Steve Connor is an angry man

July 1st, 2009 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, hate mail, independent | 78 Comments »

image We’re having a meeting in a pub tonight, it’s free to get in and open to all, we’ll talk about the problems with science journalism. Apparently science journalists won’t tolerate this.

www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/steve-connor-lofty-medics-should-stick-to-their-day-job-1724485.html

Steve Connor: Lofty medics should stick to their day job

Science Notebook: Doctors claim media coverage is “lazy, venal and silly”

Independent, Tuesday, 30 June 2009

The sixth World Conference of Science Journalists is underway in London. I can’t say it’s going to change my life, as I missed out on the previous five, but I did notice that it has attracted the attention of a bunch of medics with strong views on the state of science journalism today.
Related articles

“A few of us felt they were might [sic] not adequately address some of the key problems in their profession, which has deteriorated to the point where they present a serious danger to public health,” according to the Bad Science website of Dr Ben Goldacre, who is turning into the bête noir of science journalists. The medics met in a pub in London last night to explain why the “mainstream media’s science coverage is broken, misleading, dangerous, lazy, venal and silly”. All three speakers are gainfully employed by the public sector so they don’t actually have to worry too much about the sort of pressures and financial constraints the mainstream media are under. But they nevertheless condescended to offer some advice on the sort of “best practice guidelines” I should be following, for which I suppose I should be eternally grateful.

But their arrogance is not new. Medical doctors in particular have always had a lofty attitude to the media’s coverage of their profession, stemming no doubt from the God-like stance they take towards their patients. Although I wouldn’t go as far as to say their profession is broken, dangerous, lazy, venal and silly – not yet anyway.

Genius.

Interested to see if they publish our brief letter.

Dear Sir,

Your science journalist Steve Connor is furious that we are holding a small public meeting in a pub to discuss the problem that science journalists are often lazy and inaccurate. He gets the date wrong, claiming the meeting has already happened (it has not). He says we are three medics (only one of us is). He then invokes some stereotypes about arrogant doctors, which we hope are becoming outdated.

In fact, all three of us believe passionately in empowering patients, with good quality information, so they can make their own decisions about their health. People often rely on the media for this kind of information. Sadly, in the field of science and medicine, on subjects as diverse as MMR, sexual health, and cancer prevention, the public have been repeatedly and systematically misled by journalists.

We now believe this poses a serious threat to public health, and it is sad to see the problem belittled in a serious newspaper. Steve Connor is very welcome to attend our meeting, which is free and open to all,

yours

(Drs) Vaughan Bell, Petra Boynton, Ben Goldacre

It seems journalists have a lot in common with homeopaths when it comes to rage.

Update 2/7/09

Just FYI really, my email to Guy Keleny, the letters editor at the Independent. I think it’s a shame that mainstream media are so intolerant of discussing these problems, and I really do think they’re serious. Oh well. Shame if they don’t print our letter though.

hi guy,

i think it would be good to print this letter from all three of us. we
all take the issue of misleading science and health reporting very
seriously, and feel passionately that patients and the public need to
be well informed to make good decisions about their own health.

unfortunately the media do often make serious errors in their coverage
of health and science, we don’t think it is unreasonable for us to
hold a small meeting in a pub to discuss this, and i think it’s part
of the problem that the profession of science journalism and
journalism generally are so unwilling to face up to the problems,
discuss them, and engage with criticisms.

a good example of that, sadly, was steve’s column which was, sadly,
repeatedly factually incorrect. it talked about a meeting that hadn’t
happened yet as if it had, it described us all as medics, which we’re
not, and it failed to address any of our concerns about the serious
negative impact that misleading reporting can have on public health. i
would have hoped that this is exactly the kind of social justice and
patient empowerment issue that the independent might take a serious
interest in.

i should say i like steve’s work, although we’ve never met, and
there’s nothing personal about this, i just think it would be good if
you could correct on ther factual inaccuracies and give us the chance
to have a small say on such a serious issue by printing our letter.

i’m copying in petra boynton and vaughan bell, which i hope is ok,

ben



++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
If you like what I do, and you want me to do more, you can: buy my books Bad Science and Bad Pharma, give them to your friends, put them on your reading list, employ me to do a talk, or tweet this article to your friends. Thanks! ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

78 Responses



  1. Andyo said,

    July 1, 2009 at 12:13 pm

    He gets the date wrong, claiming the meeting has already happened (it has not). He says we are three medics (only one of us is). He then invokes some stereotypes about arrogant doctors, which we hope are becoming outdated.

    Hilarious. Thanks for the laugh.

  2. drunkenoaf said,

    July 1, 2009 at 12:15 pm

    Well, no writer likes having their work critcised as being lazy. It’s lazy to dismiss genuine concerns with a rant that includes name calling and innacurate details. Some take on board that criticism and become a better writer. Not Steve!

    I think Stevey boy deserves not only the criticism, but also a round of applause for distilling it so well in that piece. Bravo!

  3. chatsubo said,

    July 1, 2009 at 12:43 pm

    I thought the lines ‘All three speakers are gainfully employed by the public sector so they don’t actually have to worry too much about the sort of pressures and financial constraints the mainstream media are under’ showed an interesting insight into the thinking of people working in the media.

    He seems to suggest that lazy, inaccurate and sloppy journalism is acceptable because the shareholders have to get their dividend.

  4. JNAdams said,

    July 1, 2009 at 12:48 pm

    He seems to have neglected to include a crux to his argument. Well other than:
    “Scientists think they are so clever and have a difficult job. Unlike us journalists who are awesome and have genuinely difficult jobs.”
    I’m paraphrasing slightly, granted but I think that’s the gist.

    Speaking of angry Homeopaths. Did that man at Glastonbury ever contact you with that study of the 19 dogs with skin diseases? It sounded, well, ahem… “interesting”.

    Well done on the Speaker’s forum session by the way. To deliver your kind of spiel in the middle of the healing fields is pretty ballsy to say the least. BUT to be the guy who follows Tony Benn?!?

    Well done sir… Well done.

  5. The Biologista said,

    July 1, 2009 at 1:06 pm

    All three speakers are gainfully employed by the public sector so they don’t actually have to worry too much about the sort of pressures and financial constraints the mainstream media are under.

