Science reporting: is it good for you?

The Daily Mail Oncological Ontology Project

Yesterdays debate at the Royal Institute of Great Britain between Dr Ben Goldacre (author of the Bad Science blog, Guardian column and book) and the science minister, Lord Drayson is now online to watch on demand. I watched this live and it was a really enjoyable hour and a half, certainly better than anything TV had to offer last night.

For those viewing online there were some problems with not being able to see the slides used by the speakers but Twitter filled in there nicely. Some of the questions from the audience later on were inaudible too but host Simon Mayo did a good job of summarising them before they were answered.

Lord Drayson was putting forward the view that the lessons of the MMR debacle have been learned and science reporting in the UK is now one of the best in the world, he admitted it wasn’t perfect but his basic premise was that we should concentrate on the good not the bad. Naturally Ben Goldacre disagreed in his usual style saying that attitude would encourage editors to keep running crap and that articles should link to the papers they are based on so that readers can see for themselves.

Lord Drayson started off with a slide of a front page headline from The Sun stating that “SEX KILLS” saying it was a good summary as it may cause the spread of two different kinds of cancer in women. He later claimed that the “world will end” reporting about the Large Hadron Collider creating black holes was good for science as it drew attention to it! So anything is OK in the name of publicity then?

Ben Goldacre said healthy living advice has not changed in decades but people are basing their lifestyle choices on the media and pointed to the Daily Mails ridiculous “what causes/prevents cancer” roundabout as featured in the The (New) Daily Mail Oncological Ontology Project (coffee does both by the way!).

Someone from the Daily Mail later asked a fair question about what are they supposed to do, making the point that they don’t have the resources to do a peer review on everything they report on. Fair point I think but that doesn’t excuse printing rubbish. It’s a tricky issue and one that isn’t going to go away easily. Ben Goldacre thinks features by specialist writers would be better than front page articles by general journalists, hard to disagree with that I think. This stuff is too important to be flippant about.

At one point during the question segment it seemed like everyone in the audience was a blogger; Jack Of Kent asked a question about antiquated libel laws preventing stories critical of bad science getting into the UK media but Lord Drayson dodged that one claiming sub judice, presumably because of the Simon Singh case.

I must say, kudos is due to Lord Drayson for saying that scientists misrepresented in the media could email him and he would look into it, true to his word he later posted his email address on Twitter for all to see. I hope he will be as true to the promise to look into these things.

One interesting question that didn’t really get answered was “Is science reporting any worse than the rest?”. I’m not sure it is, what do you think?

You can watch the video online here and if you haven’t read Ben Goldacre’s book, you should.

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