Ignorance and commercial interest make a combustible mixture, with enlightenment often a victim of the fumes. Views tend to polarize and become unduly influenced by those best able to manipulate the media, irrespective of the argument's merits. The result can be an alarming disparity between public opinion and the true state of the science.
No doubt, this syndrome has adversely affected debate over big issues such as genetic modification of plants and global warming. The question is, what's to be done? Awareness alone does not lead to enlightenment, and to an extent the public are at the mercy of what they read and hear. Such consideration has led the UK government to introduce what is, in effect, a form of censorship. The government, in justifying its new stance, blames the opinion shapers, the media, calling for more accurate and balanced scientific reporting.
The UK government has introduced guidelines for scientific reporting entitled "Guidance for Editors." The document urges journalists to "make every effort to establish the credibility of scientists and their work." They even offer the method to achieve this goal: consulting an approved expert, listed in a directory published by the Royal Society, which is the United Kingdom's established, rarely-out-of-line-with-the-government voice.
Government enthusiasm for this initiative was honed by an ongoing controversy over the MMR (measles mumps rubella) triple vaccine in the United Kingdom, which has threatened to derail the government's public health policy. The story began in 1998,1 when Andrew Wakefield described his hypothesis that MMR can cause inflammatory bowel disease and that this in turn may lead to autism. Wakefield followed up with several other papers2 and assiduously courted the media, with considerable success. A recent survey3 found that 53% of the UK public believes that there is equal evidence for and against the MMR vaccine, and also believed that experts are split down the middle. The truth: The scientific and medical establishments are almost unanimous in their belief that the MMR vaccine is safe, in light of various studies conducted since publication of Wakefield's 1998 paper.
When the Royal Society announced its new policy in 2002, it advised the media that editorial balance cannot be achieved by the naïve expedient of giving equal prominence to opposing views, "if the opposing view is held by only a quixotic minority."
It is hard to argue with this last sentiment in general, for as the Royal Society points out, it is still possible to find practicing scientists who contend that the link between smoking and lung cancer has yet to be proven. Virtually no serious publication would run such a piece.
Yet the UK government is really thrashing air with its campaign for unbiased science reporting. The idea of having to consult an approved list of scientists to verify whether a new theory is sound sticks particularly in the throat of UK journalists, who are a recalcitrant bunch and almost carry editorial independence to a fault. We're not unlike children: Coercive attempts to enforce good behavior invariable leads us to seek ingenious ways of circumventing a new code of conduct.
Equally counter-productive is the guidelines' implied spirit, suggesting that journalists should give credence only to ideas or views whose legitimacy has been confirmed by peer review. This opens up the whole Pandora's Box of scientific assessment. The established process of publication and peer review, which we all know and love, works within a stable and established body of science undergoing evolution rather than revolution. But it breaks down at the boundaries of change or crisis, as on the occasions when a medicine is found to have dangerous side effects. One can imagine what an approved panel member might have advised when first asked whether there was any credence to the suggestion that thalidomide, the sedative drug developed in the 1960s, caused fetal defects. And plenty of examples exist of major discoveries that failed peer review first time around, such as Hans Krebs' famous cycle, and various genetics papers by William Hamilton.
Furthermore, journalists properly doing their jobs do not wait meekly for publication and peer review; we thrive on competition. This inevitably increases the risk of being wrong, but if a suitable health warning accompanies the story, readers benefit. Scientists peddling unsound ideas, conducting vendettas, or seeking to promote their own ideas is more than a nuisance--it can cost lives. Maverick scientists tend to get too easy a ride, especially from the general media, who often fail to ask the awkward questions that might expose the maverick's fallacies.
There is no tidy solution, but the main hope must lie not with using lists of nominated experts, but through educating the media in sound principles of journalism.
Philip Hunter (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance science writer in London.
1. A.J. Wakefield et al., "Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children," The Lancet, 351:637-41, 1998.
2. For example: A.J. Wakefield, S.M. Montgomery, "MMR VaccineL through a glass darkly," Adverse Drug React Toxicol Rev, 7:352-82, 2000.
3. UK Economic and Social Research Council, "Towards a better map: Science, the public, and the media," available online at www.esrc.ac.uk