The Guardian Unlimited‘s Bad Science section has an interesting piece examining why so much media coverage of science/medicine is so bad. Not surprisingly, the easy answer is the fact that most science writers for major publications have no science education and are basically juggling about words they don’t understand. The deeper analysis is what makes it a unique piece, definitely relevant to those of us who have much to lose from an ill-informed media frenzy:
Articles about robustly-supported emerging themes and ideas would be more stimulating, of course, than most single experimental results, and these themes are, most people would agree, the real developments in science. But they emerge over months and several bits of evidence, not single rejiggable press releases. Often, a front page science story will emerge from a press release alone, and the formal academic paper may never appear, or appear much later, and then not even show what the press reports claimed it would.
So how do the media work around their inability to deliver scientific evidence? They use authority figures, the very antithesis of what science is about, as if they were priests, or politicians, or parent figures. “Scientists today said … scientists revealed … scientists warned.” And if they want balance, you’ll get two scientists disagreeing, although with no explanation of why (an approach at its most dangerous with the myth that scientists were “divided” over the safety of MMR). One scientist will “reveal” something, and then another will “challenge” it. A bit like Jedi knights.
Of course, with our science and health backgrounds, we at Medgadget are above cutting-and-pasting from press releases… Or rather, let’s put it this way: we trust our readers to critically evaluate our use of primary sources.
Hmmm… Now may be a good time to link to the survey, so we can figure out if that trust is well-placed…
More from the article in the Guardian.