In recent months headlines and feature articles the world over were dominated by a single news story; a story which inspired outrage, shock and disbelief. Even a few threats to the source of the story and a significant amount of online bile and vitriol. The cause of this impassioned furor? Alleged changes to astrological signs. Seriously. And as if to compound the insult with injury the entire debacle amounted to little more than journalistic confusion between the science of astronomy and the superstition of astrology. But this in merely indicative of an existing larger problem between science and mainstream media.
One of these diagrams is based on serious and intensive scientific research. The other is based on vague generalities and total nonsense. Having trouble telling which is which? A glistening career in journalism may await you!
So how did this happen and why does it matter? The story erupted in January when it was widely reported that an extra sign, Ophiuchus, had entered the zodiac and consequently the traditional 12 sign system would have to be expanded to a 13 strong zodiac, resulting in star signs borders being redrawn. A claim based on a misunderstood conflation - The phenomena behind the apparent change was axial precession, which is the slow change in the rotational axis of any astronomical body, in this case the earth. This induced wobble has the net effect of changing the earth's rotation relative alignment with various constellations, meaning a considerable discrepancy between the tabled star sign and the actual alignment of the earth and constellation. When Astronomer Parke Kunkle explained this discrepancy to the Minnesota Star, they ran it as sensational and other newspapers worldwide churned it out.
Kunkle himself is perplexed by the media frenzy over what is well known in astronomy. "Astronomers have known about this since about 130 B.C.. This is not new news. Almost every astronomy class talks about it." Kunkle's surprise is understandable - The changing relative position of the earth with the constellations has been well understood for many centuries and has frequently appeared in criticism of astrology. Ophiuchus itself has been known since Roman antiquity. And to make the situation more ridiculous as if it weren't enough already, orbital precession has no effect on the tropical or western astrology, which sets its reference points as the tropics and is thus not affected by axial precession; certain astrology such as Hindu Jyotish use a different zodiac and are affected by precession but this is in no way a new finding. Those who truly want to believe that star signs matter can remain blissfully anthropocentric. In essence the uproar showcased two things; firstly some people devoutly believe that arbitrary connections between giant masses of hydrogen undergoing nuclear fusion somehow influence their personalities and lifestyle, which is daft but well known so we won't dwell on it. Secondly, and more worryingly, it shows that hundreds of media outlets and newspapers will run a stupid story verbatim even if it would take all of 20 seconds on Wikipedia to refute it. And therein lies a serious problem.
Warning - May contain cited facts that render an article nonsense. Not that facts always matter.
In a case like this, the entire situation is just laughable - the mere notion that astrology, an obvious and thoroughly debunked pseudoscience, would suddenly start paying heed to science is charmingly delusional. What is striking, and deeply worrying, is how exactly this obviously stupid story got reported as fact in reputable news sources from NBC to the Irish Times. The misunderstanding was in plain site and the source was hardly reputable, yet media outlets world wide ran it as fact. The increasing practice of running a press release or a news wire story without checking the contents was coined "churnalism" by BBC journalist Waseem Zakir; "You get copy coming in on the wires and reporters churn it out, processing stuff and maybe adding the odd local quote. It's affecting every newsroom in the country and reporters are becoming churnalists".
Zakir sees this as part of a trend of journalist moving from being proactive to merely reactive. And he is not alone in saying that; an editorial in British Journalism Review described it as ""...a harbinger of the end of news journalism as we know it, the coroner's verdict can be nothing other than suicide". As an aside, I wrote to my local paper of record the Irish Times after they ran it as a fact, pointing out it was easily refutable in both a letter to the editor and a short article explaining the reason why, offered free of charge. Several similar minded acquaintances of mine did the same thing to their papers. No correction was ever printed and needless to say our rectification never saw the light of print.
C'est la vie.
Repeating empty stories verbatim might be merely unfortunate in some cases, but it is lethal for public understanding of Science and Medicine; advances in the field of Science and medicine are reported in peer-reviewed journals. They are transparent but often complex and written in formal academic language to make findings as unambiguous as possible. As a result, they tend to not exactly be Dan Brown style page turners but their existence is vital. Understandably, the general public don't read them and instead rely on mainstream media to herald new discoveries and finding to them. But if the press becomes merely reactive, it allows dubious practices to crop up, with disastrous ramifications.
Unlikely scientific style writing. This may or may not be a bad thing.
One of the most obvious and annoying is science by press conference - instead of going through peer review and rigorous testing; an inept or perhaps nefarious scientist or doctor can go straight to the media and hold a press conference. This is usually transparent to an academic but may not be to a layperson. Andrew Wakefield went to the media in 1998 claiming that the MMR vaccine caused autism without an inkling of actual proof to support this drastic assertion; it didn't matter and the story spread - aided and abetted my an absolutely staggeringly atrocious performance by British media. Ben Goldacre chronicles the event meticulously in his book "Bad Science" (a vital purchase if you don't already have it.) but the important thing to note is by 2002 10% of ALL science stories were about MMR. And 80% of these stories were written not by science/medicine writers, but by generalist reporters.
