Reporters need to become scientifically literate
With Dr. Google only a click away, it’s easy to get up to speed on science—but reporters must use caution when reporting on science.
By Steve Buist, The Hamilton Spectator
We live in a golden age of information.
Never before has information been so abundant and never before has it been so easy to access information. And in general, those are good things.
But here’s the problem. Not all information is created equal.
There’s good information and bad information; helpful information and harmful information.
This is especially true when it comes to science. And it’s particularly true in the area of science related to health and medicine at a time when anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can access Dr. Google.
First, I’ll start with what I fully acknowledge is a very sweeping generalization: I don’t think the general public—and that includes a lot of journalists—has a good understanding of science and how the scientific process works.
Here’s why that’s a problem: you end up with measles outbreaks because parents refuse to vaccinate their children with a very safe vaccine because they mistakenly believe the vaccine is unsafe because some flaky celebrity, given a dangerously popular platform and armed with a heart-tugging—but irrelevant—sad story of her autistic child, spouts debunked junk science as her personal conviction of the truth.
You end up with a Toronto Star investigative piece about the purported dangers of the eminently safe Gardasil vaccine coming under attack by dozens of medical experts who are angry at what they claim are the report's misleading conclusions and misreading of science.
You see the problem, don't you?
Some information can be bad information, dangerous even. Some science is pseudo-science, dressed up to look real. Some science, like the flawed, discredited study linking the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine to cases of autism, is simply bad science.
And sometimes, science is complicated, nuanced and difficult to explain in bite-sized chunks to a non-scientific audience by someone who isn't a scientist.
I say this as someone with a foot in both camps. I've been a journalist for 30 years but my academic background is in science, with a degree in human biology.
Why are we susceptible to misunderstand and misreport science in the first place? It turns out there are some powerful reasons to do so.
First, we’re emotional beings, not robots. We’re moved by the stories of real people. Whether it’s a tale of triumph or one of hope or one of hardship, we like to see a human face illustrate a problem.
Second, we react more strongly to events placed further along the “good” and “bad” ends of the spectrum. That’s natural. Plane crashes make the news, safe landings don’t. We’re far more likely to read about an advance in, say, a cancer treatment that’s hailed as a potential cure or exciting breakthrough.
The devil's in the fine print, though. That advance may have been in a test tube, or a mouse.
Even science itself is not immune to this problem. It's well established that medical studies with positive outcomes are published in medical journals at a much higher rate than studies with negative or neutral outcomes.
Which leads to the third issue: the problem of anecdotes versus evidence. Yes, anecdotes have their place in science, but that place is at the starting line, not the finish line. It’s the problem of coincidence, correlation and causation.
In a rebuttal letter signed by 65 health experts objecting to the Star’s Gardasil piece, they used this example: “The number of shark attacks and ice cream sales rise when the weather is hot,” they wrote. The mistake, obviously, would be to jump to the conclusion that one caused the other. What might seem like a correlation could be nothing more than a coincidence. Anecdotes are helpful as possible early warning signals to a problem. But that’s where science has to take over and put the idea to the test through a rigorous protocol.
And finally, we don’t necessarily have a good grasp on the concept of risks vs. benefits.
Every medicine and every vaccine comes with both benefits and risks. The balance has to swing in favour of the benefits before a drug will ever be approved.
Let me give you a simple example.
You have a headache. You take an Aspirin tablet. Yes, there are potential side-effects when taking Aspirin but the chances of having a serious adverse event are quite small.
Now, a much different scenario: You have cancer. You are prescribed a strong chemotherapy agent. Your hair falls out. The lining of your stomach and intestines shed. You're bedridden, nauseous and vomiting for a week.
The side-effects are horrendous. Yet in this case, the risk is deemed acceptable when compared to the potential benefit of saving a life when there's no other option in spite of the drastic consequences.
That same risk would be unacceptable for a simple headache remedy. No regulator would allow a headache tablet that caused your hair to fall out and made you violently ill.
But even with seemingly safe medications and vaccines, there will be risks, there will be side-effects and there will be adverse events.
Vaccinating women against the human papillomavirus could prevent up to 70 per cent of cervical cancer cases and similarly high rates of other types of reproductive tissue cancers associated with HPV. In Canada alone, that could reduce the cancer burden by well over 1,000 cases a year and prevent the deaths of hundreds of women annually.
One follow-up study looking into adverse reactions related to Gardasil vaccinations published in the Journal of the American Medical Association noted there had been 32 deaths worldwide, a rate at the time of one death per one million doses.
Most importantly, though, a review of the deaths showed "no common pattern to the deaths that would suggest they were caused by the vaccine."
But just for the sake of argument, let's say that some day it's determined the vaccine was indeed responsible for one death per one million doses. (It's not—we're pretending.)
The death of a young girl is certainly a terrible thing and it's one of those things that would touch us as emotional beings. So what would you do with that information?
Tell your daughter to skip the vaccination? Ban the vaccine altogether?
If so, then what will we say some time in the future to the families of the hundreds of women each year who'll die needlessly from a preventable cancer and the thousands more who will live with the trauma of a cancer diagnosis?
Steve Buist is an investigative reporter and feature writer at the Hamilton Spectator. He has a science degree in human biology and a Master’s degree in journalism. His thesis examined the issue of how Canadian newspapers report the financial conflicts of interest of scientists who conduct medical research.