Dumbing Down Science

There’s a very interesting article about media attitudes to science over at The Guardian Online today. While regular readers of the blog will know I have very little time for religious groups who attack science I hadn’t given much thought to the way the mainstream media uses scientific research.

But just look at the whole MMR jab scare. While the media doesn’t report the issue anymore there are millions of parents or prospective parents who still believe the hysterical claptrap about the immunisation programme, and this has resulted in people putting their children at risk thanks to mass hysteria.

Papers think you won’t understand the “science bit”, all stories involving science must be dumbed down, leaving pieces without enough content to stimulate the only people who are actually going to read them – that is, the people who know a bit about science. Compare this with the book review section, in any newspaper. The more obscure references to Russian novelists and French philosophers you can bang in, the better writer everyone thinks you are. Nobody dumbs down the finance pages. Imagine the fuss if I tried to stick the word “biophoton” on a science page without explaining what it meant. I can tell you, it would never get past the subs or the section editor. But use it on a complementary medicine page, incorrectly, and it sails through.

Statistics are what causes the most fear for reporters, and so they are usually just edited out, with interesting consequences. Because science isn’t about something being true or not true: that’s a humanities graduate parody. It’s about the error bar, statistical significance; it’s about how reliable and valid the experiment was, it’s about coming to a verdict, about a hypothesis, on the back of lots of bits of evidence.

But science journalists somehow don’t understand the difference between the evidence and the hypothesis.

In a world where the Christian right and its moronic “just a theory” attitude to science is pushing science into the ghetto, we should be able to rely on the secular media to report on the scientific search for truth. Alas according to Ben Goldacre’s article, we cannot do that.

Have you seen a mainstream TV science program recently? If dinosaurs are involved then it will consist of ropey CGI graphics and some Oscar winning narrator providing anthropomorphised piffle as a voiceover. Or if you’re watching the formally great Horizon series from the BBC you’ll have to put up with a simple story slowly explained over an hour, with most of the actual science taken out and replaced by shaky-cam close-ups from an outside broadcast that has nothing to do with the subject itself.

Take last night’s programme on Steven Hawking for example. The premise was very interesting, looking at the arguments over whether black holes can destroy information. However there was almost none of the science included in the show. Instead we got images of Hawking trundling around on his wheelchair, footage of 1970s primal scream therapy, traffic in slow motion and many other images and content that had nothing at all to do with the subject at hand.

These days Horizon likes to structure the show like a whodunit, with a basic premise that is told in whispering tones and revealed during the hour like the plot of an Inspector Morse episode. It’s a shite way of presenting science and if the BBC’s flagship science programme can’t actually feature any science for the fear of confusing anyone with more than a couple of brain cells what hope can we have for any science in the media?