Bad Science and bad Media.
There is an interesting article in The Guardian (Sept. 8th, 2005) on science reporting in newspapers presented by Ben Goldacre as badscience. According to the author, science reporting falls into three categories: ''wacky stories, scare stories and "breakthrough" stories'' with the ''paradoxical health story'', chocolate is good for your health, falling in the first category. Goldacre argues that this misrepresentation of science is comforting the suspicions among the public . He blames what he calls ''science communicators'' and journalists and most notably the Humanities, the actual background of most science communicators.
I am glad someone has finally the gut to say it plain and I read Goldacre's article with jubilation. Science reporting in newspapers is bad.
Scientists have the power to react to such stories in the press but they don't. The question is why they don't ?
Scientists are pressed to justify their research fundings in terms of their social impact, if they don't, they don't get funding. They are also trained to be suspicious of Science in the public eye. So they see Science in the pulic eye as something different from the Science they practice. These two perspectives on science are irreconcilable unless the public is educated about scientific methodology and science itself. Most of the time, scientists are pressed to communicate their research, to cross the line between the two worlds. From the world of reality and facts to the world of expectations, fantasies, beliefs and scares. So why would we put the scientist at risk of falling into the trap of misrepresenting his results. In the contrary, moving in the other direction, from the world of beliefs to the world of reality, is actually a gain in educating more people about science.
However, not all scientists are afraid to cross the line. I must say that bad science in the news is perpetuated sometimes by scientists who not only cross the line from reality to beliefs but also manipulate the public understanding of science for better funding and better notoriety. As we live in the media age, these scientists consider that even a misrepresentation of science is better than no representation at all, otherwise how will they be able to channel funding from their government and their benefactors preferably for their own projects ?
There is no easy end to bad science as there is no easy end to bad media. Most mainstream media don't feel that educating people is part of their mission, they don't feel that they should report, above all, on facts. They only want to reverberate people's fears, to map their beliefs and to entertain them. In the end, bad science is a paradigm for bad media.
Read Bad science every thursday at http://www.guardian.co.uk/life/badscience