Bad Science in Top 5

September 18th, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, letters | 11 Comments »

Comment: Editor’s week
Emily Bell, Saturday September 17, 2005, The Guardian

1. Fifth Ashes Test, over by over
No audio, no video, but utterly, utterly gripping
2. Why the iPhone won’t rock your world
The Observer’s John Naughton is underwhelmed by the Apple/Motorola offering
3. Bad Science: Don’t dumb me down
Ben Goldacre bemoans the shabby coverage of science in the media
4. Beauty products from the skin of Chinese prisoners
Startling revelations about cosmetic sources
5. Sorry, Mr President, Katrina is not 9/11
The two disasters, says Simon Schama, revealed very different faces of the US

How the bloggers saw it …

“Why is science in the media so often pointless, simplistic, boring, or just plain wrong?” asked Bad Science columnist Ben Goldacre last week

The main reason for this kind of thing happening is perhaps a more general problem with the media: they must entertain or shock their audience. Well-reasoned, balanced arguments, which most science consists of, isn’t exciting.
Simon Grimshaw at

I think the problem is much wider than reporting on science, or even the prevalence of humanities graduates in the broadsheet press. Surely it’s also about the pressure in all daily print media to shoehorn the facts into too little space – the better to fit in lifestyle stories and entertainment news – and to file off the rough edges to make the report more accessible at the expense of accuracy and depth.
John Robinson at

Really [the article] ought to be compulsory reading for every news editor and executive editor and editor. And then framed and put over their desks, and re-read occasionally.

Any claim to being correct is seen as merely a means to exercise power over those who claim another truth. Thus it follows that science is a tool of oppressing the have-nots and must therefore be destroyed. There’s a huge problem with that project: the pursuit of scientific knowledge, and the technology that derives from it, is creating power. By focusing only on mocking the pursuit of science, the media are denying the knowledge to those who do not make it their living. By limiting the spread of knowledge, the postmodern attack on science in the name of social justice defeats itself.
Ted Wade at

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11 Responses

  1. person said,

    September 18, 2005 at 7:32 pm

    An excellent article, and no huge surprise that it went down so well. Won’t be long before The Guardian pioneers a whole new section, with a full-colour 12-page Berliner-style serious fuck-off academic ninja Bad Science pull-out.

    While we’re here, I think there’s another thread to the ‘Science-by-Press-Release’ subject, not sure if it’s been discussed much. Wonder what people think…?

    There is one university PR department – elsewhere in the UK – that I know fairly well. It’s not a place that produces junk press releases as far as I am aware, but that’s not what I’m noticing here.

    The *reason* for the press releases going out (even if they are perfectly reasonable, non-Goldacre fodder) is something to ponder. It may be an obvious point, but the main reason for a media office to exist in a university is to keep the university in the media. Newspaper column inches are seen as the goal because students read papers, and universities are after one thing: student applications. It’s all about boosting the brand, baby.

    Keeping the name of the uni in the public eye is basically product placement, and this has become very important because universities need cash, plain and simple.

    The contents of a press releases is therefore secondary to whether or not it will be given much in the way of media attention. Crucial caveats, points about ‘these just being provisional results’ and so on are going to get skipped over, to make the release as attractive as possible to a busy journalist skimming for a bit of news.

    The rest is history. Not science, unfortunately.

    Problem is, what do we (broadly speaking) *do* about this state of affairs? Thinking about it for a while, I realise that the selective pressures on the various press release readers and writers are pretty much out of their hands. Newspapers need to sell newspapers, and university press officers need to ‘sell’ stories to them. It’s a market, and spreading it into the world of academia is having scary effects.

    Still, plenty to keep Bad Science selling The Guardian, right? 😉

  2. Ben Goldacre said,

    September 18, 2005 at 7:40 pm

    sure, but while i’m not surprised that university press depts put out glowing press releases on their work, i am surprised theyre putting out press releases on work that hasnt even been published, and in the case of the cardiff “miracle cure” that i wrote about a couple of times, hadn’t even been published a whole year later.

  3. person said,

    September 18, 2005 at 7:50 pm

    Abso-bloody-lutely. The shit press releases about shit, non-existent stuff are barking mad. (Humanities graduates, as you say.)

    I’m just pointing out another area of the bell-shaped(?) curve, where science press releases are churned out for the wrong reasons. The extremes of these are the ones you write about, but the less severe cases of barking-madness are still trickling out in the background. I’m looking for background causes, and icebergs moving about in the dark with only the cardiff “miracle cures” sticking out the top.

