Where should politicians get their scientific advice? Anywhere except the headlines!
God knows how, but I have managed to reach my 40s without ever having attended a party conference. However last year I managed to make it to Bournemouth to the Labour Party Conference after being asked by the Social Market Foundation (SMF) and the Food Standards Agency (FSA) to speak at their fringe meeting on how governments get their scientific advice. I did protest that I was the wrong person for the panel, but they were adamant that they wanted at least one person to address the role for the media in this area - this is what I said:
Well I’m the one person on this panel not qualified to talk about how the Government gets its advice on science so I shall restrict myself to saying this – wherever they do get it, they should NOT be getting it from the media.
In my five years at the Science Media Centre (SMC) I have organised hundreds of media briefings on complex and often controversial new science. I think the UK has some of the best science and health reporters in the world and almost all the coverage is accurate BUT at the same time as being accurate it almost always partial, simplified, de-nuanced, and ever so slightly exaggerated and as a result can be misleading - and I suspect that most journalists would be the first to acknowledge that.
A topical example of why politicians should not take their science from the media comes in the coverage of the recent FSA/University of Southampton study on the behavioural effects of artificial additives in food. We were getting calls from journalists reporting on this study, so I contacted several leading nutritionists and toxicologists to ask for their opinions. They all came back with strikingly similar answers:
1. It’s a good study but it does not give us definitive answers
2. It doesn’t say which additives are responsible for the effects or make a distinction whether the responsibility lay with the additives or with preservatives
3. The size of the effect was small – with an increase in hyperactivity of less than a tenth of that seen with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
4. It shows an association – but does not prove a direct cause and effect
5. This hypothesis needs further investigation
So that’s what experts thought. Now let’s look at what headline writers thought:
New Link Between E Numbers And Hyperactivity (The Independent)
E numbers 'link' to manic kids (Daily Mirror)
Food Additives Make Children Behave Badly (The Times)
Parents warned over food additives (Daily Mail)
Now I am not even criticizing the media here, because there was enough in this study to give them these kind of headlines. But what I am saying is that no self respecting politician should base policy on the media coverage of this science. I gather Gordon Brown came out that day to say he favours the removal of these additives. If Brown favours a ban on taste grounds, or moral grounds or democratic grounds then that’s fine by me. However the timing of his comments suggests to me that his view is based on rather misleading media reports of this research and that, I would say, is a long way away from evidence-based policy.
There is other worrying evidence that politicians are too often basing their policies on the media reports rather than the actual science. On the question of biomedical research on human-animal hybrid embryos, it is widely believed that ministers proposal to ban this research last December was heavily influenced by 'Frankenbunny' headlines and pictures of humans with cows heads. Subsequently, when the scientists came out fighting and generated what I think were the 'right' kind of headlines, the Government relented and it now looks like the research will be allowed to continue. As my friend, Professor Chris Shaw, said "Scientists-1; Scaremongers–0". But my question is, why the Government considers bans or green lights on such hugely important areas of research on the basis of news headlines?
A couple of years ago, a group of conservationists from the University of Oxford had a paper published in the journal Nature which was a fascinating deconstruction of a news story 'gone wrong'. They discovered that because of the misunderstanding of a scientific term – 'committed to extinction' (which apparently means something very different to 'will be extinct'), the entire media ran a grossly inaccurate story about a million species being wiped out by climate change. But what really shocked the scientists was that politicians had repeated the inaccurate figures – Margot Wallström had raised it in the EU and Margaret Beckett in the House of Commons. You could say that the scientists' idea that Beckett would spend hours poring over impenetrable language in the original paper just reveals their naivety – but I suspect the public too would rather like to think that when politicians cite a scientific study in Parliament that they are citing it accurately and not repeating sensationalised headlines.
So while I spend my working life persuading more scientists to engage with the media and passionately believe that scientists ignore the media at their peril, the more I see the disjuncture between the detailed research and the story, the more I want to encourage both the public and the policy makers to take a closer look. The news media does many great things for science: getting us talking about science, raising the alarm, setting the agenda, offering us fresh hopes of new solutions. It is, and is likely to remain, a poor place for politicians to get their scientific advice.