No Science Better Than Bad Science

No science better than bad science

Journalists must get creative when covering science. The common theatrics of balancing two sides of an issue along with a hint of hype just won’t do.

In recent years, we’ve seen the revival of astrology and a host of other nebulous nonsense. With 40% of Canadians still unsure about evolution [1] and plenty of others sceptical of global warming [2], what are we to say of the ill-advised anti-vaccination advocates, and those who crusade against stem cell research? It is worrisome that we have reached the point where Gary Goodyear, Canada’s Science Minister, thinks evolution is best described as fashion: “whether [we wear] running shoes or high heels, of course we are evolving to our environment.” [3] The media, the self-proclaimed guardians of truth and information, have failed to convey even a modicum of science: For every five hours of cable news, 60 seconds are dedicated to science [4]. And during that measly minute, it is baffling how much they manage to get wrong.

Show me the controversy
One major disappointment with mass media is their misuse of the “controversy” label. A scientific issue is deemed controversial if it causes disagreement within the scientific community. Using that label is unwarranted for global warming, evolution or the efficacy of vaccines, where there is no controversy. It is irresponsible for a reporter to host debates featuring scientists versus non-scientific organizations with questionable motives. Such debates are often framed to suggest that both sides are equally valid, an unnecessary concession and an immense disservice to viewers.

Evolution “controversy”
There is no need to debate evolution and intelligent design. There is, however, the need for media to inform their viewers about what evolution is. Evolution is the observation that populations genetically change over time, a fact supported by 150 years of evidence. On the other hand, intelligent design is no more than the groundless assertion that evolution is false and that some features of biology are “too complex” to have occurred by chance. It puts forward no scientific theory and offers no testable predictions. It is not science and should not be treated as such.

Global warming “controversy”
Lately, there’s been a lot of coverage of global warming and of sceptics who claim to know better than all climate change scientists. To help us dispel some myths, we met with McGill’s Dr. Bruno Tremblay and discussed global warming and what we can do about it (see the Q&A here).

An obsession with the natural
The concept that “everything natural is inherently better” is one of several misconceptions advocated by the media. Consequently, many of us are naturally (pun intended) led to consider alternative medicine and natural remedies. These practices encompass a vast array of treatments but they are all similar in the sense that the medical community does not consider them to be medicine. Such treatments include passing magnets over your body, diluting medication till none of it is left, and massaging your feet to cure disease. These treatments are popular because they are couched in complex and misused scientific jargon, which lends them authority.

Second, alternative medicine practitioners can afford to spend more time on each patient than do doctors, which gives them a certain appeal. Third, providers of these remedies are usually made to look like the antithesis of pharmaceutical companies when, in fact, naturopathic medicine is a multi-billion dollar industry worldwide: US$34 billion in the United States [5] and US$14 billion in China [6]. This is no small business.

It is often claimed that the best way to improve traditional medicine is to mix it with alternative medicine. Yet study after study shows that alternative medicine works no better than a placebo. Anyone who claims the contrary is unable to demonstrate it scientifically; the only resort is anecdotal evidence. This doesn’t work in medicine. Nevertheless, naturopaths insist that their treatments do not lend themselves to double-blind experiments since each prescribed remedy is tailored to each patient’s unique case. Doctors will tell you the same, yet none will claim that studies should not be conducted because they won’t be valid.

Stem-cell research
With the courts opposing federal funding of stem-cell research, an old debate emerges. Some argue that embryonic stem cell research is unethical because it requires isolating cells from human embryos that are a few days old. If this was the whole story, as most media portrayed it to be, we wouldn’t be having this debate. But the reality is much more subtle: When one visits a fertility clinic for an in-vitro fertilisation, many embryos are created to increase the chances that at least one results in pregnancy. In Canada, two embryos are then transferred to the woman (the numbers vary by country). What happens to the unused ones? Instead of being discarded or frozen, embryos can be donated for stem-cell research.

The media plays a central role in shaping the public’s views and understanding of scientific issues. It is their responsibility, as vehicles of information, to present science accurately. This can simply mean hiring more graduates with science backgrounds and more journalists specialized in science writing. It is the media’s responsibility to grant science its due airtime, and when it does, to abstain from distorting it. Until then, I can no longer claim to watch the news to “stay informed”.

[1] Angus Reid (2010). “Britons and Canadians Side with Evolution, Not Americans.”
[2] Angus Reid (2010). “Views on Global Warming Vary in Three Countries.”
[3] The Globe and Mail (2009). “Science minister won’t confirm belief in evolution.”
[4] The Project for Excellence in Journalism (2008). “The State of the News Media.”.
[5] ABC News (2009). “Why Do We Spend $34 Billion in Alternative Medicine?”.
[6] World Health Organization (2008). “Traditional medicine.”

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