hat tip to Ben, and follows up a bit more on the detail of the science.

  60. Squander Two said,

    April 22, 2009 at 5:56 pm

    Presumably, Professor Damasio, angry at the way his work has been misrepresented by his own university’s press office, will be taking some sort of action against them? If this keeps happening, he might even resign?

  61. peningda said,

    April 23, 2009 at 12:24 am

    I agree with Bob Ward’s comment at #13.
    The university press office has created the false story, not the media. This is very common, and the press offices seem to be completely unaccountable. Universities puting out premature and deceptive press releases should be rebuked and downrated (fewer research grants) because they are deceiving the public. The press offices have presumably been created to raise the profile of the university, for financial reasons, so the feedback the vice chancellors will listen to is bad press offices costing them income.

  62. ynrob said,

    April 23, 2009 at 4:53 pm

    I disagree, with all this blaming of the press nonsense. A business’s first priority is to make money and the articles
    published by the newspapers reflect this. The problem we have here is that we have people that believe whatever they are told. Only an idiot would use the daily horoscope as an investment guide. So why do so may take what is said in the news media as gospel?

    Newspapers should by law be made to put a disclaimer within each publication. It can be in small print but MUST be placed at the bottom of the FRONT page.

    DISCLAIMER:
    Although every effort has been made to verify the facts in this publication due to time constraints, potential misinformation from our sources and the personal opinions of parties involved or that of the writer. It must be assumed that any article within this publication is wholly or in part a work of fiction. The Daily Bob takes no responsibility for any harm or offence that an article published herein may cause.

    When people are made aware that the articles they read are of low quality and demand better. Then and only then will they improve. We don’t see this sort of thing nearly as often in for example the financial section.

  63. Delster said,

    April 23, 2009 at 10:55 pm

    ynrob

    The difference is that in the financial section you get things like company A bought a 20% stake in company B thus bringing their holdings in company C to 51% etc Nice easy factual stuff where they can’t really make up a scare story.

    The science section on the other hand… seems largly to consist of a journalist with no qualifications in the subject taking a study with minor fairly unremarkable results and telling you it’ll cause cancer…or cure it…or possibly both in the daily mails case.

  64. Delster said,

    April 23, 2009 at 10:59 pm

    oh yes forgot the other point… a business is there to make money, totally agree. however why not do it by reporting the facts in a way that will get it across to the non scientific public in an entertaining and engaging way.

    Sell your papers based on the actual news and not on a bunch of made up, twisted to fit rubbish.

    after all they are called News papers…not lie papers

  65. shai-hulud said,

    April 26, 2009 at 11:53 am

    “the context in which we make moral decisions matters quite a lot. Moving from disgusted to neutral thoughts leads to a significant change in moral attitude, and moving from neutral to pure thoughts causes yet another change. We don’t appear to make moral decisions with cold rationality or consistency…”

    scienceblogs.com/cognitivedaily/2009/04/how_wrong_is_it_to_use_a_kitte.php

  66. SimonCox said,

    April 26, 2009 at 12:45 pm

    @Dr Aust

    “The only (veteran) science journo I know says that he and his fellows:

    (i) take publication in a peer-reviewed journal as a badge of “soundness”; and

    (ii) assume Univ press office folk (who are largely ex-journos or part-time journos) have done the “translating” to plain language for them, AND the checking w the scientists for accuracy of message.

    One can debate whether this is good practice, but it is the way the current system works.”

    I realise that this is the way the current system works, but the current system is what’s giving us situations in which newspapers and other media outlets publish things that just aren’t true.

    Just because it’s the current system doesn’t mean it’s the right system.

    To reiterate:

    If journalists are not responsible for the content of a newspaper, then who on earth is?

    Is it really too much to ask for a journalist to actually read a paper before writing about it?

  67. AndyM said,

    May 3, 2009 at 9:18 am

    Re the cervical cancer vaccine: writing as a dad with a 13 year old daughter, where is the unbiased advice?

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