Silly Season

Cärlchen Jupp wants the government and the media to get a grip on science.

academic excellence homeopathy Jeremy Hunt scientific integrity

October was apparently silly season for scientists.

It’s a well-known fact that most politicians know absolutely nothing about science – take Jeremy Hunt’s views on promoting homeopathy – but recently, this dangerous phenomenon has gone viral. It’s bad enough that we are always simply referred to as ‘scientists have said’ when an evidence-based theory is developed, almost as though it is naturally to be regarded as suspicious, but the anti-science brigade is on the attack, and they seem to be winning.

This time it’s not the moron creationists who are causing havoc – it’s the mainstream media, slavishly followed by thousands of people who gave up science at GCSE, who expect a balanced report from so-called reputable sources. Although a certain right wing hate promoting paper has a reputation for claiming most things cause or cure cancer (immigrants, gays, you name it), they are all at it – and it risks undermining the UK as a centre of excellence.

Take the past few weeks. In Italy, scientists were jailed for giving an honest and evidence-based opinion on whether an earthquake was going to happen or not, whilst clearly stating that their opinion was not definitive, and nor could it be. They decided it was very unlikely there would be one, and said so. An earthquake did happen. People died. Outrage.

The problem is that a government official, also on the panel, misunderstood the situation, and seemingly falsely reassured people. So he’s in jail now. But so are the scientists. For six years. For giving an evidence-based view. This is quite clearly an attack on scientists doing their job, even if it doesn’t give the answer people want. All predictions contain risk, as people would understand if they actually spent five seconds trying to understand the nature of science.

But not so for the consistently banal Simon Jenkins, who last week stated that they were justly punished and that science needs to get back in its place. We’re out of control, you see, with no controls and extreme power. It would, of course, be ridiculous to expect people like Jenkins or the government official, or indeed any member of the public, to actually look at what’s being said and try to understand the concept of risk, theory and evidence. That might require actual work, rather than writing ill-informed shite for the Guardian.

But the BBC is little better. Their health coverage is notoriously useless, but this week they outdid themselves on the breast cancer screening scare. It turns out that of the many women screened and then treated for breast cancer, many didn’t need this treatment, as the cancer would never have caused them more problems. The BBC helpfully interviewed two women with contrasting views and then broadcast this as an example of ‘investigative journalism’ (this time not blocked by Newsnight).What was completely ignored by the presenters of the Today Programme and the following press reports was that there is no way of telling which tumour might become problematic later in life, and that this is essentially a retrospective study.

So, in essence, many lives are still saved by screening, it’s just that our ability to tell whether it will definitely save your life is not yet honed. But crap-artist reporting like this will end up killing people, or put scientists and doctors off ever giving an opinion in case they get sued or jailed. You only have to look at the doctor sued by the patient who out-lived the doctor’s projection of life expectancy to realise we are in a very, very weirdly screwed up place.

And the fault lies directly at the feet of the idiots in the media who write anything for a cheap story, rather than for public benefit.So we can soldier on as best we can, but those who need to make the difference are those who deal in the public understanding of science, and those who don’t ‘identify’ as scientists. Science is not in any way scary or hard to understand – and we need to make that abundantly clear. And those who really want to know the meaning of the theories or predictions – don’t rely on the media. Because, according to all the evidence, it is shit.