Double Helix | February 12, 2013 at 8:53 pm

Why Science Writing Matters

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NewspaperThis is why I’m writing a science policy column for the HPR: 95 weekly science sections in newspapers in 1989, 34 in 2005, 19 in 2012. Newspapers once wore science sections as a symbol of pride – everybody knew that they didn’t make money, so having one of good quality meant that your paper was successful, perhaps reliable and trustworthy. Now, with profits from print journalism falling, science sections are being shuttered. Among those sections that remain, basic science headlines are increasingly being diluted by headlines about “health” and “technology.” Many section articles merely cover the latest fad diet or iPhone release, rather than real, evidence-based discoveries from reputable journals.

Even when evidence-based research is covered, journalists and editors twist correlative relationships into causal ones in pursuit of the eye-catching headline. I am reminded particularly of a comic satirizing “Today’s Random Medical News,” which sadly reflects the superficiality of a greater and greater share of today’s medical reporting. Watching the evening news or reading the health section of publications these days, you would think that the biggest scientific breakthroughs come from observational studies about whether coffee lowers your risk of type 2 diabetes by 8 percent or how red wine is linked to beneficially lowering blood pressure.

What media coverage often minimizes or does not mention are the limitations to those studies. For instance, the coffee study was only carried out among health professionals whose health habits may have been more adaptive overall than the general population’s and masked the real effect of the coffee; the red wine study only enrolled 67 men in a specific age range and risk for cardiovascular disease. While the studies’ findings suggest the potential for further research, they don’t necessarily translate into the statements about “drinking all the coffee you want.”  However, as newspapers and magazines acknowledge, readers prefer certainty over doubt, and science stories that portray discoveries as limited and merely probabilistic simply don’t sell as well.

The state of scientific media coverage, already problematic because of such overly certain and generalized reporting, is further complicated by the rising coverage of pseudoscience. When such theories are presented on equal footing with evidence-based theories, they can acquire undue legitimacy. See as an example recent controversies regarding the validity of celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz’s claims on his TV show. A graduate of Harvard College and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, and a professor of surgery at Columbia University, Dr. Oz’s educational background and professional credentials would suggest that he is a reliable source of health information for the layperson.  Yet, his shows feature or promote controversial views, ranging from the widespread existence of arsenic in apple juice to reparative therapy for homosexuals, that are unsupported or downright rejected by mainstream research.

The format of Dr. Oz’s show—multiple “experts” speaking back-to-back about the same issue—is promising for the multiple perspectives it brings.  However, one Harvard researcher, who recently went on the show to discuss the dangers of the hCG fad diet, was highly critical.  That researcher, Dr. Pieter Cohen, lamented that Dr. Oz is “fundamentally doing a disservice to the viewers” when he presents perspectives without interpreting them or weighing them on the basis of the evidence.

Why should we care, and how is science writing relevant to a political review? The decline of science journalism, the misinterpretation of data, the popularization of science that is not evidence-based, changing definitions of what it means to “do” science – all these trends are embedded in the larger picture of our society’s values today. In the coming months, I hope to highlight current advances in science and health and bring them in conversation with perhaps more familiar issues: economics, education, religion, technology, national security. Science is no heroic pursuit isolated from the influence of politics, nor can policy be isolated from scientific or social scientific evidence – let’s bring them together.

Photo Credit: NPS

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