Reporting on controversies in science

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Scientific controversy is fascinating, but do you ensure the reportage is responsible, accurate and interesting? Tim Radford explains.


Should science writers seek or exploit controversy? Science works by debate — which is simply another word for controversy. So does journalism. People open their newspapers or browse online news sites hoping to be surprised, provoked, enraged, disgusted, challenged, titillated, amused, entertained and informed. I cannot imagine anyone reading a story headlined "Dangerous criminals should be locked up — but only if they are really guilty, says judge" or "Mammals are warm-blooded: zoologist’s claim rocks animal world".


The word ‘controversial’ is often abused by journalists or dismissively used about their reports, but controversy is innately interesting: it is one of ordinary people’s pleasures to watch experts squabble and professors engage in academic brawls.


Inquisitive, sceptical — and fair


Some controversies may be safer to report than others. There is much seemingly scientific bickering and confusion, for instance, over diet and dietary supplements and their links with health. Here reporters should use their common sense. If scientists report that garlic pills reduce the risk of heart attacks, the first question to ask is who paid for this research? If it is the garlic pill manufacturers’ federation, you should already know what to think. But at least garlic pills won’t kill people.


Other controversies are not really about the validity of the science: they are about whether the science should proceed at all. When a team in Scotland first cloned Dolly the sheep, they achieved something astounding, difficult and not immediately medically useful.


But they provoked a worldwide debate driven by political alarm, religious concern and ethical consternation: would it be right to clone humans? Most people weren’t interested in whether it would be economical, safe or even possible: that is, they were not interested in the science itself, but in the direction that it seemed to be pointing. The same is true for current arguments over embryo stem cell therapy, which has yet to contribute to a single reliable medical success.


Journalists are obliged to be inquisitive, sceptical and fair to all sides of the debate. They cannot be sure of being right, but they can try to be responsible.


Still, there are some ‘science’ stories that verge on lunacy. I was delighted some years ago to see dozens of US reporters simply walk out of a press conference at which a psychologist claimed to have established that some racial lineages were more intelligent than others. To report such a claim at all, even to dismiss it, would have provided bogus ammunition for some unwholesome political movements.


Other issues are a matter of judgement. There are engineers who claim that Apollo astronauts faked their moon landings in 1969, creation scientists who dispute the Darwinian theory of evolution, and politicians and commentators who argue that AIDS is not transmitted by HIV infection. Just remember there will always be people who wilfully deny the most obvious truths and prefer to believe evidence for these truths is a result of worldwide conspiracy.


Who to believe?


There are also areas where science and culture are in simple conflict. Astronomers routinely say that astrology has no scientific basis. Still, billions go on consulting their horoscopes. How does a reporter know whom to believe? There are many cases where science really has done its homework, and orthodoxy really has established its authority. If in doubt, consult two or three scientists in appropriate university departments.


But remember that mostly scientists will be telling you something that seems to be the case, at that moment, on the evidence of the latest research. They are unlikely to be lying (see Spotting fraudulent claims in science). But they may be mistaken, misled or just too fond of a theory to give it up. If in doubt, talk to a scientist from a competing research group.


It seems to be a rule in journalism that if you speak to one scientist, you get a clear picture of cause and effect. If you speak to two, the picture becomes perceptibly less clear — with two differing interpretations of essentially the same big story.


For example, one scientist could argue convincingly that people who drink fruit juice benefit from natural antioxidants that block tumours, prevent heart disease and preserve intellectual faculty. Another will point out that frequent fruit consumption could be a symptom, so to speak, of better education and greater health awareness, both of which are linked with longer and healthier lives. Both agree that fruit juice drinking is part of the link, but one is emphasising that it may not be the direct link.


Scientists may also have a bias that unwittingly affects their point of view. They could be employees of big business, for example, or researchers for a particular medical charity, agents of political decision-making or would-be members of a scientific society. If in doubt, consult another scientist in the same field.


Distinguished scientists tend to be more confident, and more persuasive, than younger researchers; but they are, in some cases, just as likely to be wrong. Lord Rutherford — famous for splitting the atom — was convinced that atomic energy could never be harnessed.


Sometimes it pays to listen to young, eager scientists: they are more patient, more interested in the ambiguities within their own discoveries, and more open to scientific possibilities. It doesn’t mean they are right. But it does mean you will hear more about the complexity of certain fields of research. This is itself rewarding and instructive for any journalist. It doesn’t, of course, make it easier to find that snappy first sentence that will push its way onto the front page, but then politics and economics are never simple. Why should science be easy to understand?


A reporter’s job is to report the latest evidence, the latest twist in a debate. Sometimes this is not a problem. When two scientists announce that they have discovered a tiny but measurable 28-day variation in global temperatures which coincides with the full moon, then you have a simple story: scientists have established the heat of a moonbeam. It’s a first. It’s deliciously pointless, useless information, but it’s a good story all the same.


But if a team of epidemiologists report in a serious medical journal a link between (I am making this up) eating fried potatoes and having Alzheimer’s disease, be very wary. A quick check with the cuttings library, the dementia research team at your local university, or the Alphagalileo and Eurekalert internet archives of scientific press releases, will tell you that the frequency of Alzheimer’s has also been linked in equally reputable journals by equally respectable teams to smoking, coffee-drinking, tea-drinking, educational achievement and red wine consumption. If you report the fried potato link, you should also have a paragraph that says, "This is only the latest in a bewildering procession of claims that have included …" It’s another way of saying: this is interesting research but don’t stop frying your potatoes just yet.


Preferring the particular


Most scientists would prefer that science reporting be sober and inconclusive — but don’t even think of it. Science reporting is not privileged. Most people are not interested in ‘science’. They are interested in what they eat, what makes them sick, why they feel miserable, how they get better and what makes them die.

They do not, as far as they are aware, want to know about general advances in virology, neuroscience, drug design or gerontology. But you can get them interested in the antioxidant properties of Chilean wine, the killer tactics of the HIV and Ebola virus, or why some musicians have perfect pitch. This has nothing to do with being anti-science. It has to do with people’s preference for the particular, rather than the general.

This is the reality of all journalism. Nobody buys a newspaper to reflect on the epistemology of team games as an index of communal confidence through the ages. They buy it to read about whether Germany could beat Brazil. They don’t absorb science news as if it was value-free information: they also want to know why this or that science is being done, and indeed whether it should be done. All these things involve preference, and point of view, and debate — or to put it another way, controversy.

Tim Radford is the former science editor of The Guardian

This article was previously part of SciDev.Net’s e-guide to science communication and has been reformatted to become this practical guide.