    Maybe I’m out of touch with the public sector in Britain, but I was under the impression that working as a medic is all about pressure and financial constraints. Anyway, the write has correctly identified a part of the problem, but seems to be under the impression that it’s some sort of excuse rather than an issue to be addressed.

    He’s failed to spot the other rather ironically revealed problems that reflect science journalism as a whole. His rubbish fact checking and his prejudice about the experts about whose work he reports.

  6. unmedicated said,

    July 1, 2009 at 1:15 pm

    I’m all on your side in this, Ben; but I have to point out that occasionally your tone can border on the arrogant. The regular hectoring of “humanities graduates” as some kind of ignorant sub-species is unnecessary and on more than one occasion has driven me to snarling-point. Even your response above describes science journalists as “often lazy and inaccurate”. The latter adjective is an empirically provable point; but the former is pejorative and assumptive.

  7. blah said,

    July 1, 2009 at 1:19 pm

    Are you going to be videoing the talk tonight? I’m sadly 400 miles away until tomorrow so won’t be able to attend, but would love to see the discussion. Particularly if anyone from the “official” conference shows up!

  8. sayerse said,

    July 1, 2009 at 1:19 pm

    Does this mean he reads your blog then?

  9. mrtgrady said,

    July 1, 2009 at 1:23 pm

    He got the date a meeting is due to take place and the status of the doctors he’s deriding incorrect. Smack’s of incompetence – what happened to journo’s and their editors checking facts? I guess no-one dies if he gets his job wrong.

    He’s won the Association of British Science Writers prize four times, apparently. I’m assuming this piece won’t be in any submission he makes for this year’s competition.

  10. wilsontown said,

    July 1, 2009 at 1:26 pm

    JNAdams, I think the study you refer to might be this one, discussed at some length over at JREF:

    forums.randi.org/showthread.php?t=138044

  11. The Biologista said,

    July 1, 2009 at 1:26 pm

    Sayerse, if he does read it he certainly doesn’t address any of its content.

  12. plastictastic said,

    July 1, 2009 at 1:34 pm

    BANG! – a perfect shot to the foot. A hilariously misguided piece, a fine example of the problem.

    On a more serious note, suggesting medical doctors aren’t under pressure is an absolute disgrace. Not only are they under pressure (such that I know I couldn’t cope with, one assumes he would struggle too), but they have no room whatsoever for the the sort of lazy mistakes and inaccuracies he seems to excuse himself for. I suggest he finds the good grace to repeal his nonsense.

  13. HolfordWatch said,

    July 1, 2009 at 1:38 pm

    Maybe Steve Connor had a Spencer Tracy moment:

    The kids keep telling me I should try this new “Method Acting fact checking” but I’m too old, I’m too tired and I’m too talented to care.

    I hope the 3 of you wear T-shirts each one with one of “lazy, venal and silly” on the front and “criticism from a lofty medic/PhD delete as appropriate”.

  14. xinit said,

    July 1, 2009 at 1:45 pm

    Should take pictures of yourselves holding the paper his column appeared in, like hostage takers would do to establish timeline…

  15. naomimc said,

    July 1, 2009 at 1:46 pm

    unmedicated – I do think its fair to call a journalist lazy if they can’t even be bothered to find out the date of an event or do anything more than cut n’ paste a press release. Not lazy in a student watching Trisha while eating pringle and mayo sandwiches kinda way – but lazy nonetheless.

  16. Faithless Bob said,

    July 1, 2009 at 2:00 pm

    Sadly, as a member of the media, I have to admit that the media gets a lot of things wrong. But laziness is hardly the cause. Most journalists I know work 12 hours a day, easily. I’ve been putting in 14-hour days for months, and often work weekends. The problem is that we are increasingly forced to produce insane amounts of content to keep up with the basic business demands of the media industry.

    It’s a fact that many media outlets have been forced to eliminate their fact-checking staff, as well. So the task of ensuring accuracy now lies almost entirely in the hands of reporters and editors who have precious little time to devote to any given story before it goes live.

    The reality is that the media is becoming an increasingly dysfunctional industry, and the demise of the advertising model that has supported it for so long has led to massive cutbacks for nearly every outlet in the business. That means fewer reporters and editors handling larger workloads with little to no support staff to assist with the basics.

    Don’t get me wrong. Some journalists — this is particularly true among those who act as columnists — are just blowhards. And some are genuinely lazy. But in my experience, most are serious, dedicated people who care deeply about doing their jobs well and serving their readers in a meaningful way. They just don’t have the time or resources to do it, and if they slow down to focus on the details, they’ll find themselves out on their asses.

    The hard reality is that sober, rational journalism doesn’t pay very well. Not for advertisers, not for publishers, and therefore, not for editors and reporters. It’s not an excuse; it’s the explanation. As someone who’s been doing this stuff for going on 15 years, it’s heartbreaking to watch the profession I love devolve into a factory for salacious, titillating rubbish. But almost nobody is willing to foot the bill for quality content, so consumers get what they’re paying for.

    Frankly, Steve Connor seems like a douche. But his point about facing financial constraints is a valid one. This is a problem that will get worse, not better. Just be glad we haven’t yet reached the point where publishers eschew real reporting all together in favor of nonstop advertorial. If trends continue at their current pace, most reporting will be done by corporate PR reps within a decade.

  17. karinb said,

    July 1, 2009 at 2:04 pm

    Journalists reporting what the public want to hear as unbiased fact (e.g this study shows that eating/drinking/living near x gives you y disease…)without looking at a subject in depth really contributes to what has become science vs pseudoscience..

    I’ll very much look forward to seeing how this develops…

  18. HolfordWatch said,

    July 1, 2009 at 2:33 pm

    Although the post is still there all of the comments are presently gone/unavailable. Maybe they are amending it and they will reappear later?

  19. JQH said,

    July 1, 2009 at 2:35 pm

    Conner nicely if unintentionally summarises the problem.

    Can’t make the meeting unfortunately. Parents evening.

  20. Teapot said,

    July 1, 2009 at 2:36 pm

    I read this article and was astonished by it. It confirms our prejudices about “science journalists” perfectly.

    I’ve just finished teaching on a training/induction course for new PhD students where the main stated aim of the course is “to make sure that none of our PhDs appear in the Bad Science column in The Guardian”.

