Science and the Media – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly
On the 14th March 2012 – which was also Einstein’s 133rd birthday and Pi day (consequence of writting the date in American style, 3.14) – Mei Yin Wong (member of YSJ Editorial Team)and Fiona Jenkinson (Editorial Team Leader, YSJ) attended a lecture by Dr. Simon Singh on “Science and the Media – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly” at the University of Kent. Dr. Singh gave an engaging talk about how the media can influence the general public, both in a good and bad way.
Initially, he spoke about how the media has succeeded in making science accessible to the general public. His critically-acclaimed documentary on Fermat’s Last Theorem for the BBC series Horizon was given as an example of this, gathering over 1.8 million views and winning the BAFTA for best documentary, a Priz Italia and an Emmy nomination, among others. With his cinematography skills – such as an emotional opening showing the mathematician in tears of joy as he reminisced over the moment he discovered the solution to Fermat’s Last Theorem – he made a potentially “specialist” topic comprehensible to an audience of largely non-specialist people.
Dr. Singh revealed that, in the documentary, there was an instance where in one mathematician’s explanation he substituted the word “numbers” for “primes” in an effort to make the concepts more understandable to the general public. This induced a mixed reaction from the audience. Some felt that this was justified, as not every member of the public knows what a prime number is; others believed that not including these specific details undermines the purpose of such things as prime numbers being taught at school. Furthermore, Dr. Singh admitted that he did not ask the mathematician’s permission to make the alteration.
Dr. Singh subsequently informed us of how the media sometimes uses sensationalist and scaremongering techniques to gain a larger audience, manipulating the science behind their work. He talked about the BBC documentary, “Alternative Medicine – the Evidence – Acupuncture, Healing and Herbs”, which featured a conscious patient undergoing open-heart surgery in China who was portrayed as receiving only acupuncture for pain relief. What the documentary failed to convey was that the patient also received heavy doses of local anaesthetics at the same time. Dr. Singh described how he filed a complaint against the BBC and followed it through, only getting a response a year later. To many, it is inconceivable how an established corporation like the BBC can allow their directors “cherry-pick” their evidence as such, giving their audience a misrepresented image of “science”. However, he did point out their dilemma – had the raw, accurate view of acupuncture been given, the programme would have been “much more boring”.
Perhaps this reminds us of the importance held behind media reputation. Many people are very ready to trust programmes such as Panorama or Dispatches, let alone others with less of an established reputation. Yet, people must be reminded that with whatever they watch, they are being presented something from a producer’s point of view – the danger being that people could be misled into following poorly considered advice. For example, how many people may be tempted to try acupuncture for pain therapy, however trivial, after watching it work as a “miracle anaesthetic”?
In the final section of the talk, “the ugly”, Dr. Singh told us of how organisations are using London’s libel laws as leverage over journalists who try to expose them. Not only is “good” journalism coming under attack, libel cases also cost a fair amount of money whether won or not, so damage is done independent of the outcome. He talked about how when he wrote an article in the Guardian (April 2008) lamenting on the lack of evidence behind claims by some chiropractors that childhood diseases such as asthma and colic can be treated through chiropractic means, he was sued by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA). The lawsuit lasted over two years and after going to the Court of Appeal, Dr. Singh emerged victorious, on the grounds that he was a journalist raising legitimate concerns, since there was no apparent evidence for the BCA’s case.
When asked about how scientists should approach the media, Dr. Singh encouraged scientists to come forward to actively help prevent the media from publicising misleading science, but also to consider whether the people you are pursuing are trustworthy and worth your time.
All in all, we enjoyed Dr. Singh’s talk a lot, and we only wish that there could have been more time to speak with him personally afterwards. To learn more about Dr. Singh, you could visit his website at http://simonsingh.net/, or read his books, Big Bang, The Code Book, Fermat’s Last Theorem and Trick or Treatment.
Co-authored by Mei Yin Wong and Fiona Jenkinson