One Rotten Apple Spoils the Whole Barrel

Bad Science by Ben Goldacre

Image: Diana Jasudasen

Ben Goldacre is a British doctor and academic who spends most of his time hunting down foolish science stories reported in the media and debunks the myths they perpetuate.

If you haven’t come across him yet, where have you been?  I strongly recommend you check out his website before anyone finds out.

Goldacre’s first book, Bad Science was published in 2008 and has a whole chapter titled “How The Media Promote the Public Misunderstanding of Science”. He boils this miscommunication down to the fact that most journalists are humanities graduates who feel disadvantaged about the fact that their area of expertise hasn’t contributed to the most significant developments in our history.

I personally think that’s a little harsh but agree with the opinion that the media feels obliged to report all news as the most exciting thing since sliced bread. Hence the term ‘newsworthy’. Who decides what is “worthy” of the news? If you scan the headlines in the newspaper, they often don’t correlate to the content of the article.

The example Goldacre uses to demonstrate this point is one of IQ and intelligence. ‘Research has shown that black children in America tend to perform less well in IQ tests than white children’ compared to ‘Research has shown that black people are less intelligent than white people’. It’s not the same sentence at all!

This may not sound like that big a deal to some of you, but when the media misreports on issues about health, the consequences can be a lot more serious. Here is a clip of Ben Goldacre speaking up about the media perpetuating the myth that MMR vaccines cause autism:

 

But if one scientist makes a claim and another challenges it, it makes it sound like the jury is still out on the matter. Is it then really the media who promote the public misunderstanding of science or should there be more policing of dodgy scientists who conduct dodgy research?

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2 comments on “One Rotten Apple Spoils the Whole Barrel

  1. I should think that it the media who promote the public misunderstanding of science. Assumptions to support this could be that :
    (1) reporters are mere journalists who are just as the lay public; not much science background;
    (2) what is published is not newsworthy, “science junk”
    (3) reporters spend less time time into researching to understand the science before reporting.

    Therefore, yes, there should be a policy to safeguard this issue of accurate reporting of science from the media to the public.

  2. Hello! I found your title to be really interesting. Indeed, it only takes one person to do a foolish thing to give the others a bad name. The bad reputation would also continue as people start to develop other misconceptions and misunderstandings of the situation.

    I guess that it is the media who promote the public misunderstanding of science. The media does amazingly remarkable stories to spice things up just to grab the public’s attention. It is so easy to twist words and change the whole situation. I agree with you that when the media misreports on issues about health, the consequences can be a lot more serious. For example, the health benefits of drinking red wine. I would think that even similar sentences such as ‘red wine reduces the risk of heart disease’ as compared to ‘red wine is good for your health’ makes a lot of difference. Hence, I feel that in order to know the most accurate information, we just have to do our own research and read up on other articles on our part.

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