  21. Polonius said,

    July 1, 2009 at 2:42 pm

    Some time ago I wrote a sad article about the dumbing down of the Independent. Looking back, I’m amused to see that I wrote:

    I got as far as the fourth paragraph before I encountered this gem: “optical character recognition – the technology behind CDs”. Remember, this pig-ignorant cretin describes himself as a “Science Editor“!

  22. carmenego said,

    July 1, 2009 at 3:02 pm

    “Turning into…”? Dr Goldacre, you’ve *always* been a bit of a bete noir to me ;-)

    @Teapot #18
    Totally agree, I wonder if he’s a troll?

  23. used to be jdc said,

    July 1, 2009 at 3:18 pm

    Cracking letter from the three Drs. Am enjoying the comments on the Indy article too.

    Tempted to keep an eye on their science coverage over the coming weeks to see if anything silly pops up that is worth blogging.

  24. ArchAsa said,

    July 1, 2009 at 3:23 pm

    Maybe Mr Connor should take part in the Conference of Science Journalists this year, instead of skipping it as he apparently normally does.

    The fee is a bit steep though, but maybe if we start a Facebook group for this cause and donate a quid each?

    Btw – yes – you can be a bit harsh Ben, but you usually write with a wink and a smile, belittling yourself at the same time you are taking down others. Maybe if Connor had written his peice with a little bit more like that it would have made his point better than acting like he eats lemons for breakfast.
    Some guys just can’t take a joke…

  25. egilman said,

    July 1, 2009 at 3:26 pm

    This is why freedom of speech is so important. It helps us to sort out the reasonable folks from the crazies.

  26. gnaddrig said,

    July 1, 2009 at 3:31 pm

    Steve Connor quotes Ben correctly when he writes “…met in a pub in London last night to explain why the “mainstream media’s science coverage is broken, misleading, dangerous, lazy, venal and silly”.” He goes on to finish his piece with this parting shot:
    “Although I wouldn’t go as far as to say their profession is broken, dangerous, lazy, venal and silly – not yet anyway.” (But if you don’t watch out I’ll have to do just that, so be careful, you arrogant medical doctors!)

    Either he doesn’t see the difference between calling someone’s work broken, dangerous, etc. and calling a profession broken, dangerous, etc. Or he does, and wrote this on purpose. I don’t know which is worse – carelessness, or malice.

    Mind you, I would be quite pissed off if someone called my work broken, dangerous, etc. no matter how correct the accusation…

  27. Jo the Hat said,

    July 1, 2009 at 3:35 pm

    Wish I could join you for cold cider and hot rhetoric – but distance from Beeg Smoke combined with childcare make it impossible, so a podcast or something would be greatly welcomed.
    Oh and yah boo Mr Connor. I used to work for a newspaper (as a sub editor), and I’m very familiar with journalists and their belief that they are a species apart from the rest of us. I still maintain a very broad pool of knowledge – it’s also a terribly shallow pool!
    I suspect that if you stay in newspapers for too long, there’s a danger that you forget that last bit and believe you do know more than the civilians…

  28. chatsubo said,

    July 1, 2009 at 4:08 pm

    I am glad to say, that as a writer for a leading health information website (better not say which one, but I’m sure you can guess) our Editor recently sent round an email telling everyone on the Editorial team that they had to buy a copy of Bad Science, which we could then put on expenses!

    More use than a duck house, anyway.

  29. omission said,

    July 1, 2009 at 4:30 pm

    Lazy journalism/scholarship =/= Lazy journalist/scholar. That a journalist has worked a 14 hour day doesn’t excuse an article which even fails to report facts, let alone offer sensible analysis. It might shift the blame from individual to industry, but isn’t that the point?

    As for the humanities/science grads rhetoric, I have nothing against humanities grads (some of my best friends, etc.) but: despite this science grad’s passing interest in literature and music, I doubt I would be offered an Arts correspondent position…

    Wish I could be there for the pub meeting.

  30. blah said,

    July 1, 2009 at 4:32 pm

    Faithless Bob – I sympathise with what you are saying, but I certainly never asked to be inundated with 24 hour rolling news about absolutely nothing. I’m sure we’d all be much happier with fewer articles, containing actual facts about actual news.

    In fact, just linking to original sources rather than copying + pasting (and possibly mis-quoting) information would be vastly preferable, and take no time at all. There is so much information already out there, the last thing the consumers need is more crap, what we need is guidance towards the stuff of value.

  31. twaza said,

    July 1, 2009 at 5:17 pm

    It looks like the main problems have been identified:
    Ben’s blogs have typos
    Steve Connor doesn’t have a sense of humour
    Steve Connor isn’t polite
    Steve Connor isn’t accurate
    Steve Connor isn’t …
    Science journalists are overworked and underpaid
    The media face shrinking incomes
    The “mainstream media’s science coverage is broken, misleading, dangerous, lazy, venal and silly

    I wish I could join you for cold beer, hot rhetoric, and a bit of problem-solving. How can science journalists raise their ambitions and standards in difficult circumstances without getting eggy?

  32. apedant said,

    July 1, 2009 at 5:26 pm

    www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=1175
    I think this cartoon sums up alot about science journalism. I did humanities for my degree and haven’t studied sciences since sixth form (some of my teachers might claim I stopped studying long before that!) but often even that basic level of science tells me what I’m reading in the paper or hearing on tv/radio is total tosh.

  33. David Colquhoun said,

    July 1, 2009 at 5:57 pm

    Hmm what an amazing outburst.

    To be fair, though, it’s true that joournalists work under enormous (and probably increasing) pressure. It’s also true that the best are very good indeed. Gary Taubes’ piece in the New York Times was a classic. After I’d praised it, he sent me a copy and his book, The Diet Delusion. I’m almost half way through and it’s my impression that his assessment of the cholesterol story is more thorough and more open-minded than most scientists can manage. Unlike the scientits involved, he has no axe to grind, and in area like observational epidemiology, where most of the data are unreliable and often misleading, that’s a good start.

  34. Teapot said,

    July 1, 2009 at 7:15 pm

    I’ve just read Gary Taubes’ article that David Colquhoun links to above, and agree that it is excellent stuff.

    As part of our campaign to stop our PhD students’ work appearing in Bad Science I also teach them a bit about experimental design, and spend about 15 minutes banging on about why randomised controlled trials are better than observational studies. After reading this article I realise that it probably should be longer and that the Compliance Effect needs mentioning. I particularly liked his example of a study where those who complied with taking the placebo did better than those who didn’t take their placebo.

