Scientists need to speak out more quickly on bad science says Financial Times

In honor of the 200-year anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, and the 150-year anniversary of the publication of the Origin of the Species, the Financial Times took a swipe at a) burgeoning scientific illiteracy, b) the mass media, and c) scientists.

Darwin, the paper noted, is not merely worth remembering for the sustained attack on evolution over the past decade, but as a symbol of the systematic degradation of evidence in public debate over science-based policies. This starts with general ignorance or faulty data or methods, is spread by the mass media, and is not stopped by the scientific community:

The campaign against the MMR vaccine, which has cost many lives by delaying the elimination of measles from Europe, demonstrates the harm that can come from ignoring overwhelming scientific evidence. A faulty study suggesting a possible link between MMR and autism was quickly picked up by anti-vaccine campaigners and amplified by the media. Scientists could have limited the damage with a quick response, pointing out the defects in the study and the evidence for the safety of MMR – but, as so often happens, they reacted slowly and reluctantly.

Mavericks are occasionally right: the few who warned in the 1980s that mad cow disease might affect humans come to mind. But any extraordinary claim must receive extraordinary scrutiny – and be weighed against all the evidence.

We need far more scientists than are available today to speak out quickly and firmly when reason is under attack. And in the long run we need a scientifically literate population, better educated about what constitutes valid evidence to support a particular viewpoint.”

It would surely surprise many journalists to know just how much contempt there is for the press among scientists in all fields. In one university department in a field of absolute critical value to public health, only one of the faculty will speak to the press, and then only on the condition that they can review their quotes in the final piece.  Another leading expert in a particular field said he didn’t bother to correct a New York Times reporter, even though that reporter totally misrepresented what he said, because he didn’t want to lose access. A leading cardiologist pronounced the media’s reporting of statistics in medicine “disgraceful” – these are just a handful of anecdotes STATS has heard in the past couple of years. What they all have in common is this: scientists will criticize the media for ripping their work and other people’s work out of context and to fit a narrative that simply doesn’t reflect the weight of evidence.  But instead of doing something about it, they just complain to each other.

Scientists will also call out their colleagues bad research at the drop of a hat: it’s not a surprise to find (or that difficult to find out) that some of the scientists whose names routinely appear in certain publications have little credibility with their peers; but don’t expect this criticism to ever make it on the record. Nobody wants to rock the boat or do something that could jeopardize their career.

Cardiologist Steve Nissen, who drove Congressional hearings on the safety of diabetes drug Avandia, has been torn apart by biostatisticians and endocrinologists across the U.S. for producing a study which didn’t and couldn’t say what he claimed it did; but the criticism was coded in the language of statistics: it was virtually uninterpretable to journalists covering the controversy (who do an excellent job of appearing  to know nothing about statistics to begin with), and so the public never got the message. Instead they heard Nissen declare that the toll from Avandia worse than 9/11. That’s the message they got, not that his math and methodology didn’t add up.

And so, when the Food and Drug Administration voted against giving Avandia a black box warning, the decision, instead of reassuring the public, suggested that the FDA was incapable of regulating dangerous drugs.

Unfortunately, the mass media is unlikely to get better at covering science anytime soon; in fact, it’s much more likely to get worse, as experienced journalists retire or are forced to produce news with ever decreasing amounts of reporting, and young journalists, pressured by time, effectively take dictation from press releases and activists. The loudest person shouting in a public event is often a crank, and it’s no different with science and public policy. Problem is they make news – and they make great news stories if they also happen to have a Ph.D.

This  journalistic principle that what’s new is news usually takes precedence over what, in fact, is true.  As long as  someone is found to give a “balancing” quote, the story is journalistically kosher for publication. This is *not* how science determines what is true. A new study with a dramatic finding has to be replicated before it gains credence, which is why scientific truth always leans on the existing weight of evidence and gives that precedence. In other words, the scientific narrative is always disposed to what is old and replicable, not to what is new and not yet replicated. This means that journalism and science are often opposed; their respective narratives look at new information in distinctly different ways. A scientist is unlikely to change his or her view based on one new study; but a journalist is far more likely to report what is new and treat the narrative in a way that gives precedence to the new rather than the existing body of research. Meanwhile, the public, fed new findings each day, reads only that this is what “science says” or scientists “say.”

And this is why scientists, or more aptly, the bodies that represent science – the National Academies, the Institute of Medicine, the National Institutes of Health –  need to not only,  as the Financial Times put it, ” speak out quickly and firmly when reason is under attack,” but to explain the reasoning behind good and bad science.

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