Here is one relationship that seems to only ever be off. As I walk through the halls of the Genome Damage and Stability Centre on campus, one thing seems to increasingly come up in everyday conversation: the rubbish that is everyday printed in newspapers, books or on the internet about science. I am constantly hearing a string of appalled scientists laughing at the new idiocy that has been printed in the news (this includes national news: the latest chuckle came from a report on the BBC news website completely wrongly summarising the role of certain molecules in DNA structure).
“Bad science” as Ben Goldacre – columnist for the Guardian and author of a series of articles, a book and a website by the same name – would call it, is more and more found in the press and the media nowadays. It is obviously a positive thing that important news and discoveries are today open to all but must the need for information push the media to create news out of thin air? Under the presumption of “informing the public”, the media can sometimes just make things worse, by a series of disinformation, scare mongering and simply put, absolute nonsense.
A particularly good example of disinformation is the recent Swine Flu episode that has gripped the country and has thousands of people rushing to their GPs and wearing masks. Of course it would be obscene to ignore that a new type of flu had indeed infected and led to the unfortunate death of several people around the world. It would be ridiculous not to inform people of the possibility of a new infection. What the press failed to mention is that this infection was mostly only a risk to people who were already at risk from flu (small children, the elderly or patients with chest problems). The press seems to relish in printed stories of cataclysmic proportions with the sole intent – let’s face it – to sell more papers! Not only is this a total misuse of information, it can also have frightening consequences. Let’s put aside all the panicked citizens, this craze also pushed governments to spend millions buying very large quantities of vaccines. France and Germany have now decided to sell on their stock, wasting billions of euros. The sudden demand from the public made it impossible to deal with the issue properly and we have now ended up with a completely unnecessary stock of vaccine. Several other health scares have been part of our world recently, including SARS and the MMR scare. The problem with this is that people lose faith in the media. In the example of the swine flu scare, the nation seemed divided into two groups: the hypochondriacs and the cynics, instead of understanding the treat at hand and dealing with it properly.
A worse example of the relationship between science and the press is found where there is money to be made. Thousands and thousands of products are sold every year in different areas of health care – be it homeopathy or diet pills – under the authority of false scientific data. Most scientists will know that there are many very specific processes undergone to make research valid. It is a tough procedure to get work published in a paper or journal but even after that, your work is constantly critiqued and put under the microscope. This allows scientific rigour and it is particularly important to know that what is being claimed is actually true and scientifically valid. Recently many scientists have gone out of their way to identify the faulty science that underlies the common information we are fed everyday. An independent charity trust, aptly named “Sense about science”, makes it their first and foremost work to research and provide the proper information about misleading cases in the press, the media, the public and the market. One very interesting and amusing campaign involved a series of young scientist calling the hotlines of diverse “miracle” products including detox baths and energy boosting yogurts to try to find out exactly how these products worked. They were almost always met with bogus answers from people who didn’t know what they were talking about and most of the products were based on minimal, if any, proper scientific research. The manufacturers of these products are making millions by selling cures to problems which half the time do not exist or the other half they do not accurately treat.
One of the main areas where science often gets a real kick in the teeth is, dramatically, the main news providers. National newspapers, online links and TV coverage provides information about science news. But they often make mistakes, in either their basic information or their interpretation. Surely, they have science correspondents well versed in their area of interest? One would hope so, yet small but important mistakes are always creeping in. Some, admittedly, are only important to those who know better and can laugh at the misfortune of the poor souls believing the claims they are being fed. But others can create serious misconceptions on how things function, whatever areas of science it may be. The misinterpretation of data given by scientists is also an important problem, as it diminishes the quality of research performed by researchers who could actually know their stuff.
The main issue the battle between science and the media raises is that, apart from selling more newspapers, it doesn’t help anyone. We are now faced with a population who does not know what to take seriously and what is just anecdote. Serious research is very often cited beside ridiculous experiments with no scientific benefit, making it difficult for the non-scientist to distinguish between the two. Thankfully, many of our peers are trying their best, through articles, books and shows to sort out through the rubbish for us.