  35. kim said,

    July 1, 2009 at 7:32 pm

    Connor has a point. There’s a lot of bad writing about science in the national press, but most of it isn’t by science journalists. The Guardian’s science writers, plus Connor himself, plus Roger Highfield (late of The Telegraph, now at New Scientist) are all very good.

  36. evalgo_iavot said,

    July 1, 2009 at 8:05 pm

    kim – connor may have a point, he may not. but his implication that people in the public sector “don’t actually have to worry too much about the sort of pressures and financial constraints the mainstream media are under” is a cheap shot based on a clumsy right-wing stereotype and betrays a prissy, self-congratulatory mindset that JNAdams (no 4) summed up so well. if he really thinks like that reporesents serious journalism he should go work for the daily heil.

  37. CDavis said,

    July 1, 2009 at 8:37 pm

    Prof Colquhoun:

    >scientits

    If that’s a typo, it may be proof of the existence of muses.

  38. The Biologista said,

    July 1, 2009 at 8:53 pm

    Wow, just read one of the very few comments in defence of Connor over at the Independant website:

    huh_q_mark:

    But, come on, give him his point, how dare people respond to repeated inaccurate reporting of their profession by criticising those who go to all the trouble to write those inaccurate reports. He has every right to name-call those who respond to his lack of accurate, fact-checked reports by producing accurate and fact-checked articles.

    It sorta reads like it should be sarcasm, but it isn’t. Oh dear me.

  39. Zais said,

    July 1, 2009 at 10:07 pm

    I sometimes think BG does not callibrate his anger to the
    seriousness of the issue, although of course I enjoy some idiot getting a BadSi kicking anyway.
    David Colquhoun draws attention to Gary Taubes who is a sort of US version of Bad Science. His book ‘The Diet Delusion’ may turn out to be, I suspect, the most important book on health issues of the decade. If he is even half right in the evidence he presents, the mainstream nutritional advice of the last 30 years could turn out to have been a public health disaster.
    I’d very much like to hear BGs opinion, but I doubtless there is another formula for the optimal length of skirt in the Telegraph to be attended to.

  40. Faithless Bob said,

    July 1, 2009 at 10:21 pm

    @blah

    You’ve pretty much hit the problem on the head. It doesn’t matter whether readers want to be constantly “inundated with 24 hour rolling news about absolutely nothing.” In fact, nobody wants to be on the receiving end of that info-firehose. But it’s what the economics of the media industry demand, and increasingly so. I’m not trying to excuse bad reporting; just explaining the major contributing factors. The real problem with the media in our age is that its economic interests have become divorced from audience interests.

    Publishers have learned that alienating discerning readers is a small price to pay for keeping the flow of less discerning eyeballs coming to their sites, and doing so as inexpensively as possible. I’ve actually encountered publishers who think angry, dissatisfied commenters are just as valuable positive, satisfied ones, because it represents a mouse-click either way. It’s shameful, but we can’t really solve that problem without looking it squarely in the face.

    I draw a parallel to education. Here in the States, there’s a popular sentiment in political circles which holds that the key to improving public education is increasing “teacher accountability”. It’s easy to get a crowd to cheer for these anti-teacher slogans, which generally bash “lazy” teachers. But it’s just as easy to overlook the fact that bad teaching is the obvious result of an underfunded education system that fails to attract and retain talented professionals.

    Journalism is on the same track in the U.S. and Britain. As media salaries go down and top professionals lose their jobs to redundancies to meet the fierce profit demands of their companies, the quality of reporting will continue to decline. Meanwhile, overworked reporters will continue to produce crap articles under ridiculous deadlines with absurdly limited resources.

    My point is this: Don’t just whine about bad reporting. Support good reporting by paying for premium content from high-quality publications. If you’re not doing anything to support quality content, you’re part of the problem.

  41. Tessa K said,

    July 1, 2009 at 11:25 pm

    Tonight was excellent – three great speakers and a room crammed full.

    One pedantic note though: Ben, before you use the word ‘coruscating’ again, please look it up…

  42. bish said,

    July 2, 2009 at 1:46 am

    His quote from BS:

    …explain why the “mainstream media’s science coverage is broken, misleading, dangerous, lazy, venal and silly”…

    followed by his conclusion:

    …I wouldn’t go as far as to say their profession is broken, dangerous, lazy, venal and silly…

    seems to infer that either Mr Connor wouldn’t dream of ever saying the medical profession is misleading, or in fact he thinks it is just that.

    This could be read two ways – either as an elegant use of subtle ambiguities by a talented wordsmith who wishes to indirectly question the way science communicates its findings the the uneducated masses and their diligent reporters, or simply evidence that Steve can’t even be bothered to double-check he’s got the right words from the quote he pasted in at the top of his article.

    I wouldn’t go so far as to say the latter seems more likely than the former – not yet anyway.

  43. chatsubo said,

    July 2, 2009 at 7:55 am

    Just read Gary Taubes article and one point he made resonated with me. Its the fact that a lot of journalists never give a baseline risk when presenting research. You often read stories that smoking cannabis will increase the risk of you developing schizophrenia by 20% or using HRT will increase your risk of breast cancer by 60% (these are just random examples, have no idea about the real figures), but unless you know the initial risk then the data is essentially meaningless.
    I think that is both an example of lazy journalism, contempt for your readership and a cynical desire to scare people.

  44. Teek said,

    July 2, 2009 at 10:22 am

    Enjoyed the journo-bashing last night (or was it the night before, Mr. Connor…?), I thought the three speakers all took as measured an approach as possible under the circumstances. Really funny and yet hard-hitting talks from all three – cheers!

    I think it was Dr. Petra who made the point that scientists and journalists all too often see themselves on opposing sides of a Great Divide – the former being Champions of Evidence-based Truth as opposed to Vulgar Dummers-Down, the latter being Popularisers and Communicators as opposed to Fusty Ivory Tower Elitists. A meeting where both science geeks and journalism industry insiders both attended would be useful, although there would be there serious risk of homicide…

  45. spk76 said,

    July 2, 2009 at 11:03 am

    La Biologista: “Wow, just read one of the very few comments in defence of Connor over at the Independant website:
    huh_q_mark:
    “But, come on, give him his point, how dare people respond to repeated inaccurate reporting of their profession by criticising those who go to all the trouble to write those inaccurate reports. He has every right to name-call those who respond to his lack of accurate, fact-checked reports by producing accurate and fact-checked articles.”
    It sorta reads like it should be sarcasm, but it isn’t. Oh dear me.”

