Has the state of science reporting in Britain improved or is the era of MMR scare stories far from over?
That was the question addressed by Lord Drayson, the Science Minister, and Ben Goldacre, the author and columnist, as they went head to head last night in a debate sponsored by Times Higher Education.
Before an audience of 400 scientists and journalists at the Royal Institution, Lord Drayson presented an impassioned argument that the quality of science journalism had improved significantly over the past decade and now deserved praise for its high quality.
He did not succeed in convincing Dr Goldacre, however, who maintained to the end that scientists were right to be sceptical when it came to engaging with the press.
“The era of scare stories and bad journalism isn’t over,” Dr Goldacre said. The inaccurate reporting of science “remains a problem, and we need to talk about it”, he added.
Making the case that dedicated science correspondents had promoted more informed discussion of scientific issues in the press, Lord Drayson compared media coverage of the MMR vaccine scare, genetically modified foods and BSE with more recent reporting of the human-animal hybrid-embryo debate, the swine flu pandemic and the switch-on of the Large Hadron Collider.
Science journalists needed to be supported and protected from the cuts being made in newsrooms around the world, he stressed.
“I am not saying that everything is great... but I truly believe that because of a lot of effort by a lot of people, things have got a lot better,” he said, arguing that Dr Goldacre’s “unremitting focus” on the bad reporting of science risked making scientists reluctant to communicate their findings in the press.
“The improvement we have seen [in the way science is reported] is fragile… a failure to balance the unremitting focus on the bad science with the real examples of improvement risks the progress that we have made,” he claimed.
Unlike the Science Minister, Dr Goldacre found examples of improvement difficult to find. He presented the audience with evidence that MMR scare stories continue to this day, and he cited a string of “silly stories” about the latest “cure” for, or cause of, cancer along with reports about the formula for making the perfect bacon butty.
“Problems don’t go away just because you pretend they are not there,” he said. The reporting of science could be not only misleading and inaccurate, it could also have the “insidious” effect of eroding the public’s understanding of public health advice, he contended.
He cited a study showing that per cent of people surveyed felt the best approach to personal wellbeing was to ignore scientists’ advice on healthy living because scientists always seemed to change their minds.
“In reality, healthy living advice hasn’t changed for at least a decade, if not two… This misleading and confusing science coverage [in the media] is resulting in people making health-risk behaviour decisions that are not in their interests.”
At the root of the media’s problem were “systems failures” that allowed senior editors with “no understanding of science” to determine the presentation of science stories.
Lord Drayson and Dr Goldacre both emphasised that “sensationalist” reporting was not a problem as long as it was accurate and based on good science.
“We have to support sensationalism in science reporting,” said the minister, who argued that sensationalism and accuracy were not mutually exclusive and that such coverage could play a valuable role in drawing science issues to the attention of the public.
For Dr Goldacre, it was frustrating that the mainstream popular media produced so little science content that might stimulate the “nerds” out there. “There is nothing out there for the people who did biochemistry ten years ago and now work in middle management at Marks & Spencer.”
The debate ended with a promise from the Science Minister to investigate cases brought to him by scientists who felt they had been misrepresented by the press.