Goldacre sums it succinctly; "...Suddenly we were getting comment and advice on complex matters of immunology and epidemiology from people who would more usually have been telling us about a funny thing that happened with the au pair on the way to a dinner party". Anti - MMR campaigners developed a knack for targeting their stories at non-science journalists and the misinformed diatribes continued unabated; UK broadsheets created the utterly false impression that there was a medical basis for mistrusting MMR vaccines. The Telegraph described Wakefield as "a champion of patients". But there was an even darker side to this media driven panic with consequences beyond Wakefield; panicked parents refused to get their kids vaccinated and children died. Lots of children in fact. Wakefield has finally be struck off the register and proven to be fraudulent (which we will talk about in a bit) but the blame for that senseless scaremongering does not lie solely at his feet and mainstream media deserves an equal share of the blame.
Coincidentally, the title of Wakefield's autobiography also sums up his attitude to medical ethics. Note also the foreword by that great bastion of the scientific method Jenny McCarthy. Well I'm sold, are you?
The same basic pattern is seen all too often. While media exists to report on a story, a little sensationalism or boldness doesn't hurt in shifting copy. The downside is that this tends to create a false impression in the minds of non-scientists, and is a recipe for letting odious motivations masquerade as scientific opinion. One common example is selectively reporting to make disagreement within the scientific community seem greater than it actually is, and by implication smear the research. An exceptionally malignant example of this was attempts by the Discovery Institute (it's hard to know if the irony is intentional) and the wider Intelligent Design movement (an inadvertent oxymoron?) to paint evolution as a theory in crisis. Essentially, despite evolution being supported by overwhelming scientific evidence creationists object to it because it contradicts their literal interpretation of the bible - so they reason (and I hesitate to use that word as it doesn't seem fitting) that reality, rather than their archaic source material is obviously at fault. Obviously. Their solution? "Teach the controversy" - a classic example of a manufactured controversy, or manufactroversy for those fond of their portmanteaus. The trick is almost Machiavellian - cherry pick some 'experts' exaggerate uncertainties or gaps in the science, attack or smear individual scientists and insist the media report 'both sides' of the story. Which they almost invariably do, giving credence to pathetic arguments with ulterior motives. Throwing in the odd scientific/medical community conspiracy doesn't hurt either. A manufactured controversy aims to neutralize the findings of researchers but this devious strategy only works if the media get behind it with an uncritical eye. Which they all too often do - a situation called a false balance. A situation which can only be nullified by educated evaluation of science journalists. Global warming controversy, vaccination scares and AIDS denial are yet more examples of the same thing.
The Flintstones : A classic creationist documentary.
But to be fair to journalists, they are under a lot of pressure, between deadlines and the need to write engaging stories. Many journalists simply don't have the basic training in the scientific method to question what they are told and there are many who exploit that knowledge gap; a competent journalist may be unafraid to ask questions about politics or business and challenge anything that is misleading but science is a intimidating nut to crack, meaning good scientific/medical findings are presented alongside pseudo scientific nonsense because in some instances, the highly pressurised journalist hasn't the time or relevant understanding to examine the claims. This is depressing but there are some journalists and writers who have made it their mission to stem the tides of nonsense. Take Brian Deer; when the British media were for the most part singing the praises of Wakefield, Deer investigated a little deeper and found not only was the scare an outright fabrication but Wakefield was being pay-rolled to create evidence against the shot. Thanks in part to the dogged work of Deer, Wakefield was investigated and struck off the register. Writers like the previously mentioned Ben Goldacre and fellow journalist Simon Singh robustly question bad science and challenge those promoting it. Singh himself recently won a lawsuit taken against him by the British Chiropractic Association for questioning their claims, an action that was long, expensive and utterly pointless for them. The delicious Irony was the attempts by the BCA to suppress Singh led to much greater bad coverage for chiropractors, a textbook example of the Streisand effect. If we look to writers as well as journalists, James Randi and Derren Brown are two examples of those openly willing to examine and debunk erroneous claims and in doing so improve the public understanding of science.
The work of these writers is highly praise-worthy but the big question is what else can be done? Carl Sagan once said, "We live in a society absolutely dependent on science and technology and yet have cleverly arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. That's a clear prescription for disaster". He is correct, but it doesn't have to be this way. We need to bridge the culture gap between science and media - and to do that we need many more scientists in media with the requisite training to evaluate evidence critically and the ability to dismiss dodgy science from publication. I cannot stress this strongly enough; the contribution to both pubic understanding and the quality of the resultant publication would be phenomenal. The scientific and medical community, for their part, need to better explain their findings to those in journalism and media to prevent any misunderstandings and to consult on any doubts. A synergy of science and journalism combining the evidence based nature of science with the explanatory power of journalism means that we can avoid that Saganistic disaster and everyone benefits. And if we don't change anything? George Bernard Shaw is often claimed to have stated, "Newspapers are unable, seemingly, to discriminate between a bicycle accident and the collapse of civilisation". He may yet have a point.
A bicycle accident; not to be confused with the collapse of civilization.
David Robert Grimes writes a science and medicine blog at 3menmakeatiger.blogspot.com and recently obtained a PhD in Medical Physics from Dublin City University. He is an active musician, actor and writer.