    Hang on – read that again. It really is sarcasm, isn’t it?

    “He has every right to name-call those who respond to his lack of accurate, fact-checked reports by producing accurate and fact-checked articles.”

    Pretty good sarcasm too.

  46. evilphil said,

    July 2, 2009 at 11:42 am

    Enjoyed the talks last night, but I had to leave before the end. Did anyone get around to advancing any ideas on how to fix the problem(s)?

  47. Jessicathejourno said,

    July 2, 2009 at 11:55 am

    @kim, Connor is pointless. If he looks very good relative to his colleagues, well, I shudder to think.

    Like here,, when he happily accepted an Internet survey as a groundbreaking academic study or here,, when he decides self-reporting by 200 university students (and either all the test subjects were male, or the study has no significance at all related to its presentation) as conclusive evidence women have masochistic taste in men.

    He’s a rubbish science writer, not even amusing, and the article Ben reproduced above makes him look like a twat too.

  48. Ben Goldacre said,

    July 2, 2009 at 12:18 pm

    my email to guy keleny, the independent’s letters editor, i think it would be a shame if they didn’t print our letter.

    hi guy,

    i think it would be good to print this letter from all three of us. we
    all take the issue of misleading science and health reporting very
    seriously, and feel passionately that patients and the public need to
    be well informed to make good decisions about their own health.

    unfortunately the media do often make serious errors in their coverage
    of health and science, we don’t think it is unreasonable for us to
    hold a small meeting in a pub to discuss this, and i think it’s part
    of the problem that the profession of science journalism and
    journalism generally are so unwilling to face up to the problems,
    discuss them, and engage with criticisms.

    a good example of that, sadly, was steve’s column which was, sadly,
    repeatedly factually incorrect. it talked about a meeting that hadn’t
    happened yet as if it had, it described us all as medics, which we’re
    not, and it failed to address any of our concerns about the serious
    negative impact that misleading reporting can have on public health. i
    would have hoped that this is exactly the kind of social justice and
    patient empowerment issue that the independent might take a serious
    interest in.

    i should say i like steve’s work, although we’ve never met, and
    there’s nothing personal about this, i just think it would be good if
    you could correct on ther factual inaccuracies and give us the chance
    to have a small say on such a serious issue by printing our letter.

    i’m copying in petra boynton and vaughan bell, which i hope is ok,

    ben

  49. OMQ said,

    July 2, 2009 at 12:28 pm

    “Lofty” medics would like to stick to their day jobs, but are increasingly being drawn into commenting negatively about the media because of the unreliable medical news reporting currently being offered by “old-school hacks” like Steve Connor.

    More empirical data and good evidence is needed to support this view of the media providing unreliable information, otherwise hacks like Connor will continue to “smear” people like Ben who are actually trying to help improve the status quo.
    A research paper just published in PLoS ONE is the kind of empirical evidence that is needed to support the view that science journalists need to improve their practices (whatever they are!).

    Characteristics of Medical Research News Reported on Front Pages of Newspapers

    www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0006103

  50. Bill Bigge said,

    July 2, 2009 at 1:49 pm

    “But their arrogance is not new. Medical doctors in particular have always had a lofty attitude to the media’s coverage of their profession, stemming no doubt from the God-like stance they take towards their patients.”

    Maybe he had a bad experience as a child!

    I think perhaps the lofty attitude is his? He may also mistakenly believe that anyone with a PhD is a medic.

    “All three speakers are gainfully employed by the public sector so they don’t actually have to worry too much about the sort of pressures and financial constraints the mainstream media are under.”

    What’s that? ‘I’m sorry I’m just too busy being a working journalist to check the facts behind my stories’

  51. apgaylard said,

    July 2, 2009 at 2:03 pm

    “All three speakers are gainfully employed by the public sector so they don’t actually have to worry too much about the sort of pressures and financial constraints the mainstream media are under.”

    Oddly enough, financial constraints were the reason I left the public sector. Life in the private sector (depending which bit of it you are in) can be very harsh. From my necessarily limited personal experience, life can be tough on either side of this divide, even if the specific challenges differ.

  52. The Biologista said,

    July 2, 2009 at 2:27 pm

    @spk76:

    Hang on – read that again. It really is sarcasm, isn’t it?

    Well if you read it in the context of the whole comment over on the Indo website, it really doesn’t seem to be sarcasm at all.

  53. Bill Bigge said,

    July 2, 2009 at 3:20 pm

    A bit OT but …
    Anyone fancy a genuine homoeopathic cure for thirst!

  54. spk76 said,

    July 2, 2009 at 5:00 pm

    The Biologista:

    Sorry, have to disagree:

    OK, so he thinks that the pressures on a science journalist are so much greater than those on a doctor who has to consider financial, regulatory etc constraints and the patients health; granted, he doesn’t know one date from another; and sure, I’ll give it to you that he was capable of reporting what was said at an event that he stated he hadn’t been to and hadn’t actually happened yet.
    That’s obvious sarcasm.

    But, like, whatever, dude. It’s too hot to argue. Maybe you’re right.

  55. DS said,

    July 2, 2009 at 11:39 pm

    Let’s not forget the elephant in the room: he’s talking about Ben Goldacre here, that’s Ben Goldacre who writes about science for a national newspaper and is, by defintion, a de facto science journalist. So, was Ben invited to this journos gathering? Probably not.

    Steve Connor just sounded peeved that there are some who are actually subjecting his profession’s work to scrutiny. One would have thought that this would, for a scientist, have been rather desirable.

  56. timheyes said,

    July 3, 2009 at 2:51 am

    look. you’re all being very mean to a journalist who was under enormous pressure to get his feature out. it’s clear that in his eyes accuracy is subordinate to meeting a dead-line.

    Ben you black beast , you!

  57. NeilHoskins said,

    July 3, 2009 at 1:10 pm

    I think Steve Connor has a point. People turned to “alternative” medicine because of the medical profession’s arrogance and ineptitude in the first place. Their trying to regain the scientific high ground now is quite sad when you consider that it was they who brought science into disrepute in the first place.

