Science vs. The Media: Stay Curious, Ask Questions

This article was written for  The Brandy Alexander

This article was written for The Brandy Alexander

Looking at my home town of London, a perfect example of fact vs fiction just came to an end. The UK General Election 2015 highlighted a massive trend in journalism and the media: convincing, biased and persuasive editorship is EVERYWHERE. From unflattering photos featuring candidates eating a bacon butty, to full on headlines urging ‘sane’ people to vote for a specific candidate, it’s no wonder the public felt a little overwhelmed. Heck, even Joey from Made in Essex got involved and Russell Brand became an unexpected political pawn. Through all the noise and confusion, there was an underlying tone of a desire for the straight forward facts, and it is this underlying curiosity that brings us a glimmer of the powerful information revolution on our doorstep.

Growing up in the 90s and early naughties, Google and Facebook were but figments of science fiction fantasy and having a changeable Nokia 3210 cover was the height of technological cool. There were two obviously recognisable types of people: the scientifically inclined and the creatively gifted. The friends who were in all of the school plays, could quote Orwell and always had the trendiest clothes, and the ones who understood how photosynthesis works and could dish out advice on the birds and the bees, having spent hours reading paper text-books and hand drawing diagrams. ‘Twas glorious times.

Nowadays answers are but a few milliseconds away and I’m pretty sure paper cuts are becoming a retro ailment, rapidly replaced by cracked iPhone screen glass splinter injuries. Information gathering happens very quickly and a sideways glance at neighbouring laptops reveals our sources: Facebook, Wikipedia, Buzzfeed, Twitter, the BBC homepage, Daily Mail online, and perhaps a few have Reuters or Al-Jazeera open on their computer too. To think Wikipedia is now a respected source of information with strict editing guidelines is still something a little amusing for me. We basically got failed on the spot if we even mentioned we read anything on Wikipedia to my professors. But the media industry is developing rapidly. Television, social media, cinema, magazines and advertising are vibrant and engaging. From the timing and medium to the tone used, every word is measured, every shade of color carefully selected to have the greatest impact on the right individual who will then go on to purchase, like, talk about and engage with the story, product or idea being brought to them.

I studied sciences, and the beauty of studying for me was the understanding that what you are learning is constantly evolving, that there are always more questions to be answered, and that the best thing you can do is maintain an open mind and evaluate all evidence pragmatically, to come to the best possible conclusion, given the knowledge available at that time. This is very important when it comes to scientific papers, doing research, and even more paramount when it comes to establishing whether certain findings have an impact on everyday life. In pursuit of evaluating evidence objectively, the Cochrane Collaboration is the gold standard in scientific reviews: they conduct systematic reviews of scientific evidence taken only from fairly conducted, high quality studies that have to adhere to strict guidelines. So much care, alas, is not given when evaluating the 12,000 adverts, shocking revelations (!) and claims made per minute on any given website, twitter account or blog post.

Science, pragmatic and patient, speaks a different language to the fickle and superficial world of media. Media in return, however, hasn’t an interest in the slow paced, very specific, applicable information that the science world presents (especially in the often undecipherable scientific jargon that articles are written in). The result is bad. Science doesn’t know how to sell itself, make its rational voice heard. Media will take one sentence in a scientific article and come to wild conclusions on the matter, reaching millions with false promises and how they can purchase the result in ‘just 30 days’. The most extreme example of how bad it can get is in the long term, rippling, and deadly effect that the media hype around one very bad, very made up article has had on vaccination rates. One man, Andrew Wakefield, and one false speculation made in an extremely badly conducted study, has resulted in countless cases of avoidable disease as parents worldwide feared causing autism in their children through a vaccination, which for anyone who has an understanding of the complexity of autism is actually derisable. More than a decade has passed, the article has been retracted and proven absolutely invalid, the man in question has faced legal charges for the gravity of his actions and yet still, the effects of his mistake are felt. On the less deadly side of the spectrum is the general confusion felt by scientists and non-scientists alike on which claims, articles, and ‘advice’ can be trusted. Can I really lose all of my belly fat with one simple trick? Has science really proven that drinking bottled water left in the back of a warm car is akin to drinking poison? Someone pass me my bobble!

Headlines on newspapers and magazines offer up ‘scientific’ evidence for everything from what you should be eating right now to what time in the morning you should be waking up in order to achieve ‘ultimate success’. Websites and blogs give ‘10 easy steps’ to basically anything you can shake a stick at, with particularly rage-inducing articles focusing on generalised, non-specific health advice to ‘help’ people. And let’s not forget the ‘nutrition experts’ who haven’t the slightest hint of training in nutrition but do have amazing marketing and PR teams who know how best to impact the consumer, and sell them the perfect gadgets to achieve it. Healthy living has swept the digital media world with some of the most followed and liked posts, blogs, pages and sites revolving entirely around fitness, diets, and healthy lifestyle tips.

The problem is not in the wonderful ability that the internet and various social media channels have given individuals to record, share and even capitalise on their experiences and ideas. The problem lies in the relationship that the public has with the media they consume, and the blurred lines within which ‘science’ lies. As the majority of scientific journals continue to be expensive and inaccessible, the internet reports blockbuster ‘health’ and ‘science’ news to the masses that could literally be made up by anyone, anywhere at any time, and more often than not, newspapers and TV will follow suit by reporting the ‘hottest trends’. Few report the exciting discoveries on the importance of the human microbiome, but I see a lot of updates on how raspberry stem cells can help your aging skin. If our skin absorbed everything as freely as some beauty companies would have us believe, it would not so much be an incredibly protective barrier. Patients who suffer from Epidermolysis Bullosa (EB) will tell you that no cream can ‘restore skin proteins’ with the help of age-defying collagen enzymes.

It seems to me that science can learn a few things from media in how to deliver its message to a wider audience, and the media world should look to a scientific method of reporting its news to make sure that the messages being delivered apply to the majority and aren’t a stipulation from a suggestion of a thought. Of course, advertising and marketing are an essential part of our economy and our culture, and never has there been so many different ways of reaching the desired audience. But I think there is a moral and social responsibility to ensure information is rightly labeled, associations and advertising clearly highlighted to ensure that the public and those most vulnerable to the messaging know how to distinguish opinions from facts.

Along with Ben Goldacre, author of Bad Science and Bad Pharma, both of which I highly recommend, the tide seems to be turning in favour of responsible information. Finally, Google is going to optimise its search engines to produce not the most widely cited articles relevant to our questions, but the ones most likely to be true. Big television broadcasters produce data on their viewers and measure advertising success against real data. Online groupsthat focus on scientific discoveries are garnering millions of fans and maybe, just maybe, we will all start asking more questions when big claims are made and give more clout to knowledge gained over longer periods of time, using as much information as possible. After all, it’s best if we all have the power to make the best choices for ourselves and our loved ones when it comes to science and health.

Next time you are reading the latest on the healing powers of the next fad, remember that we are very complex individuals. Maintain an open mind. Stay curious. Ask questions.