Journalists need to be sensitive to the cultural context of science stories
Flickr/ Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Science journalists must help to root out misleading scientific claims, but not without sensitivity to culture and the limitations of science.
Over the past few years, Western journalists and commentators have increasingly attacked spurious scientific claims, exposing them as "bad science". 
The targets of their attacks range from claims that the MMR vaccine against three childhood diseases (measles, mumps and rubella) raises the risk of autism, to denials of the scientific consensus that global warming is primarily the result of human activities.
Several practices that have come under fire take place in the developing world. Some are relatively low-risk, such as homeopathic medicine. Others may have more harmful consequences.
The belief of former South African president Thabo Mbeke, for example, that there is no causal link between HIV infection and AIDS, led to the government's reluctance to pay for antiretroviral treatment, resulting in an estimated 300,000 deaths. Criticism of Mbeke's stance only seemed to harden his position.
All such claims need to be contested. Science journalists, and bloggers, have an important role in this process. But the criticisms need a dose of cultural sensitivity if they are to be effective — and to avoid a potentially counter-productive backlash.
This is not to say that culture alone should determine how science is interpreted. But science journalists and commentators should not overlook the limitations of Western science as a way of understanding all aspects of the world, and thus of improving the quality of life.
Where 'bad science' is exposed, the warning is clear: those who ignore the findings of modern science do so at their peril. At best, the argument goes, using bad science can lead to wasted resources. And at worst, it can delay action — to curtail global warming, for example, or protect people against a fatal disease.
The value of such warnings is obvious. Any society that promotes the idea that decisions should, where possible, be based on the best available scientific evidence must also be able to distinguish between good and bad science in order to judge what evidence counts as the best available.
But making such a distinction can appear to be asserting the superiority of Western science over other forms of knowledge, including traditional knowledge, and the belief systems on which they are based. And it can be perceived as furthering the economic and political goals of Western nations (often former colonial powers) in the developing world.
One such case was the opposition to vaccination campaigns against polio in northern Nigeria at the beginning of the last decade. The argument made by Muslim political leaders was that the vaccines produced by Western pharmaceutical companies were being used as a surreptitious way of reducing male fertility — and thus population growth.
So effective was their message that the vaccination campaign stopped in its tracks. And subsequently, spread of the disease delayed global eradication. The experience is a sobering reminder that, even if the science is right (or 'good'), it may not be enough to ensure that it is used effectively.
Public health professionals need to be sensitive to the cultural and political environment in which they operate, and in particular to factors which may lead to solid scientific evidence being rejected.
For example, researchers only recently found that the tropical disease Buruli ulcer is caused by a bacterium. Lacking a medical explanation, people often believe it represents a curse made by one villager against another — so sufferers have traditionally been kept hidden. Such beliefs will need to be taken on board in planning prevention strategies to counter the disease.
These cases spell out the danger facing sceptics who bemoan the ease with which 'bad science' can be peddled to a credulous population, whether in the developed or the developing world. Accusing someone of being naïve, or worse bigoted, in believing a particular argument is unlikely to change their mind.
Without question, revealing the flaws in such arguments is important. This may include emphasising the lack of reliable evidence of effectiveness that can withstand rigid scientific scrutiny.
Science journalists, and their colleagues in the blogging community, are well placed to help with this task. They have a responsibility to not only explain the significance and potential impact of new scientific discoveries, but also to challenge suspect claims to scientific validity.
Strengths and weaknesses
But like other sceptics, science journalists need to develop a sensitivity to the cultural setting in which they are reporting. This can mean going beyond the headline facts of a story — such as the rejection of polio vaccines in northern Nigeria — to unveil the social and political factors behind them.
It also requires developing an awareness of both the strengths and limitations of the scientific method. The strengths lie in the robustness of experimental techniques that distinguish reliable from unreliable knowledge, the key distinction between 'good' and 'bad' science.
Its weakness, however, lies in encouraging a form of hubris where modern science is seen as the only source of reliable knowledge — and discounting, for example, applications of traditional knowledge that may have served communities well for centuries or offer an alternative where science provides limited insight.
The ability to expose and root out 'bad science' should be an essential part of any science journalist's skills. This requires an understanding of how claims can be tested for their robustness (for example, by controlled trials in the case of new drugs).
But some scepticism towards science itself should also be part of this skills set. This should include a reluctance to accept without scrutiny everything that is said in the name of science, even by eminent scientists.
Alexander Ademokun ( United Kingdom )
16 January 2012
Thanks for this editorial. Whilst I agree with the nuance of the editorial that covering scientific stories should not be removed from the cultural context in which they occur I disagree with some points. You refer to ‘western’ science but I don’t see anything inherently ‘western’ in the scientific method. I think the term implies an alternative ‘eastern’ or ‘southern’ scientific method against which ‘western’ science competes.