    Maybe by confronting the setup whereby press releases are seen as so vital to the running of the cogwheels of universities, the graph will start to change shape, and there will be fewer extreme cases of utter media shite?

    Of course, only part of a much bigger story, though. Keep up the good work, Ben.

  4. Tessa K said,

    September 19, 2005 at 12:03 am

    I used to write about personal finance for various publications and websites. Some of our stories came from press releases but I would never ever just copy and paste the content into the story. I would always talk to an expert first.

    This was not because I was especially virtuous or diligent. I was no paragon, I was just trying to make my job easier.

    It was firstly, because I’d get something for my story that others would not, as I’d got it from the horse’s mouth, not from a press officer. Secondly, because if I got stuff wrong, the publication or the editor could get into serious trouble (sued, even) or I would get shouted at. Thirdly, because some finance stuff is complicated and I wasn’t sure I’d got a full grasp of it. And finally, because I know that while some press office people are jolly nice, they are not experts.

    Why is the same standard not applied to science? I had deadlines, especially with news stories. I had editors who wanted my copy ten minutes ago.

    Press releases can be very useful as a starting point, but that’s all.

  5. person said,

    September 19, 2005 at 12:37 pm

    I totally agree: you don’t need to be extra virtuous or diligent to work this way; making an effort just makes your life easier. Press releases are just starting points – for most journalists.

    My point was about the tendency for those starting points to be in occasionally dodgy places to start with, for reasons that are quite worrying in themselves.

    I would add there *are* less than diligent journalists out there, as we all know from reading their work. These journalists are largely, I think, getting their original ideas for bad stories from bad press releases, written to catch the eye in a climate where certain kinds of story just sell, for the purposes of promotion rather than ‘science communication’.

    Tessa K raises a good point: maybe bad science stories do actually slip through the net more than, say, personal finance stories?

    There’s something that Bjorn Lomborg (don’t start) says, when he talks about the forces that gives rise to certain kinds of reporting on environmental issues, that I reckon is relevant here. (It’s funny, because while I agree with him on this, he uses an example which – as shown by Bad Science – perhaps doesn’t go far enough.)

    Talking about why there is so much bad news in the media about the environment, he says “…quite often, there was another side to these stories which few people know about, and few journalists bother to report. Bad news sells, after all … Nobody owns the weather, and nobody complains if you frighten them about the climate, the way they would if you raised unjustified hopes or fears about, say, a cure for cancer, or a miraculous heart treatment”.

    His point is that some issues seem to be relatively exempt from scrutiny or criticism, because if “nobody owns the weather” then (to an extent) you can write whatever you like about it. If you did the same about a service offered by a bank, you would quickly get sued into oblivion. (Yes, of course, there is lots of debate about things like the climate, but no getting sued into oblivion.)

    Nobody ‘owns’ scientific knowledge, whereas people do own companies and so on. If someone writes an article about shrinking water molecules, who’s going to threaten anyone with *serious* consequences? The Hydrogen and Oxygen Atom Protection League? Nobody ‘owns’ Evolution by Natural Selection, so if someone writes about ‘Intelligent Design’ then no real shit hits the fan. When rubbish science stories get published, scientists chuckle over their coffee at articles in Bad Science, the Creationism/Homeopathy/Whatever community just pose about how ‘the debate continues’, and the general public gets slightly more confused about the way science works, and what is really going on out there.

  6. Dunc said,

    September 21, 2005 at 2:23 pm

    “nobody complains if you frighten them about the climate”

    Well, except for the advertising departments of BP, Exxon, British Airways, Ford and numerous other major advertisers who have all pulled of threatened to pull ads because of “negative” coverage of CO2-induced climate change.

    Once again, Lomborg demostrates that he is an ass.

  7. person said,

    September 26, 2005 at 7:16 pm

    Oh, that’s alright then.

  8. Squander Two said,

    October 2, 2005 at 12:49 am


    You’ve misinterpreted the grammar of that phrase.

    > nobody complains if you frighten them about the climate

    That means that people do not complain if you frighten them — i.e. those same people — about the climate: frighten Bill about the climate and Bill does not complain. The example you give is of Dave complaining when you frighten Bill about the climate, and of your failing to frighten Dave about the climate. The sentence you were picking holes in was “nobody complains if you frighten the public about the climate”, which Lomborg didn’t write.

    Once again, a foreigner demonstrates that he has better English language skills than many of the natives.

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