Science and Health in the Media

Liisa Vihmanen writes:

Ben Goldacre is a medical doctor, a columnist in the Guardian, and a frequent blogger. In his best-selling book 'Bad Science' Goldacre shows how many journalists covering science news do their job badly, sometimes even terribly badly.

"Science is wacky", Goldacre started. But maybe it is not as wacky as the journalists make it look in their articles.  Goldacre used several concrete cases from newspapers to show how journalists have consciously or unconsciously given false information about scientific research. Sadly, he argues, almost everything the scientists really do at the university or in the laboratory hardly gets any coverage.

Miracle cures are one typical phenomenon that interests journalists and their audiences. There is a long tradition about miraculous cures that goes back to the early years in television until the 1970s. TV-hospitals were able to do almost anything, says Goldacre.  The problem with these unique, miraculous cases is that they are taken to represent far more cases than just the particular one. The public is often not given enough background knowledge that might explain something about such cases.

A classic case of this in health journalism is news about healthy/unhealthy food. These stories are often not based on anything solid, says Goldacre. The arguments in these articles have not been checked, the statistics are often ignored and so on.

Bad science journalism is a problem, because "it tells stupid confusing lies, undermines confidence in research and undermines the understanding of evidence in decision making". It is also true, he says, that journalists can change the public's health behaviour through their articles.

Other stories Ben Goldacre used as examples in his presentation were vaccine fears and a complete out-of-nowhere invented specialist, who used the media to claim he was a scientist even though he was not. The 'laboratory' the scientist was working in was revealed to be a tiny hut in his backyard, like a greenhouse for tomatoes. The journalists covering the issue never found their way to the original source of information, which was this 'laboratory'.

Finally, after shocking his audience with his examples, Ben Goldacre raised the question as to whether newspapers should cover science at all since they don't do their work properly. He argued that mainstream media are often not the best way to find out exact information about what is healthy in life and what is not. According to him, bad science journalism has done significant harm to public health.

There was little sense of appreciation for the work of any science journalists in his presentation. According to him a journalist should not cover health issues unless he/she has a basic knowledge about medicine, biochemistry and other important fields. Goldacre concluded by saying that the general public should be educated to do their own critiques of the science and health coverage they find in the mainstream media.