Doctor Claudia Schaffner is a local scientist and academic who delivered our Skeptics on the Fringe talk for Saturday, August 9, when she discussed a pet peeve of hers (and of many scientists), which is the way the press tends to report (or, perhaps more accurately, misreport) science. With headlines written to grab our attention, scientific findings are often exaggerated in the press or essentially downright fabricated. Claudia went through some of the common tropes you’ll find in science reporting, with an emphasis on the kinds of headlines you’ll come across and the ways in which the press shield themselves from accountability in misleading reporting. For example, ending a statement with a question mark; “X causes Y?” Or perhaps by appealing to “studies” thusly; “X causes Y, study says.” Or phrasing the headline as a yes-or-no question; “Does X cause Y?” Claudia could not emphasise enough that when a headline about scientific findings is phrased that way, the answer is almost always “no”.
The most common example we’re all familiar with of this kind of reporting is the claims made in the press that various substances or lifestyles cause cancer. In fact, it’s become something of a joke; according to the Daily Mail, just about everything causes cancer… and according to the Daily Mail, just about everything also prevents cancer. But of course, whenever someone talks about a cure for cancer, our baloney detectors should go straight to red alert; as Claudia said in her talk, cancer is not just one thing that can be fixed by just one thing. There will be cures to types of cancer, but no single magic bullet that will cure all cancer forever. But while we laugh at the simplistic way that tabloids report on magic cures to cancer through exotic “superfoods” or even chocolate, there is a darker side to this. We’ve all been touched by cancer in some way, because we all known people who’ve been the victims of it. It is an ever present fear in the human psyche, so we want to believe that we can cure it or change something in our lifestyles to avoid it. But the constant reporting of substances that can cure, prevent, or cause cancer undermines public confidence in medical science and, while the press are quick to put out eye-catching headlines, even when they’re misleading, they’re not so quick to put out retractions when they’ve misrepresented science, leaving their audience misinformed.
There is arguably no more tragic case of this kind of irresponsible science reporting than in the Andrew Wakefield case, where the now disgraced Wakefield published extremely dubious findings in the Lancet linking the MMR vaccine to autism. The tabloid press had a field day with this study when it came out in the late 90’s, and it has led to a generation of parents afraid to vaccinate their children. Consequently, in communities with lesser rates of vaccination, measles and mumps have started to return. And these are not poor communities; often they are the more affluent neighbourhoods of western cities. The damage done by one poor study, with an abysmal sample set of only twelve children, thanks to the way it was given so much publicity by a sensationalist press, is appalling. And even though many subsequent studies, with sample sets of thousands, have found no link between the MMR vaccine and autism, the damage has been done, and the press is in no hurry to correct its mistakes. But as Claudia reminded us, vaccination is one of the safest medical interventions there is.
So, what can we do top prevent cancer and live longer, healthier lives? As Claudia showed us, we already know the answer; eat a balanced diet with as little processed foods as possible, stay active and get plenty of exercise, and get the right amount of rest. In other words, mundane, boring solutions that take actual effort. And human beings being pretty lazy creatures by nature, we all want that magic bullet solution — the cure-all that will defeat death forever and can be obtained by the common person with minimal effort. But such things do not exist. We may make historic breakthroughs in medicine that extend the human lifespan — indeed we have done in the past — but they only happen every so often, which is why they are historic. Everyday science is a much slower process of building upon the knowledge we already have. A final, crucial point that Claudia made was that, no matter how irrelevant a study may seem, the public should support it, because great discoveries come from unexpected places; aspirin, made from willow bark, didn’t come about by medical scientists specifically looking for painkillers, it came from botany, the study of plants. As Isaac Asimov said, the greatest discoveries aren’t usually accompanied by someone saying, “Eureka!” so much as, “Hmm… that’s funny…”
Claudia’s talk was animated and entertaining, with an excellent balance of humour and seriousness. She helped to arm the audience with the knowledge we all need to recognise poor science reporting when we see it, whether it’s in the Daily Mail or the somewhat more reputable Guardian. There was a lively questions and answers session afterwards, in which some valid observations were made, including the surprising revelation that the Daily Mail actually has some of the most scientifically informed journalists in the business, leading us to conclude that, while the journalists may sometimes know what they’re talking about, editors clearly do not (or, more worryingly, they don’t care), and it is they who ultimately decide what their news outlets say. All round, a fantastic talk for a first time speaker but long time friend of Edinburgh Skeptics.