I also think that the term ‘bad’ science refers to slightly different things in the examples used. For instance, the MMR issue was a case of ‘bad’ science in an academic sense in that both experimental design and interpretation of results were flawed (the role of the media in this case is another debate entirely); the Mbeki/HIV/SA policy issue was a case of bad and indeed discredited science meeting bad policymaking. The Nigerian polio story had little to do with the science behind the vaccines but reflected a mixture of sociopolitical factors which are very well reviewed here: http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pmed.0040073
I think the issue of scepticism and the cultural context are very relevant but that does not mean journalists should find ways to balance coverage of flawed/discredited science but rather find culturally sensitive ways to report the ‘good’ science.
RD ( The Carbon Trap | United States of America )
16 January 2012
Accepting without scrutiny such as 'green technology' is clean energy?
Take wind turbines for instance. The press touts how clean it is. Read www.iags.org/rareearth0310hurst.pdf and you’ll see that each large wind turbines requires a massive amount of rare earth elements (REE), upwards of 4,000 pounds. REEs are 97 per cent monopolized by China, so the manner in which they mine and refine them should matter to environmentalists. When you promote wind turbines, you also have to accept the process to make the components can be extremely dirty.
According to an article published by the Chinese Society of Rare Earths, 'Every ton of rare earth produced, generates approximately 8.5 kilograms of fluorine and 13 kilograms of dust; and using concentrated sulfuric acid high temperature calcination techniques to produce approximately one ton of calcined rare earth ore generates 9,600 to 12,000 cubic meters of waste gas containing dust concentrate, hydrofluoric acid, sulfur dioxide, and sulfuric acid, approximately 75 cubic meters of acidic wastewater, and about one ton of radioactive waste residue (containing water).' Furthermore, according to statistics conducted within Baotou, where China’s primary rare earth production occurs, 'all the rare earth enterprises in the Baotou region produce approximately ten million tons of all varieties of wastewater every year’ and most of that waste water is ‘discharged without being effectively treated, which not only contaminates potable water for daily living, but also contaminates the surrounding water environment and irrigated farmlands.'
The disposal of tailings, which are the ground up materials left behind once the rare earth has been extracted, often contain thorium, which is radioactive. According the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, producing one ton of rare earth elements creates 2,000 tons of mine tailings. And much of these tailings have gone into the Yellow River, which dumps into the Pacific.
investigator ( United Kingdom )
16 January 2012
We must be aware when something has not been tested by science, such as natural alternatives to synthetic medicine. Most of the testing / trials in medicine is funding by pharma companies. They are not going to test potential natural solutions as their is no motive for them to do so. Indeed as they cannot patent them there is an opposite motive. It's interesting that people on the net are claiming be be cured by natural solutions. The BBC's programme "grow your own drugs" showed many great results for people where normal medicine has failed them. My point: just because it is not backed up by peer review does not mean it is not true. It just means it has not been peer reviewed. And the reason is a problem in how we fund science. Journalists - please be aware of this.
Kirsty Newman ( United Kingdom )
17 January 2012
Thanks for an interesting article David. I think the part which I agree with most is the need to be respectful to people's beliefs. It is all too easy to dismiss people who believe in 'bad science' as stupid or even evil- but this is not helpful or true. To use the example of MMR vaccine, parents who choose not to give their kids the vaccine, genuinely believe that they are doing the best for their children- we need to respect that.
I would however echo some of the points that Alex makes above. While I think we should be respectful of people's beliefs, I don't think this is unique to developing countries. I worry about falling into the trap of thinking that science is a western belief system imposed on the rest of the world. Number 1, science is not a belief system it’s a methodology- a way to test beliefs that tries to reduce subjectivity; Number 2- as Alex points out, it is certainly not owned by the West.
leaf ( Philippines )
30 January 2012
More trainings on science journalist and further investigation to prove that issue please.
Luisetta Mudie ( United Kingdom )
30 January 2012
It is precisely the belief of Western scientific practitioners that they are on the right track that renders science Western, as well as potentially blind to its own subjectivity. The relationship between subject and object is culturally constructed and therefore limited, and that relationship has yielded some very valuable methods. The danger is that there is an over-compensatory need to experience oneself (and others) as scientific which is rewarded in the ecosystem by funding and approval. This carries with it the danger of creating a closed metaphor which finds it increasingly difficult to conceive of anything outside itself. Not everyone involved this system is Western, but the meaning system was still constructed out of Western culture, and spreads readily, much like our viruses did among indigenous people. The best science always holds close the possibility of being self-critical. The new scientific evangelism and atheism is anything but scientific; it is a cultural movement drawing on the credibility of an entirely unconnected sphere of activity (scientific research) to win social reward for its adherents. One of its memes is "bad science."
All SciDev.Net material is free to reproduce providing that the source and author are appropriately credited. For further details see Creative Commons.