Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Thursday, 17 September 2009

"Science reporting: Is it good for you?" - event review - Ben Goldacre and Lord Drayson debate (#SciDebate, @BenGoldacre)

I attended an event last night at the Royal Institution of Great Britain (the place where they do the wonderful Christmas lectures from) which was a debate between the science minister Lord Drayson and the "Bad Science" writer and blogger Dr Ben Goldacre.

I am a big fan of Ben's and I follow his "Bad Science" column and blog regularly. I have also read his book of the same title and would readily recommend it to anybody who wants to try and understand more about the scientific process and how it can be misrepresented in the media. However I did try to go into the event with a fairly open mind and I was certainly ready to hear what Lord Drayson had to say.

Simon Mayo from Radio 5 Live chaired proceedings very well throughout.

Lord Drayson started off with a 10 minute presentation where he explained that from his perspective there have been big problems with science reporting in the media in the past but it is getting much better and British science coverage is now amongst the best in the world. He highlighted how previous coverage of things like BSE/CJD and MMR were not good but that the media has learned from those mistakes and more recent coverage of things like Swine Flu and the Large Hadron Collider were much better examples of science reporting. I very much got the feeling that he sees it as his job to "big up" science coverage.

Ben's presentation was heavy on the slides and he set out his stall illustrated with a number of examples of bad science reporting including the shocking fact that I blogged about myself whereby the Daily Mail is campaigning against the HPV vaccine in the UK and for it in Ireland. His position is that there is lots of good scientific reporting in the media but that there is also a lot of bad reporting too and that we don't help the problem by pretending it does not exist as Lord Drayson largely seemed to be doing.

After that there was a brief discussion between the two which largely focused on a cancer drug that was reported in the Daily Express on the front-page yesterday. Both were able to use it to illustrate their points. Drayson said it was an excellent example of coverage and he had even spoken to the scientists behind it to verify the claims. the PR chap from the company involved was actually in the audience and explained the rigorous process they go through. Goldacre said that it sounded good but you can never be sure with the Express and cited a previous headline about Bridgend suicides having been "caused" by a mobile phone mast. His point is that just because it is on the front cover of the Daily Express does not mean it can be relied upon.

The debate was then opened to the floor and I rather cheekily managed to get in first with a couple of questions. One was trying to get Lord Drayson to respond to the Daily Mail's bizarre HPV positions and the other was to ask whether specialist science journalists are given enough prominence given that people like Peter Hitchens and Melanie Phillips who are not scientifically trained are free to pontificate on subjects like MMR and get great prominance for these in their papers.

Lord Drayson did concede that the Daily Mail's position on HPV was not good and said we need to improve that but still maintained that things are pretty good. Goldacre agreed that science specialists should be given more prominence.

Some highlights from the rest of the Q&A:
  • A chap from the Daily Mail was there and Simon Mayo insisted that he ask a question. He explained that when they looked there were 46 studies saying that coffee was bad for you and 45 studies saying it was good for you.He asked what they are supposed to do. Goldacre suggested that individual studies like those are of limited benefit and it would be better to concentrate on aggregated studies (meta-analyses like the Cochrane Collaboration do).
  • A question came in via Twitter asking Lord Drayson how he could defend the coverage of the LHC last year when there were loads of stories making it sound like the Earth could be destroyed by a black hole. His response was that may have been the hook but it got people interested in particle physics and hence it was good. Goldacre pointed out that lots of people had been scared by that and audience members pointed out that lots of children had been terrified and one person even committed suicide.
  • The final question from the floor was a cracker in my view. the questioner asked Lord Drayson if his child's school had gone from 1/5 of things that they told his child were absoute rubbish to 1/10 absolute rubbish, would he be praising them as much as he is the science media. drayson's response was they he would be delighted that the 9/10 was so good.
  • At one point Goldacre used the word "embiggens" showing his Simpsons fan/geek credentials!
All in all it was an excellent debate which I thoroughly enjoyed. I still broadly agree with Ben Goldacre but I have to admit that Lord Drayson acquitted himself well and some of the questions from the floor and points made did make me think. The audience was not entirely made up of Goldacre-groupies and some hard questions were asked of Ben too.

The video of the event is available on this site here and it is well worth watching if you have some time to spare.

There were also a lot of people (including me) live tweeting the debate using the hashtag #SciDebate. The debate seems to be continuing on Twitter using that same hashtag.


Duncan Stott said...

Embiggens is of course a perfectly cromulent word.

Richard Gadsden said...

"He explained that when they looked there were 46 studies saying that coffee was bad for you and 45 studies saying it was good for you. He asked what they are supposed to do."

How about "Scientists still studying coffee to see if it's harmful or beneficial; in the meantime, keep drinking"?

Really, is there some problem with "I don't know" as an answer?

Gareth Rees said...

Yes, that question is terrible. What are journalists supposed to do? They are supposed to educate themselves in the subject they are reporting on. They can ring up specialists in the field if they need help.

Mike Green said...

The basic problem behind the coffee conundrum is the crass over-simplification of everything in the world into two categories - things that are Bad For You and things that are Good For You. Our man from The Mail could report that coffee can have some benefits, if drunk in moderation, but that for some people, particularly if drunk to excess, it can have some negative effects. Holding more than one idea in the mind is not beyond most people, but it compromises the reflex emotional response that tabloid journalists seek to elicit as they hawk the latest bogus superfood or health scare.

Mark Thompson said...

(Apart from Duncan) your comments here all tie in with once of the things Goldacre was saying in his presentation which is the Daily Mail tries to divide everything into two groups. Things that cause cancer and things that prevent cancer. He describes this as a sisyphean task!

I guess tabloids generally aren't interested in nuance, they want something that makes what they perceive as an "interesting" story hence the sort of nonsense we get.