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Way off balance: science and the mainstream media

When a relationship goes off course, it can be hard to refocus attention. Digitalnative

THE STATE OF SCIENCE: Has there been a communication breakdown between science and the media and, if so, is the damage terminal? In the concluding instalment of our series, Stephan Lewandowsky and Steve Sherwood take the pulse of a troubled relationship.

Some marriages are made in heaven, others end in divorce. And then there are those that drag on until both partners have One Foot in the Grave.

What about the marriage between science and the media?

Few would think it was made in heaven. And parts of the media probably deserve to be divorced for reasons that have already been discussed on The Conversation.

That leaves most of science and much of the media in an uneasy and never-ending alliance much like the Mildrews. There is considerable mutual misunderstanding but somehow there is never more than one foot in the grave.

What contributes to the uneasy relationship between science and the media?

Volumes could be written on this issue, and here we focus on only one factor; namely, the implications of the different conversational “frames” that apply in science and in the media.

Science proceeds in a frame of scepticism. Scepticism means we are prepared to give up ideas that are unsupported by evidence. In graduate school we learn to distinguish carefully between what is supported by evidence and what we merely suspect. Scientists operate in an environment of deliberation and rigorous mutual cross-checking.

Only those ideas that survive peer review are published in journals. Some have likened peer review to a gladiator being thrown into a den of lions: only the very fittest survive.

By contrast, most commentators in the media are not held to the same standard: they have not had the habit of caution and scepticism beaten into them by their Ph.D. supervisor. Some editors may pursue an agenda, and most journalists count on people to forget and move on quickly. The media thrive on conflict, and at least tacitly believe conflicting opinions usually have equal validity – quite the opposite of science, which is built on the weeding out of bad ideas.

These diverging conversational frames can produce perverse results in public discussions of science.

There are several core belief systems with which journalists approach their work, but a common approach is to present “every side” of the story irrespective of how likely it is to be true and irrespective of the credibility of the source.

A scientific expert is no more privileged to be heard than, say, the representative of an industry whose profits are imperilled by scientific findings. The public, after all, should be able to weigh those two opposing positions appropriately.

What could possibly be the problem with that?

An analogy helps to show what can go wrong. Suppose your doctors and your plumber volunteer differing medical advice. Every doctor you ask urges you to have surgery to save your life. But your plumber learns of this and tells you everything is fine except you should perhaps smoke a little more to lose some weight.

Most of us would ignore the plumber and follow the doctor’s advice.

But what if we learned what was going on only through the media? First off, they would probably present the two views on a nearly equal footing, perhaps by arranging a debate between the doctor and the plumber.

If that sounds far-fetched, remember that Australia’s Channel 7 recently dragged a connoisseur of cat palmistry in front of the camera to opine about climate change. Yes, this actually happened …

In principle the public may be able to decide whether the plumber is credible. But what if people are told only that each individual has some (unspecified) professional qualification? Or are not told that doctor bills might put and end to the patient’s plans to replumb the bathroom?

Or that the doctor’s opinions were sought, while the plumber jumped in on his own? Alas, with the exception of The Conversation, which insists on competence as well as declarations of vested interests, the Australian media routinely fail to reveal relevant background.

But there is another problem.

While the media tends to treat all views as equal regardless of who holds them, huge disparities lurk in the background and tilt the tables. The forces of scepticism are still at work, but only for the expert.

If the doctor commits an error in any way, you can sue for malpractice. But the plumber’s plumbing license is at no risk whatsoever, no matter how outrageous his medical advice. And the cat palmist can say anything he wants about any field of science because he is accountable to no-one.

This creates the strange phenomenon of asymmetric warfare: while the media grant equal time to both sides, they tend to hone in on errors by members of mainstream science, however minor, while leaving egregious misstatements by others unexamined.

For example, an incorrect citation buried in one IPCC report as to the year by which Himalayan glaciers are expected to melt made global headlines, notwithstanding the fact those glaciers are melting, with potentially adverse consequences for millions of people, and that the error was irrelevant to the broader debate.

At the same time, Australian mainstream media continue to give space and airtime to climate contrarians with little if any mention of their serial errors, which dwarf the sole typo of the IPCC into utter insignificance.

Science can thus suffer a “double-whammy” in the media: first, media often “balance” scientists with people whose opposing views arise out of incompetence or vested interest, without providing the background information necessary for the public to adjudicate between the individuals. Second, while the media scrutinise scientists (as they should!), there is often little or no accountability of the plumbers and cat palmists.

This means doubt can be cast on just about any scientific conclusion, whether relating to HIV and AIDS, the dangers of mobile phones or immunisations, the dangers of smoking or a host of others.

The net result is that the media can fail a country, as they have failed Australia in the case of climate change.

What can be done about this?

On the side of science, there is every reason for scientists to speak plainly.

On the side of the media, there must be recognition that not all opinions have equal merit, but that all opinions deserve equal scrutiny so that they can be presented in their proper context.

Those issues are best illustrated by the conclusions of a recent BBC Trust review of the impartiality and accuracy of the BBC’s science coverage: “The BBC needs to continue to be careful when reporting on science to make a distinction between an opinion and a fact.”

“When there is a consensus of opinion on scientific matters, providing an opposite view without consideration of ‘due weight’ can lead to ‘false balance’, meaning that viewers might perceive an issue to be more controversial than it actually is.”

The report also determined that: “For at least three years, the climate change deniers have been marginal to the scientific debate but somehow they continued to find a place on the airwaves. Their ability to do so suggests that an over‐diligent search for due impartiality – or for a controversy – continue to hinder the objective reporting of a scientific story …”

Not all opinions have equal merit, and if opinions are balanced without first being equally scrutinised, the public – by which we mean everyone – is misled.

This is the fourteenth – and final – part of The State of Science. To read the other instalments, follow the links below.

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