  58. paul8032 said,

    July 3, 2009 at 4:27 pm

    unmedicated — on the issue of “humanities graduates”; in these desolate culturally relativistic times everyone considers their view as worthwhile as an expert’s. Humanities graduates included.
    So when, say, Julia Stephenson (who may or may not be a graduate in something but go with me here) writes about buying tin foil hats to ward off harmful radiation from wifi networks, some science graduates point out the most glaring of the junior school scientific failings in her argument (for example failing to distinguish between radiation and radioactivity etc). But as a good cultural relativist Julia KNOWS she is right, and accuses the “men in white coats” (her phrase) of stifling debate, arrogant hectoring, whatever. She’ll probably throw in a quick “science dosen’t know everything” or a “science says the bumblebee can’t fly” as well. So the fact that her scientific illiteracy is absolute is ignored.
    THIS is what frustrates us about humanities graduates – the times when they can’t grasp the scientific rebuttals offered and ignore them or move to ad hominem. If I hear John Bloody Timpson on the Today Programme once more saying about some scientific research topic “very clever, but what is it FOR?” I will kick my radio up the street. On that basis, what is Hamlet for? What is the Madonna of the Rocks for?
    How about this – how would a music graduate react if I said Dido & Aeneas was faulty on all levels because Dido’s death wasn’t medically credible? How sanguine would s/he be?
    So maybe we do bang on about “Humanities graduates” too much – but nobody knows the trouble they ‘bin.

  59. paul8032 said,

    July 4, 2009 at 7:30 am

    Actually I meant John Humphreys didn’t I? Oops

  60. CarlottaVance said,

    July 4, 2009 at 7:46 am

    Surely Mr Connor is missing the entire point of the scientific method – peer criticism of your work to produce a better understanding – but while this may apply to science, it is not to be applied to science journalism? No scientist he!

  61. Jessicathejourno said,

    July 4, 2009 at 7:48 am

    Paul8032, tell me seriously if you think humanities graduates haven’t been asked about as many times as you what their studies will be/have been good for. I understand your pain when it comes to cultural relativism but if a reaction from it is leading you to think science grads have the lead on being annoyingly and stupidly quizzed on what their work is good for, you need to blink until the mist clears.

    The music grad in your example probably wouldn’t even shrug because they’d have been getting comments like that since announcing to the world they’d be studying music, particularly opera. You can’t even say you like opera in a moderately crowded room without hearing a series of explanations from apparently brilliantly observational people of all sorts of educational backgrounds who have never sat through an opera about how impossibly unrealistic operas are.

    And using a sensationalistic media whore rich girl like Julia Stephenson as a representative example of a class is damn bad form, by the way. You’d think I was a twat if I started going on about how the Pioneer Fund was representative of how science students approached and judged the world, and you’d be right.

  62. TooMuchCoffeeMan said,

    July 4, 2009 at 9:46 am

    Occasional & vaguely sympathetic lurker here. Just to second #62 against the rather intemperate #58 — although I appreciate that sometimes the combination of smugness and stupidity that one often finds in the British meejah is quite wearing, I think it’s fallacious to regard this as down to “humanities graduates” and “cultural relativism”. Of course, there is no reason why the former should all subscribe to the latter, and I’m not convinced that all that many of them do (though, as befits this blog, I’ll be happy to acquiesce if some stats can be produced on this).

    Also, to say:
    So when, say, Julia Stephenson (who may or may not be a graduate in something but go with me here) writes…

    rather undermines the relevance of this apparent hack – who I’ve not heard of, so I’ll bow to others’ assessments – to any point about Dr G’s occasional elision of “humanities graduates” with “vague and smug-with-it meejah-types”.

    Oh, and though I shouldn’t need to insert this qualifier, my own training isn’t in the humanities, though it’s debatable whether or not it’s a science. Just in case I come across as defending home turf etc.

  63. paul8032 said,

    July 4, 2009 at 1:42 pm

    Jessicathejourno – bloody hell mate, good job I didn’t tell you about the dirty fork. OK, obviously this is a two-way street and I apologise if I implied otherwise – all of us have our own frustrations about what we know well being distorted in the media. But that isn’t really my point.

    As an opera-lover myself I know well the secret joy it often has to remain. It was my clumsy attempt to produce the most fatuous counter-argument I could think of.
    My point is the media (I suppose I speak mainly of the broadcast media because I know it better) is to an extent dominated by humanities graduates, and if an argument arises especially in literature it’s on their turf – they know the context, the ground rules and the jargon. They don’t feel compelled to explain to the listener the difference between a novel and a biography. What I’m trying to get at is that in scientific controversies there is no commonality of language to talk through the different sides of an argument, so as a scientifically literate person finds he can’t engage at all.

    You don’t like my example? Fair enough. I’ll try a more erudite person such as Jeremy Paxman (English, St Catherine’s, Cambridge). He cannot help himself on University Challenge. If someone manages to answer a physics question he congratulates them with the baffled amusement of an parent complimenting their 5-year-old’s latest picture. Whereas if someone trips up over their chronology of the C17 metaphysical poets you feel he would like to shoot them there and then for their own good.

    Or Jeanette Winterson (English, St Catherine’s, Oxford). She is rational, skeptical and an avid New Scientist reader. By the lights of this blog she is one of the Good Guys(TM). She wrote a piece in defence of homeopathy which was calm, non-sensational, reasonable (www.badscience.net/2007/11/a-kind-of-magic/); but the physics was lamentable. My point is that with someone like Winterson who has a heightened sympathy towards a scientific outlook there are hardly any grounds for engagement in debate – the basic givens of say thermodynamics or molecular interactions which I feel are rooted in me from waaaay back are new territory here.
    This feels like C P Snow’s two cultures. And one of these cultures is more represented in the media, and science reporting so often carries that air of detached, baffled amusement I described earlier.

    To you and toomuchcoffeeman I’m sorry that it was intemperate. It wasn’t meant to be that way. It was intended as a metaphor for the spluttering rage that often propels my breakfast cereal to the radio some mornings. Last night on Any Questions, Will Self and others discussed the legacy of the Apollo moon landings, wearing the clothes of negativism which commentators wear for everything these days. They repeated the fallacy that it gave us PTFE, to reinforce the theme it had no other legacy. No-one in the media questions the inspirational power of great art; but however corrupt the motives for the Apollo mission were, how inspirational has it been to young scientifically-oriented youngsters like me?

