Science Reporting in the Scales

25 June 2009 at 9:05 pm (Uncategorized)

More and more, it has become plain that many popular media vehicles are guilty of decidedly unbalanced reporting in several areas.  While certainly not limited to them, this is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in trendy women’s magazines when they report on matters that have a scientific background (and – let’s face it – what these days really is beyond the pale of science?)  In most such cases, the blasé facility with which some of the key underpinnings are summarily glossed over is disconcertingly close to carefree distortion.  That this is likely born of uninformed habit or habitual obliviousness does not even begin to lessen the potential seriousness of its consequences.  Moreover, that most such stories are syndicated does not absolve a publication’s management of responsibility for errors in them.  Not righting an observed wrong is tantamount to condoning it.

When, to name a particularly glaring example, a Jenny McCarthy stands up and clamours on the very flimsiest of evidence that vaccination causes autism, these media swiftly seize upon such a story in their never-ending pursuit of ever more sensational drama and titillation.  (Important to note here is that the case of McCarthy is used to illustrate general principles that pervade the publishing industry, not to analyse specifics of her averments.)  Some of the reporters and columnists will perhaps consult a relevant demurring specialist (or two if they’re feeling especially energetic) so as to add some interest to their stories and to flesh them out a little, but mainly to pride themselves on that in doing so they are being fair and impartial and – above all – balanced.  Mostly, subeditors and editors will approve those stories for publication because, after all, they include the establishment or contrary position, thereby presenting opposing sides of the issue, and therefore they cannot be other than “balanced.”

Or can they?  Are they really balanced?

No, they usually are not, and for several reasons.  First, contra the postmodern conception, reality is not generally subjective.  There are objective criteria for consistent, observer-independent and repeatable assessment of the validity, or otherwise, of material claims about the real world, and these are the currency that science deals in.  The success thereof is radiantly manifest.  While every person is entitled to their own opinion and their own interpretation of the facts, it is not true that everyone is entitled to their own facts per se.  That is to say, an opinion about the merits of an actor’s performance is a very different thing to an opinion about precisely what the actor’s body mass index is.  The first, lacking any unified yardstick, is a wholly subjective assessment that can, at best, attain some consensual agreement among critics, whereas the second is objectively verifiable.  Writers often simply ignore this obvious distinction because nobody really wants to be a stodgy old stick-in-the-mud, a naysayer, a slayer of comforting fantasies.  Consequently, the writers and publishers, obeying the inapt dictates of an industry gone astray, perpetuate juiciness and controversy as somehow laudable ends in themselves instead of facing up to the somewhat harder task of doing adequate background verifications of the salient facts of the story.

To use again the prior example, Jenny McCarthy’s “facts” are shot full of holes, something a decently thorough investigation would have revealed ab initio but which would have turned the story into a non-story – annoyingly so for the shallow-minded excitement junkies that are its target.  That way, it’s just too damn boring, and never mind that the promotion of McCarthy’s beliefs has cost people their herd immunity to polio and measles in some places.  Collectively, the publishing industry thus fails to exercise due critical diligence in the headlong rush to galvanise an otherwise bored audience and to publish ahead of competitors (and, indeed, in its hurry to stumble over its own easy credulity).  Where is the balance in this equation?

Second, there is the cautious jargon employed within the scientific community.  When publicly critiquing some or other ill-founded notion, scientists often use euphemistic terms such as “unconvincing” or “poorly substantiated” or “misunderstanding” or “improbable.”  It is a mistake to think that their soft-pedalling belies hesitancy, incomprehension and/or a lack of certainty.  They do so because those are the norms and conventions within the scientific enterprise itself, and such language means exactly what it says: “unconvincing,” “poorly substantiated,” etc.  It is used to render impersonal assessments based on an impartial review of the evidence and reasoning offered in support of a given contention, insofar as impartiality is practically achievable by an individual.

That is, scientists do not generally understate in order to signal that theirs is a subjective opinion, supposedly as valid as any other.  In contrast, the purveyor of unsustainable nonsense will usually state their case with much forceful conviction and sincerity, even in the face of strong countermanding information, thereby giving the false-but-emotionally-laden impression that their view is considerably more solid.  And therein lies what may be one of the scientific enterprise’s most notable practical failings, i.e. its reticence to issue clear declarations concerning the veracity of an interminable array of common superstitions, myths and popular delusions.  That scientists, unlike stockists of pseudo- and anti-science, are generally loath to make firm declarations is symptomatic of the scientific method and an upshot of adhering to its practices.  Where is the balance in this equation?

Third, the writers and publishers of such stories almost invariably neglect to mention perhaps the most important facet, probably the overriding one.  For each doubting, soft-spoken expert who, based on well-established scientific findings, objects to a fringe claim, there are literally hundreds, possibly even thousands, of other relevant soft-spoken experts who are eminently qualified to deliver an appraisal, and who, when asked, would criticise the idea in question on much the same grounds and in much the same way as the cited one does.  That they are rallied unobtrusively behind the one whose objections are mentioned cannot be taken to mean that they aren’t there.  The same is hardly, if ever, true of cranks because each one has their own, usually exclusive brand of baloney to sell.  Failing to draw attention to this noteworthy matter of scientific consensus among specialists does a significant disservice both to the readership and to the upholding of truly balanced reporting because it creates the slyly misleading impression that the truth of the thing in question is about 50:50.  This is near enough never so.

Preposterous claims are not at all hard to come by simply because there are infinitely more ways of being wrong than there are of being right, and we would all like to think of ourselves as not much short of infallible in our perceptions and reasoning.  Good, well-founded sense is not so easy to find because it demands effort, discipline, humility and a healthy respect for certain rigours.  Attempting to offset one voluble crackpot with one expert is “balanced” only in the most trivial sense of that word, and it is a large part of why so many varieties of nonsense proliferate – so much so that it facilitates the emergence of essentially self-styled “experts” and aids the accumulation of a faux respectability, thereby making it all the more difficult to dispel.  That, together with much unchallenged repetition, is how we end up with alternative/complementary “medicine,” astrology, the asinine goo punted on Free Spirit and Journey to the Core (and sometimes 3Talk too), “psychic” dating show hosts who apparently converse with speech-impaired dead people, and Danie Krügel.  Furthermore, celebrity status notwithstanding, a Jenny McCarthy’s pronouncements on scientific matters are no more compelling or plausible than those of a petrol pump attendant.  Celebrity does not automatically confer authority or expertise in another field, and to conflate celebrity and expertise in this way is an insidious lapse of sound judgement.  Where is the balance in this equation?

Finally, in all such matters, it is wise to heed Bertrand Russell’s guiding principles and to apply them assiduously:

  1. When the experts are [mostly] agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain;
  2. When the experts are not agreed, no opinion can be regarded as certain by a non-expert, and
  3. When the experts hold that no sufficient grounds for a positive opinion exist, the ordinary person would do well to suspend judgement.

Are we so focussed on revering, even vaunting, every kind of mediocrity just in case we miss an opportunity to tell a story, or to enjoy a transient thrill, or in case not doing so might give offence?  Are we so hungry for relentless novelty that we feel it safe to sidestep our painfully-won evidentiary standards and requirements?  Because if these are the motivations then their price is wholly disproportionate.  It will cost us nothing less than the injudicious and unwitting subversion, the gradual erosion, of proper journalistic balance.

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