Given the history and role of the SMC I'm afraid I can't stay out of the debate that has broken out this week about science in the media. In a column in the Independent, Jeremy Laurance, the paper's health editor, lashed out after Ben Goldacre's latest Bad Science column in the Guardian in which Laurance says Ben 'pistol whipped' his colleague Denis Campbell for an article about the brain enhancing properties of omega 3 fatty acids.
In response Ben and others have fought back, accusing Jeremy and other science reporters of being thin skinned, allergic to criticism and defending the indefensible.
But here's a thing. I don't happen to believe Jeremy's outburst is about any of the above. I think it's about the tone of Ben's particular brand of critique. Those who have read the exchanges will know that accurate facts are held at a premium so here's one for you - Jeremy Laurance is one of the most highly respected health reporters in the UK, loved by legions of eminent researchers, clinicians and journal editors for his accurate and insightful reporting over 20 years.
Rather than rush to dismiss Laurance's piece as a defence of bad science reporting as others have, I would urge you to take a deep breath and consider what lies behind this rather uncharacteristic outburst. One thing I do know is that the frustration with Ben that explodes off the Independent page is not unique to Jeremy. The sense of a yawning gap between the brutal realities for jobbing journalists filing ever more stories to ever tighter deadlines and the luxury of a columnist like Ben who gets to lay bare the flaws in those stories once a week is now shared by almost every science reporter I know. Some still bear the scars of their own 'pistol whipping', others protest that they are an exception to his often sweeping attacks. And some, like Jeremy, are just appealing to this particular judge to entertain the existence of a few mitigating circumstances and allow for long years of good behaviour.
I believe the world needs Ben Goldacre and his Bad Science column, and he has pioneered a form of accountability which is doubtless the envy of politicians and football managers. The fear of being 'Goldacred' may have even improved science reporting in newsrooms. I hardly need say why it matters but Ben put it beautifully in one of his comments this week that people base their behaviours on this stuff and turning a blind eye to bad reporting can seriously damage human health. But the science and medical journalists generally think that too and when Ben started his column they warmly welcomed it as an additional way of exerting pressure on their editors. Indeed I seem to remember one Jeremy Laurance was one of the most vocal supporters.
So what has changed? Well I think it's back to tone. Ben was well within his rights to do his weekly column on the weaknesses in the Observer report on Omega 3 but he would not have prompted this backlash if he had done it in a different style. And he could win back the respect of many other UK science reporters if he could occasionally write a sentence or two about the messy business of daily health reporting or acknowledge those journalists who have bravely stood against the trends on issues like MMR – people like Sarah Boseley on his own paper. Arguably Jeremy too should have taken more care to emphasize that just because there are huge pressures to cut corners doesn't mean we should justify cutting them – something he has managed to avoid himself throughout this long career.
Denis Campbell has transgressed before, within weeks of taking on the health brief. But in between then and now he has delivered a hell of a lot of health stories and had his fair share of exclusives. Could he be better? Yes. Did that article fall short of the best journalistic standards? Yes. Should the tone used by Ben in his critique be the same as that applied to Andrew Wakefield, Gillian McKeith and AIDS? Absolutely not.
I have a huge respect for Ben Goldacre's core belief that we deserve a better media and that having one person out there banging that drum should be seen as a help not a hindrance. But there are lots of ways to be a thorn in the side.
I know Ben thinks I am dreary and repetitive in my defence of specialist journalism but if we're honest there is repetition from all sides in this debate. Science blogger Ed Yong concludes his comments on Ben's site with this: 'Perhaps in future, we should all stop being such meanies to "young, eager reporters" and just ruffle the lovable scamps' hair and draw a sad face on their report cards.' Is that the best we can do? Can we not rise above the playground and conduct this most critical of discussions in a grown up manner with a bit more mutual respect for the different roles we play? I suggest we try.