Is Journalism Destroying Science?
By Alex Berezow — 8 February 2018
The war on science has at least three fronts.
First, there is the widely reported political war on science, widely and erroneously believed to be waged exclusively by conservatives, when in reality, progressives are just as eager to throw science under the bus when it suits their agenda. (ACSH President Hank Campbell and I wrote an entire book about this topic, called Science Left Behind.) As a general rule, when science and political activists clash, the activists usually win.
Second, there is the legal war on science, in which unscrupulous lawyers use scientific uncertainty against science to score jackpot verdicts and settlements. All a lawyer has to do is accuse a product of causing cancer, and many companies are willing to fork over cash just to make the lawyer go away, even if the product doesn’t cause cancer. Precisely this sort of shakedown is going on right now in California, which is why the answer to the question, “Will Lawyers Destroy Science?” is an emphatic, “Yes, they absolutely could.”
Third, there is the journalistic war on science. Of the three, this one may be the most insidious, because the war is conducted in high-profile media outlets by practitioners who don’t understand science or hide behind a false pretense of “transparency” and “balance.” Indeed, the journalistic war on science is complex, because there are two different wars: an accidental war and an insidious war.
Journalists’ Accidental War on Science
The “accidental war” is carried out by usually well-meaning, but utterly clueless, science and health journalists who think they are helping communicate science but are actually undermining it. There is perhaps no better example than what happened recently: Media outlets all over the world reported that asparagus is linked to cancer. It is not. Amazingly, the research upon which these journalists based their false report didn’t even mention asparagus. No matter. The story, aided by click-bait headlines, spread around the globe in a matter of hours, attracting millions of readers.
This has happened so many times that people have become jaded by health news. They don’t know what to trust. One day vegetables cure cancer; the next, they cause cancer. The public then blames journalists for being idiots and scientists for not knowing what they’re doing, which is why bad science journalism is really bad for both science and journalism.
One of the primary culprits in the accidental war on science are university press offices. Like journalists, people who write press releases are well-meaning, but they have only one goal in mind: to get press coverage for the university. As a result, press releases are often uncritical and hyped, flowering up mediocre research as something groundbreaking and Nobel-worthy. Time-pressured journalists eat this stuff up, often literally copying-and-pasting from press releases without ever reading the original research.
For some reason, the National Association of Science Writers hands out science writing awards for press releases, which would be similar to giving an automobile communications award to a used-car salesman.
Journalists’ Insidious War on Science
The “insidious war” on science is conducted by bad actors. Some journalists, such as Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman, have books to sell, and they are allowed to make themselves rich by peddling pseudo-science in high-profile media outlets. Worse, some journalists — like the anti-GMOers Carey Gillam and Paul Thacker — are simply activists pretending to be journalists. Their intention is to smear and defame scientists who engage in research, such as studies about genetically-engineered crops, that they personally dislike.
When confronted, these “journalists” always respond the same way: they call their critics corporate shills. They falsely claim that they are providing “balance” to a debate that is dominated by industry propaganda. They claim the mantle of “transparency,” while neglecting to mention any conflicts-of-interest they or their sources might possess. Legitimate scientific challenges are dismissed, and the go-to response is an ad hominem assault. All of their critics are dupes, dishonest, or secretly on the payroll of Big Business.
As ridiculous as this strategy is, it actually works. Character assassination is extremely effective. (This is one big reason why scientists are hesitant to join public debates.) Because there is essentially no legal recourse against people who commit slander or libel, those without morals will continue to deploy this strategy. It has been used against my colleagues and me countless times.
How to Fight Back
In today’s polarized hyper-partisan climate, it is tough to see a feasible path out of this cultural quagmire. Perhaps if we all acknowledge this one fact, we can begin to make progress: People you like…aren’t always right, and people you dislike…aren’t always wrong. Only facts matter, and the truth is still the truth –– even if you hate the messenger.
Dr. Alex Berezow joined the American Council on Science and Health as Senior Fellow of Biomedical Science in May 2016. Dr. Berezow is a prolific science writer whose work has appeared in multiple outlets, including The Wall Street Journal, CNN, BBC News, The Economist, and USA Today, where he serves as a member of the Board of Contributors. He has appeared on MSNBC, Fox News, and several radio programs. In 2010, he earned a PhD degree in microbiology from the University of Washington. Originally from southern Illinois, he currently lives in Seattle.
The American Council on Science and Health (ACSH or The Council) is a science-education nonprofit organization, located in New York City, and founded in 1978 by Elizabeth Whelan. Its stated mission is to “support evidence-based science and medicine.” The current president is science writer Hank Campbell. Its core membership is a board of 350 physicians, scientists, and policy advisors who review the Council’s reports and participate in science, health, and consumer education, as well as media outreach. ACSH’s primary focus is educating the public on issues related to food, nutrition, health, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, biology, biotechnology, infectious disease, and the environment.
Elizabeth M. Whelan (1943–2014) was an American epidemiologist best known for challenging government regulations of consumer products, food, and pharmaceuticals industries that arose from what she claimed was faulty science. Because of her views and the views of the ACSH, they of course have been viciously attacked (libel and slander) by non-scientist journalists and politicians who refuse to listen or accept views that differ from their own.