Tuesday, 2 March 2010

My life in a parallel universe

I was talking about science in the media on a panel at the Westminster Media Forum conference last week along with Ben Goldacre, author of the Bad Science column in the Guardian and a hugely popular book and blog of the same name. Not for the first time, Ben and I seem to be living in a parallel universe – with Ben dismissing almost all science reporting in mainstream media as poor quality and me insisting that a great deal of it is good and should be championed. Ben is far from alone in his more withering critique, and last week Colin Macilwain, respected free-lance science writer, echoed many of Ben's themes in a damning piece for Nature which argued that 'dumbed down media coverage has bred mistrust among some scientists'.

One of the striking things about Colin's piece and Ben's position is the emphasis on 'silly' science stories. A line that always gets a laugh in Ben's talks is the fact that the same product – be it red wine, coffee or chocolate – appear to both cause and cure cancer on consecutive days if you read papers like the Daily Mail and Daily Express. The theme was also taken up by Colin, who admits he once hoped that stories about the 'cures for cancer' would fade away, "but they are not fading". According to Colin "essentially silly stories about science continue to fill newspapers and news broadcasts."

Now here's the thing. Like Colin and Ben I am allergic to these stories and my colleagues and I groan every time we see them. In fact I'm going to let you in on a secret: I'm not a fan of any silly science stories, even the accurate ones that communicate really complicated science concepts to the wider public. Don't get me wrong, I am in awe of the PR prowess that can get the perfect chemical formula for a cup of tea onto the Today programme, but I personally would reach for the jobs pages if that kind of PR formed part of my job description. Silly stories like these and the daily diet of maddening scare stories are not what I think of when I'm talking about science journalism.

This was illustrated the day after I shared a panel with Ben when I sat on another panel about science in the media – this time with four journalists who have been reporting 'climate-gate'. In front of a sellout audience of 200 in Oxford I got to do my impersonation of Jeremy Paxman with Fiona Harvey from the Financial Times, Ben Jackson from the Sun, Richard Black from the BBC and David Adam from the Guardian. Technically they are all environment reporters now, though all but Fiona were formerly science reporters and in any case we use the term 'science reporting' to cover science, health and environment reporting. The debate was recorded so I won't go into too much detail here but suffice to say that I defy anyone who listens to this discussion to maintain that science reporting is silly, dumbed down or all done by reporters slavishly churning out journal press releases. While the journalists themselves were critical of some of the reporting of climate-gate and even critical of their own papers, what was clear was that each of these individuals had done little else for months but consider, debate, argue, challenge and reflect on how to best cover this story. Many have done original reporting on the subject and some papers including the Guardian have delivered a level of investigative journalism that most of us feared we may never see again. Most of these reporters have gone beyond news to write insightful and perceptive comment pieces on how the story has been covered. Yet climate change reporting never features in Ben's talks and Colin Macilwain actually appears to suggest that Copenhagen failed partly because science reporters were too busy covering weekly journals and the silly stuff. Now I would be the first to say there are problems with climate reporting but I think you would be hard pressed to argue that there is not enough of it and the huge investment of resources in covering Copenhagen by every media outlet testifies to that.

I guess you could argue that climate-gate is unusual and just a blip in the daily diet of stupid pieces of research that pass for science news - but I'm just not buying that. Before climate-gate it was the sacking of David Nutt, the Home Secretary's independent drugs adviser, that projected science into the headlines and produced weeks of well written and perceptive news and comment by science reporters. And before that it was swine flu exercising and exhausting health reporters, and before that it was the year long national debate prompted by the banning of the use of human animal hybrid embryos in stem cell research. Before that there was a year when animal research was rarely off the front pages. I could go on. And on. Yet none of these huge science stories emerge from the weekly journal press releases or from the dodgy PR agencies that loom so large in the minds of the leading critics of science in the media

I guess you could counter that while these huge science stories predominate at times, the media still run the daily diet of rubbish science stories on the inside pages. That may be true – indeed it's true that the media run a daily diet of rubbish stories about everything including politics, sports, education and celebrities, and that's predictable and depressing and it's great that someone rages against it. I'm not defending it.

But in my parallel universe there's a lot going on that's less depressing and I don't understand why critics seem reluctant to even acknowledge it. These days lots of the one-off studies that end up as stories on the inside pages come via the Science Media Centre. But none of them are silly stories about the latest cure for cancer. Again, I could bore you for Britain on this and I suggest a scan of our website might be better than me listing hundreds of briefings here - but let me just mention the kinds of stories that I'm talking about. Like the study we launched a few weeks back that showed that researchers had failed to replicate findings that appeared to link ME to a particular virus in a previous well publicised study. Or the study we launched a while back where researchers had found some association – albeit a weak one – between working in nuclear power plants and an increased risk of heart disease in huge study conducted over many years. Or the study that our friend Ken Donaldson did that found asbestos-like effects in the lungs of rats exposed to nanoparticles, or the studies that reveal that researchers have made significant leaps in our understanding of the relative merits of embryonic, adult and induced pluripotent stem cells. Or how about the more policy type stories like the need to reduce the burden of over-regulation of animal research and clinical trials, or the need to teach our doctors to be better at prescribing complicated new drugs. Or how about the backgrounders we run on incredibly complex areas like epigenetics, or about the ambitious new engineering approaches that could help us to fight climate change, like geoengineering or carbon capture and storage. If science reporting was as awful as many imply, the SMC should have stacked up hundreds of examples of angry scientists who refuse to engage after their stories were hyped or misreported. Actually we have virtually none - and this from a Centre which only touches a science story if it's messy, complex and controversial, and refuses to deal with any specialist publications because we only do mainstream national news. We operate on the front-line where the potential for conflict between science and the media is greatest and yet almost all the coverage we get is good - do you see now why I feel I am in a parallel universe?

Look, I am not saying that the daily diet of health scares doesn't matter, and it's great that Ben exposes the really scandalous ones in his column and great that the excellent Behind the Headlines runs a same day deconstruction of the biggest ones which is widely read by the healthcare workers and patients who have to deal with the very real fears and anxieties raised by these stories. And as it happens the SMC does deal with them regularly, offering leading third party experts to pour a huge dose of cold water on exaggerated claims, often at the behest of the reporters themselves in a bid to dissuade their over-excitable editors from running them on the front page. What I am saying is that silly health scare stories do not science journalism make.

Yes there are problems with the reporting of science. I engage with them on a daily basis and highlight them often. Many commentators and academics - including the excellent science reporters on the Columbia Journalism Review in the US - provide a running commentary on the weaknesses of current reporting on issues like climate-gate that I almost always find myself in agreement with. But restricting the discussion of science and the media to a bunch of silly stories on cures for cancer is pretty silly itself. The true story of science reporting today is so much bigger, richer and more interesting - thank goodness otherwise I would be looking for a new job!