Tag Archives: journalism

Unweighted arguments – the curse of scientific journalism.

A couple of days ago on Twitter, @sciencegoddess pointed to a facsimile of this astute Calvin and Hobbes strip about academic writing. “With a little practice” Calvin says, “writing can be an intimidating and impenetrable fog.”

Hell! Why use 3 syllables when you can use fourteen? Or to quote from a peer-reviewed and highly credible source, (Frasier) the thinking in academic writing often seems to be “if less is more, just think how much more “more” will be!”

In fact there is a very boring reason why scientific jargon is so impenetrable, and it comes down to accuracy. There is no excuse for using the phrase “for want of a better word” in science. There is always a word. If there isn’t you create one.

Many years ago as a rookie PhD student I railed against the befuddling language of the laboratory (mostly because I couldn’t get my head around it), raising an eyebrow at my supervisor using the term “canonical octonucleotide primer”, and thinking he was being pompous. “Why can’t he just say ‘bit of DNA'”? I wondered, but the fact was, that to describe it in lay language would have not only been messy, but subject to misinterpretation.

It is vitally important that academic research is repeatable, and therefore the methods section of any paper, while jargon and acronym filled and impenetrable if you don’t know the field CAN be understood, with absolute clarity to those who are au-fait with that area of research, and can also, with a bit of legwork, be understood by anyone else who cares to do the reading.

“there’s a small chance that millions of people might die from swine flu”

That said, because scientific jargon is not universally understood, scientific stories get rewritten by journalists for public consumption, and herein lies the problem. As the astringent @charltonbrooker pointed out on Newswipe recently, news proprietors are concerned with headlines and tend to choose the worst possible case scenario for the sake of impact (and  course sales). (if you say, well hardly anyone might die of swine flu, but there’s a small chance that millions of people might die from swine flu, you know they are going to ignore the tiny statistical liklihood of the latter happening in order to grab a headline). Its also drummed into journalists at newspaper school (at least it used to be) that its important to get both sides of the story.

The problem then arises if journalists do not understand the science, or the scientific process, and are not absolutely clear about the quality of the opposing arguments they subsequently present. For want of a better word (because this isn’t an academic paper ;-)) all too often, there is no “weighting” given to the sides of the argument to represent the gravitas, accuracy or otherwise of the evidence being spouted by Joe Bloggs (contributor )Esq. . So homeopaths, or anti-vaccination campaigners or anyone with a chip on their shoulder can turn around and spout pseduoscience and baffle the audience and are often given equal airtime or column inches to do so.

“emotional pleas are presented as equal argument to peer reviewed science”

Unless the journalist is allowed to make the distinction clearly between good and bad research, (and in order to do that they must understand academic publishing and be smart enough to understand the science too), then all to often in the interests of “impartiality”, anecdotal evidence and emotional pleas are presented as equal argument to repeatable, published, peer reviewed science which has taken years to come to its conclusion. If that is what a lay audience is presented with, how are they supposed to be able unentangle what is correct, provable and repeatable, to what is not? If the BBC counters a story which on one side presents years of research and peer reviewed evidence with one heart-rending personal story about how “homeopathy cured my cancer” (which it almost certainly didn’t), the chances are the person who is claiming absolute faith and claims to know with absolute certainty that homeopathy works, is more likely to be believed than the scientist who says “well we have looked and looked and looked but we cannot see any evidence that homeopathy worked”.

“the answer may lie at the back of Prince Charles’s medicine cabinet”

(Incidentally, this is not scientific equivocation, its simply that scientific process takes into account that you will never be able to test every single bottle of C30 Echinacea Angustifolia in the world, because some are languishing at the back of Prince Charles’s medicine cabinet in case he gets gangrene*, and you never know, that might be the one bottle that works. So all a scientist will ever say is that having tested millions upon millions upon millions of bottles, they haven’t found one that works, which makes the statistical likelihood of finding one that does work so small as to be irrelevant. But of course that’s never as strong a statement as an emotional absolute conviction of faith, such as “homeopathy cured my cancer”, “MMR caused my son’s autism”, or “a speed camera would have saved my son’s life”

So science journalists – please make sure when you are presenting the opposite point of view, that its a point of view worth espousing, and give it the appropriate airtime. (TIP: In the case of one-off anecdotal stories, this is approximately none).

*you can bet your arse if he ever did get gangrene that the royal doctors would be pumping him full of proper antibiotics that work, not relying on homeopathy for a cure