Socialist Worker

Ben Goldacre on science and the media

Socialist Worker spoke to Dr Ben Goldacre, author of the Bad Science book and column in the Guardian newspaper, which highlights media abuses of science

Issue No. 2191

Ben Goldacre

Ben Goldacre

What’s wrong with the way the media talks about science?

The problem is that the media generally has a low opinion of people’s ability to understand complex information. And journalists often aren’t good at understanding the evidence in front of them.

There are structural reasons too. There are times when explaining scientific ideas requires background information. You have to explain A, B and C before you can explain D.

Instead of explaining how we know whether something is dangerous or not, we get assertions. That’s why science becomes a sinister thing to people. They don’t get access to the real information.

What do you make of the climate change scandal, “climategate”?

It’s overstated. What happened is a few scientists were behaving in a slightly daft fashion. The most recent instance was where one man in charge of a large bureaucratic organisation failed to correct a small mistake quickly enough.

The scandal reflects a parody of what people would like science to be.

Every now and then at a party I will say something that has nothing to do with science. And people will respond with, “That’s not very scientific.” As if it’s not very scientific to not like the Bluetones.

When a scientist turns out to be a bit slapdash or shoddy, it doesn’t call the science of climate change into question, or science itself.

It simply shows people not behaving particularly well.

What’s worse is the response of journalists, who overstate stories in an astonishing way. There have been numerous stories published in the last few weeks that have led scientists to come forward and say, “That’s not what my research says.”

How does that work out in major stories such as swine flu?

At the beginning of the swine flu outbreak I got tons of emails from people saying swine flu wasn’t real. Then the BBC and Al-Jazeera contacted me saying, “It’s all nonsense and media hype isn’t it?”

They treated it as if it was an invention, like the MMR vaccine scandal. People have heard the media cry wolf so many times, but this time they were disbelieving a real story.

Swine flu was a good example of an unquantifiable risk.

It is a flu virus, and flu viruses kill people sometimes. Brand new flu viruses can be very difficult for the body to fight off.

So, we knew there was a risk – but it was a risk you couldn’t put a number on until people get it and die from it.

But afterwards, journalists started arguing that, because there was no outbreak with loads of people dying, the risk never existed.

That is an extraordinarily poor way of thinking about it – if the risk didn’t have the worst possible outcome then the risk didn’t exist. It’s like saying that if I cross the road with my eyes closed and don’t die, crossing the road with your eyes closed isn’t dangerous.

It wasn’t just the media – it was the government too. Immense secrecy surrounded the government group in charge of dealing with the spread of the infection and planning the treatment.

Everyone involved was signed up to the Official Secrets Act. It was a military set-up for tackling terrorism, but it was putting together the committees for what was a health issue.

They had all the country’s experts in the room making decisions, but they couldn’t communicate with the outside world on why they made those decisions.

And they were making judgement calls on closely contested areas.

Why is there a search for simplistic answers on health and science?

One reason is the childish obsession the media has with pills. People are very keen on pills, but that tells you more about our belief in pills than in the ability of pills to do what we want them to do.

At its silliest there is the idea that fish-oil pills will improve performance and behaviour in schools. School performance is a complex political and social question. The answer isn’t in a pill.

With swine flu it was endless coverage about Tamiflu. The useful advice was simple: wash your hands, make sure you cover your mouth when you cough, sneeze into a tissue and throw it away.

But those ideas got much less coverage compared to the issue of how much Tamiflu there was.

Is it just how things are reported?

The people best at corporate PR play much better in the mainstream media than people who are doing something for real. The PR people are willing to distort their methods to make things more media-friendly.

There are people trying to do serious work addressing health inequality – but they don’t get in newspapers. What you get in the media is people who claim to be providing medicine but who are really selling sugar pills or vitamins.

It’s cynical. But it’s also lazy on the part of those people who give them a platform.

I’m not surprised when some businessperson comes along with a magic pill, but when Channel 4 gives that person their own TV show, that’s more disappointing.

Evidence-based medicine has absolutely no place in popular culture, whereas bullshitters do. That has always annoyed me.

What difference does it make when you shine a light on these issues?

It would be grandiose to think that anything I’ve done has made a real difference. It’s not my intention. I’m not a consumer crusader. Giving people access to information is more important to me than winning battles.

I don’t think things are getting better. If anything they’re getting worse. Homeopathy is one example. A parliamentary committee released a report last week that was critical of the use of homeopathy in the NHS.

Yet the same evening, BBC News had a woman on claiming that homeopathy cured her cancer. You just think, no, it’s not going to get any better.

So what do we do?

I often complain about anaesthetists talking about climate change, so I’m nervous talking outside my area.

But if you want people to eat well it’s no use showing them a chocolate gravestone. You have to make it easy to get hold of cheap, healthy food.

At a trivial level, in schools you can take out the chocolate vending machines and make it easy to buy carrot sticks, or apples and oranges.

If you want to get people to exercise, you have to improve their environment. You have to make it realistic to use public transport possible for people to cycle to work.

And if people are cycling, they could do with some kind of shower facilities at work and somewhere to store their clothes.

At a deeper level, if you’re saying people need to eat more fresh fruit and veg, you have to appreciate how people live their lives and how they cook. You have to look at people’s work/life balance and address in a real way what work gets done, where and by who in the world.

This means entering into political territory pretty quickly.

Social inequality is the prime determinant of health inequality. It’s a real concrete issue where Labour has massively dropped the ball.

What do you mean by “health inequality”?

In Kentish Town, a predominantly working class area, the average male life expectancy is 70.

Two miles away, there’s Hampstead. Average male life expectancy there is 80. Yet you could walk between them in half an hour. That’s a phenomenal inequality.

Addressing that goes a long way beyond tinkering and telling people to eat more fresh fruit.

The media spin about health has a very right wing, individualist agenda. It’s all about the deserving sick – you are what you eat. It echoes bad old ideas about the deserving poor.

A friend said to me, “When you look around and see mothers feeding their kids crisps on the way to school, the reason they don’t do well in life has to be diet.”

But there’s far more going on here than people eating crisps. In fact, the evidence shows that if you intervene and change people’s diets, the effects on their long-term health and life expectancy are marginal.

To read the papers you would imagine that the most important factor in health is your personal dietary decisions. That’s a spectacular example of the cost of bullshit.

These tedious, commercially-driven, made-up fantasies are stupid in their own right. But the real harm they do is distracting us from the real political and social causes of health inequality.

Bad Science (£8.99) by Ben Goldacre is avaialble from Bookmarks bookshop. Go to »

Click here to subscribe to our daily morning email newsletter 'Breakfast in red'

Article information

Tue 2 Mar 2010, 18:07 GMT
Issue No. 2191
Share this article


Mobile users! Don't forget to add Socialist Worker to your home screen.