  64. TriathNanEilean said,

    July 4, 2009 at 6:39 pm

    As a humanities graduate myself, Ben’s regular complaints don’t bother me in the least. There’s a lot of truth in his characterization of us. It may, however, be a bit of a tactical mistake: antagonising many members of a large group instead of helping them recognise the problems that their view of science can cause.

  65. paul8032 said,

    July 5, 2009 at 9:03 am

    Jessicathejourno – bloody hell mate, good job I didn’t tell you about the dirty fork. OK, obviously this is a two-way street and I apologise if I implied otherwise – all of us have our own frustrations about what we know well being distorted in the media. But that isn’t really my point.

    As an opera-lover myself I know well the secret joy it often has to remain. It was my clumsy attempt to produce the most fatuous counter-argument I could think of.
    My point is the media (I suppose I speak mainly of the broadcast media because I know it better) is to an extent dominated by humanities graduates, and if an argument arises especially in literature it’s on their turf – they know the context, the ground rules and the jargon. They don’t feel compelled to explain to the listener the difference between a novel and a biography. What I’m trying to get at is that in scientific controversies there is no commonality of language to talk through the different sides of an argument, so as a scientifically literate person finds he can’t engage at all.

    You don’t like my example? Fair enough. I’ll try a more erudite person such as Jeremy Paxman (English, St Catherine’s, Cambridge). He cannot help himself on University Challenge. If someone manages to answer a physics question he congratulates them with the baffled amusement of an parent complimenting their 5-year-old’s latest picture. Whereas if someone trips up over their chronology of the C17 metaphysical poets you feel he would like to shoot them there and then for their own good.

    Or Jeanette Winterson (English, St Catherine’s, Oxford). She is rational, skeptical and an avid New Scientist reader. By the lights of this blog she is one of the Good Guys(TM). She wrote a piece in defence of homeopathy which was calm, non-sensational, reasonable (www.badscience.net/2007/11/a-kind-of-magic/); but the physics was lamentable. My point is that with someone like Winterson who has a heightened sympathy towards a scientific outlook there are hardly any grounds for engagement in debate – the basic givens of say thermodynamics or molecular interactions which I feel are rooted in me from waaaay back are new territory here.
    This feels like C P Snow’s two cultures. And one of these cultures is more represented in the media, and science reporting so often carries that air of detached, baffled amusement I described earlier.

    To you and toomuchcoffeeman I’m sorry that it was intemperate. It wasn’t meant to be that way. It was intended as a metaphor for the spluttering rage that often propels my breakfast cereal to the radio some mornings. Last night on Any Questions, Will Self and others discussed the legacy of the Apollo moon landings, wearing the clothes of negativism which commentators wear for everything these days. They repeated the fallacy that it gave us PTFE, to reinforce the theme it had no other legacy. No-one doubts the inspirational power of great art; but however corrupt the motives for the Apollo mission were, how inspirational has it been to young scientifically-oriented youngsters like me?

    I posted this yesterday & it hasn’t appeared. So sorry if it appears twice

  66. paul8032 said,

    July 5, 2009 at 9:17 am

    Jessicathejourno – I posted a response but it’s not appearing. I think it must be too long. Have you seen it?

  67. Jessicathejourno said,

    July 5, 2009 at 2:00 pm

    No. Feel free to post it here, on whichever post is most offensively humanities-graduated.

  68. paul8032 said,

    July 6, 2009 at 9:50 am

    Actually after a weekend’s sober reflection I think my initial post is really shit. I apologise. If anything in post 61 you probably let me off lightly.

    I’ll get me coat.

  69. Jessicathejourno said,

    July 6, 2009 at 10:09 am

    Paul 8032, I do see your point. I’ve found Steve Connor’s science writing bad because of his intensely personal, inappropriate and obvious re-interpretations of (sometimes dodgy) statistics, and his snotty little carp about Ben’s pub night was atrocious. I admire Ben’s writing for pointing out the holes in pop science media writing, which I have no problem admitting are more dangerous than troglodytes explaining why an entire genre of music they know nothing about isn’t worthwhile.

    And despite Connor’s Oxford certification in zoology, I also have no problem admitting that his writing, and a great deal of what is pointed out here as Bad Science, seems like a consequence of our society finding it easier to tolerate scientific illiteracy than other kinds.

    Except it isn’t. The British media is dripping with music journalists who base their reviews of albums on what the band members wear, political reporters who are professionally addicted to party press releases, columnists that will mock anything that uses words with three syllables or more, and commentators who DO doubt the inspirational power of great art . . . and all in 11-year-old language with punctuation, grammar and malapropisms that make humanities graduates weep.

    When you talk about the lack of a common language that would let scientific controversies get discussed in a properly argumentative way in the British media, I see your point, and it’s an extremely serious point, because being misled about such controversies can be hazardous to one’s health. But I have a hard time tolerating that being blamed on humanities graduates when the humanities themselves are seldom discussed in a properly argumentative way in non-specialist British media. Particularly when problematic science journalists (like the subject of this post) actually have a science background, not a humanities background.

    Among other things, I blame:

    1. The acceptance of vocational degrees in journalism, which let people enter the profession with no personalized understanding that specialist knowledge even exists
    2. Overstretched editorial departments, which are accountable to shareholder representatives with received ideas about the lowest common denominator
    3. Shareholder representatives with received ideas about the lowest common denominator
    4. The BBC, which has decided it needs to compete with media groups run by shareholder representatives with received ideas about the lowest common denominator

    The first one refers to an eensy-weensy and discrete class of humanities grad, and the last three (trust me – specialist knowledge) are far more down to accountants/MBAs than humanities grads. Of course, maths arguably being part of the humanities, maybe accountants ARE humanities grads. But surely you wouldn’t accuse the British media of being math-literate, so I guess it’s a moot point.

    Again, I love Bad Science because scientific illiteracy in pop media poses a real physical threat to people’s well-being. But seriously – blame a humanities grad, and you’re blaming the victim of the over-arching problem. Paxman not understanding science and Jeannette Winterson believing in fairies notwithstanding. It’s really provoking, it’s clumsy, it’s alienating to natural allies in the war against the stupid, and it makes the people who do it look like their head is wedged up their bum.

  70. Jessicathejourno said,

    July 6, 2009 at 10:12 am

    Re. 68, er, sorry, I’ll stop bitching then.

