Bad science reporting

Ben Goldacre says (full article here):

There is one university PR department in London that I know fairly well – it’s a small middle-class world after all – and I know that until recently, they had never employed a single science graduate. This is not uncommon. Science is done by scientists, who write it up. Then a press release is written by a non-scientist, who runs it by their non-scientist boss, who then sends it to journalists without a science education who try to convey difficult new ideas to an audience of either lay people, or more likely – since they’ll be the ones interested in reading the stuff – people who know their way around a t-test a lot better than any of these intermediaries. Finally, it’s edited by a whole team of people who don’t understand it. You can be sure that at least one person in any given “science communication” chain is just juggling words about on a page, without having the first clue what they mean, pretending they’ve got a proper job, their pens all lined up neatly on the desk.

Amen, brother.

Of course, it’s not just science reporting. Any time you read an article in the paper on a subject where you have some specialist knowledge – Anglo-Saxon poetry, or birdwatching, or husky racing – it’s always riddled with inaccuracies and misleading phrasing. But inaccurate reporting on Anglo-Saxon poetry is pretty harmless, whereas inaccurate reporting of, say, research into the MMR jab can scare a lot of people, undermine confidence in medicine and potentially cost people their lives.

I vaguely assume that in the core news subjects (politics, business and sport, especially) the reporters have enough real expertise to know what the important stories are and how to present them accurately, even if they don’t choose to do so. But perhaps they’re floundering around in the same fog of ignorance that seems to afflict science journalists.

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