Saturday, March 21, 2009

UK Journalists are Fools

My routine, many mornings, includes visits to the NYT website, Haaretz, and the Guardian, before going to visit various bloggers. The other day the NYT had an item telling that PSA testing, a standard test to discover prostate cancer, apparently isn't very useful. A few minutes later, when I got to the Guardian, they had an article telling the opposite: that PSA tests could save lots of lives. I briefly toyed with the idea of poking fun at the Guardian on an issue far removed from by usual topic, but then went to do more important things.

In the meantime, someone else has done the job for me: only he shows it was the entire British media that got their story line all wrong, and he says this actually isn't very amusing.

So newspapers ignore one half of the evidence and fail to explain the other half properly. In the past, nobody could catch them, and nobody could compete with them. That has now changed. Anyone can write, and publish online, and appear in Google news alerts: the NHS, medical research charities, individual academics, journals' press offices.

These people are intelligent, informed, and they can explain things clearly, without worrying about eyecatching hysteria, or space, or hyperbole. Some will be silly, some won't be. If they ignore half the evidence, they will be busted in the comments, mocked, and sensible visitors will never come back. They can also link directly and transparently to scientific papers, which mainstream media still refuse to do.

Journalists insist that we need professionals to mediate and explain science. From today's story, their self-belief seems truly laughable.

In other words, they're a bunch of incompetents, at best, those British journalists. This brought forth the obvious question:

Here`s a serious thought - is poor science reporting just part of a wider malaise? Why expect science to be an exception if the quality of the UK press in general has plummeted? I think this may well be so.

For example, the tone of say, the Guardian`s (or Telegraph`s) main political and social comment also displays the same air of over-excitement, high emotional levels (sometimes feigned, of course), lack of logic, inability to handle numerical data, etc. There is a clear desire to stimulate the reader in a swift way - perhaps the papers think that they are competing, not with, say the works of Proust, but with video games, porn, TV, drugs and alcohol for the reader`s attention. Hence the combination of celebrity/football/TV coverage and a coverage of `serious` matters too that is similar in style to the `lighter` stuff. I.e. it is ALL lightweight.

Frankly, can you really have confidence in the UK newspapers` coverage of genuinely complex issues like Gaza or Iraq?

A truly startling thought, isn't it?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ben Goldacre is just about the best thing/only decent thing in the Guardian and I can recommend his book and blog - Bad Science

I subscribe to both your sites via Rss, and though you write about totally different things, I think you'd appreciate his work.