This morning on the Today program there was an interesting piece on the quality of science journalism. For our non UK audience the Today program is breakfast news and comment show on BBC Radio 4.
The piece was focused around the Minister for Science Lord Paul Drayson claim that there is a high standard of science journalism in the UK, and that the standard had improved since the MMR scare of a few years ago. For those who don’t remember the MMR scare, journalists got hold of some dodgy research that the MMR vaccine was linked to autism. Despite repeated claims by the government and doctors that the vaccine was safe, loads of parents did not vaccinate their children and now there are outbreaks of measles.
The Minister was talking to Ben Goldacre the author of the brilliant book ‘Bad Science’ and columnist of the guardian. Incidentally, Ben Goldacre is a qualified and practicing doctor while Lord Drayson has a PhD in robotics and ran a drugs firm.
I have to say I disagree with the Minister; the standard of science journalism is poor in most cases. This I partly blame on the media’s quest for balance. In the UK, the press are bound by the Press Complaints Commission, which forces them to reflect issues in a balanced way. They can and are partisan, but they must distinguish between Fact and Opinion. This works well in politics however, in science it can cause a problem.
Take homeopathy as an example, the BBC has brought a doctor and a homeopath together for a ‘balanced debate’ this however is bunk. It is about as useful as a debate between a philosopher and his fridge. Anybody who knows what they are talking about knows that homeopathy is not only useless but can be harmful.
If you want good science journalism stop bringing quacks with no scientific knowledge and training to the table and treating their views as equal with scientists who devote a life of research to the matter. Not to say that scientists should not be held to account, but there are plenty of intelligent people who can do the job.
You can hear the interview here http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_8258000/8258355.stm
And buy Ben Goldacre’s book here http://www.amazon.co.uk/Bad-Science-Ben-Goldacre/dp/000728487X/?tag=bs0b-21