  71. paul8032 said,

    July 6, 2009 at 1:15 pm

    (Stopping at door with coat half-on) As a counter-balance to much of what I said before , Carol Vorderman read Engineering at Cambridge but talks bigger healthbollocks (on cannabis, detox, MMR) than anyone

  72. Lemonbella said,

    July 6, 2009 at 7:07 pm

    Re: Humanities/Science

    Surely the point is that the hallmark of quality academic study, (and of an intelligent and inquiring mind full stop) is adherence to, among others, the following tenents:

    1) The value of critical appraisal and discourse
    2) The importance of seeking out sources of bias/error
    3) The avoidance of simplistic over-generalisations

    Science graduates do not have a monopoly on these characteristics, and nor do graduates over all. For every humanities graduate that takes the headline “Caffeine Cures Cancer says Scientists” as truth, there’s a science graduate (and a humanities graduate, and a non-graduate etc.) who takes “EU Bans Cucumbers”, “House Prices will continue to rise, says report” and “Iraq has WMD says Government source” as fact. These are all as damaging and dangerous as medical and scientific ignorance.

    I don’t object to the stereotyping of humanities graduates on a personal level – this is a science blog after all -I do object on a broader level as it breaks the rules of rigorous, intelligent thinking and alienates valuable partners in the fight against ignorance.

  73. Bob Ward said,

    July 8, 2009 at 9:21 am

    Sorry Ben, but your letter was way over the top, so I felt compelled to respond with a letter published in today’s edition of The Indy (www.independent.co.uk/opinion/letters/letters-school-admissions-1736172.html)

    Drs Bell, Boynton and Goldacre (letter, 6 July) claim that “science journalists are often lazy and inaccurate”, citing MMR among the issues about which “the public have been misled by journalists”.

    While there are occasional examples of poor reporting, I think the authors are guilty of extrapolating a few data about a small number of individuals to make an inaccurate inference about an entire profession. The MMR debacle was initiated by a researcher rather than by a journalist.

    They might be surprised to discover just how many misleading media reports, for which they apparently hold journalists solely responsible, actually arise from exaggerated claims by researchers and their colleagues: a recent study found that just 42 per cent of press releases issued by US academic medical centres provided relevant caveats about the research they described, and 29 per cent exaggerated the importance of their findings.

    Bob Ward

    Policy and Communications Director, Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, London School of Economics

    A brief note from Ben:

    I’m sorry I missed this. Bob, I’m genuinely amazed to see you write this:

    “They might be surprised to discover just how many misleading media reports, for which they apparently hold journalists solely responsible, actually arise from exaggerated claims by researchers and their colleagues: a recent study found that just 42 per cent of press releases issued by US academic medical centres provided relevant caveats about the research they described, and 29 per cent exaggerated the importance of their findings.”

    I am not surprised to discover this. I’ve written about it. What’s more you know that I’ve written about it because you commented on the post where I write about it yourself.

    Here is your comment:

    www.badscience.net/2009/05/dodgy-academic-pr/#comment-26673

    Could you explain this please?

  74. Jessicathejourno said,

    July 8, 2009 at 12:48 pm

    Bob Ward, it’s bizarre to see you accuse Ben and his colleagues of over-reacting when they send in a remarkably mild letter to the Independent in response to an error-ridden, misrepresentative snark by one of the paper’s columnists. Particularly one that ‘makes an inaccurate inference about a whole profession’ (“medical doctors in particular have always had a lofty attitude to the media . . . God-like stance they take towards their patients”) that’s far more objectionable and generalized than the doctors’ contention that journalists have misled the public on serious health issues.

    Ben’s column and this blog have been doing an excellent job for years of showing that this phenomenon is hardly a case of “occasional examples of poor reporting”. (So does the Daily Mail, on a daily basis.)

    And by saying “They Started It!!!!” about the MMR scare, in reference to Andrew Wakefield, you’re admitting with remarkable frankness that the journalists concerned lacked the basic literacy and background to perceive that Wakefield (whose Lancet paper mentioned 12 WHOLE CHILDREN, and who, incidentally, stressed from the first he had NOT established a causal connection between the jabs and autism) had not published something of particular importance, and had instead published something that could prove to be dangerously alarmist.

    I don’t think many people on this thread would disagree with you. I imagine the main difference is that most of them would think that was a problem journalists, or their employers, should do something about.

  75. csrster said,

    July 9, 2009 at 8:14 am

    “a recent study found that just 42 per cent of press releases issued by US academic medical centres provided relevant caveats about the research they described, and 29 per cent exaggerated the importance of their findings.”

    Surely that’s all the more reason why science journalists should do their job properly and investigate the validity of a press release before either a) regurgitating it as fact, or b) altering it to mean something their readers will find titillating. But since they never will, I’ll just carry on getting my science news from the people at scienceblogs.com who do.

  76. klarusu said,

    July 10, 2009 at 3:34 pm

    “They might be surprised to discover just how many misleading media reports, for which they apparently hold journalists solely responsible, actually arise from exaggerated claims by researchers and their colleagues”

    Which is why it’s the responsibility of decent science journalists to actually read the primary papers referred to in the releases with a modicum of comprehension rather than taking the press releases as gospel. Wakefield’s Lancet paper was truly dreadful science with more holes in it than there’s space to point out here. This should have been evident to any journalist who knows the subject field … that is wasn’t implies that they either (a) didn’t care (in which case they should toddle off back to the celebrity gossip pages), (b) didn’t understand the scientific implications of the primary data (ditto above bracketed comment) or (c) intentionally sensationalised an issue that was obviously going to be high visibility to gain exposure (erm … yep … ditto the bracketed comment again).

  77. stephen said,

    July 16, 2009 at 8:41 pm

    You know what’s really irritating about this nitwit? He’s using MY NAME!

    stephen (not that one) connor

  78. wayscj said,

    November 21, 2009 at 6:33 am

    ed hardy ed hardy
    ed hardy clothing ed hardy clothing
    ed hardy shop ed hardy shop
    christian audigier christian audigier
    ed hardy cheap ed hardy cheap
    ed hardy outlet ed hardy outlet
    ed hardy sale ed hardy sale
    ed hardy store ed hardy store
    ed hardy mens ed hardy mens
    ed hardy womens ed hardy womens
    ed hardy kids ed hardy kids ed hardy kids