Saturday April 18, 2009
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.
You can’t read the study that’s not about Twitter. It’s not out yet.