Friday, 11 June 2010

On Ben v Jeremy

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.


PhD scientist said...

"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."

If that is a paraphrase for:

"It is impossible to expect accuracy given the pressures specialist journalists in the traditional media are under"

- then isn't that just an admission that "old media" specialist science journalism is essentially dead on its legs?

Vivent les blogs, say I.

It also is no defence of people writing large and complex stories, like in Denis Campbell's famously inept Observer MMR piece a few years ago. Presumably "major feature story" stuff like that takes time to do, with the time being allotted accordingly to do it - making its many inadequacies utterly inexcusable.

You are also being obliquely rather unfair to Ben Goldacre, who for many years has written his weekly column and done his other his "journalistic" stuff in addition to having a full-time job as a doctor and/or researcher.

Science Matters said...

I'm inclined to agree with you...

Wigarse said...

I'm afraid you're unlikely to find much sympathy for your position.

You can try and defend shonky journalism with mitigating circumstances if you like but it doesn't change the fact that a vast number of readers are walking away from science and health reporting in the mainstream media because the general standard is so low.

If it makes you feel better to cry "it's not OUR fault! You ask too much of us!" then whine away, but it isn't going to win back any of the readers that are deserting you in droves.

If you can't take a little bit of robust criticism, perhaps it's time to change jobs? If usually good journalists produce articles that are no better than something Gillian McKeith would produce, then they shouldn't be surprised if that article attracts similar levels of criticism.

For what it'S worth, I have sympathy for the position of overworked journos pushed to produce too many words in too little time, but this sort of pointless complaining does nothing to solve the problem.

Incidentally, my understanding of how much pressure science writers are under comes directly from Ben Goldacre, who has been blaming a ridiculous system for pushing down quality levels for years.

Perhaps you should spend less time railing against Ben and start listening to him instead?

Wigarse said...

Oh look. Moderated comments. Never a good sign. When will people learn?

Stephen said...

The problem is that we're dealing with facts. The nicest, most respected person in the world still isn't going to be right if he says something that isn't true is true. I'm sure that the people involved are lovely people and really that's not even at issue. It's just not relevant that the people are lovely or not if you want to know whether they're telling the truth.

It is hard to separate the professional from the personal but this is one of those times. It's really hard being told you've done a bad job but if you have there's not a lot else anyone can say and I don't see why journalists should treated differently to any other group of people.

Stephen said...

I have to disagree Fiona. Laurance's piece was a fairly groundless rant. Goldacre's critique of the inaccuracies Campell's piece seemed well justified, especially since the article now seems to have been withdrawn. Frank criticism is as necessary in journalism as it is in science. There are different ways of doing things, of course, but the charge that Goldacre's remarks amounted to 'pistol whipping' are frankly hysterical (in both senses of the word).

And as PhD scientist makes clear, the comparison between the time pressures of Campbell the journalist and Goldacre the columnist don't withstand scrutiny.

Yannis said...

It is interesting that you use the defense of time available for doing your research as an excuse.
I am a physician. I have a certain amount of time to see patients.
Can I give them the time excuse if I do a bad job with their health?
Can anybody in any other line of work use that excuse?
No. You mess up, you have to pay the consequences for it. This is your work. This is not "optional", to whenever you have "time" to do a good job and put out a good article.
If somebody shows that you did a bad job in an thank them, and try your best not to do it again. You don't write a response to try to explain why you did a bad job.

JoeK said...

Having just read all the articles concerned, Ben's piece was fairly toothless and mainly concerned the facts. Laurance's piece on the other hand was a bit of a rant and seemed rather disproportionate.

So if the argument is about tone I don't see it at all.

And if you are also arguing that we have to forgive reporters for inaccurate science reporting due to the pressures of their job, then you are clearly part of the problem, not part of the solution.