Dodgy science and iffy journalism

I threw out a perfectly good saucepan recently in the mistaken belief that using aluminium in cooking could lead to Alzheimer’s. Now I realise I was fooled by a health scare.

These scares are coming thick and fast. In the past 16 months at least 63 science stories have been judged by scientists either to be based on flimsy evidence or on facts that have been misinterpreted.

‘Fizzy Drinks Make Teenagers Violent’, ‘Smacking increases cancer risk’, ‘Using phone mobile while pregnant could turn kid hyper’, ‘Bacon linked to higher risk of pancreatic cancer’ . . .  it’s a long list, drawn up by Sense About Science (SAS), a charitable trust that aims to equip people to make sense of scientific and medical claims in public discussion.

For anyone who cares about journalistic standards its website makes painful reading, especially its For the Record section, in which scientists are invited to publish corrections of misreported research.

The SAS challenges everyone to base their opinions on hard evidence. Its mission is to “chase down dodgy science and mobilise networks of scientists and community groups to counter it.”

“Sense About Science occupies the space where illogicality and science collide,” says the broadcaster Nick Ross, an SAS trustee. “It seeks to ensure that our ability for cool rationality prevails over our love of anecdote and our instincts for intuitive judgements.”

As any anecdote-loving old hack might tell you in his cups, cool rationality spoils good stories and doesn’t sell newspapers.  No wonder the SAS is finding it hard to change media reporting.

Another ginger group, the BenchPress Project, is trying to put this right by arranging for scientists to run workshops on science and statistics for journalists and press officers and providing online materials to help them.

Now this may be a wild generalisation, based on no statistical evidence, but a big part of the problem is that most journalists are no good at maths. We studied humanities, not science, at school. Most of us haven’t a clue how to challenge iffy-looking statistics.

We were never trained in how to report science and statistics, a gaping hole in the journalism training curriculum going back 50 years, which even today has never been repaired.

This is not simply a question of selling more newspapers. This is a fundamental failure by the news industry. We are colluding in the public’s bamboozlement, encouraging millions of us on the flimsiest evidence to change our diet or do stupid things like refuse to be inoculated . . . or throw away saucepans.

– GARETH WEEKES, Deep South Media Ltd.