Science Writing in the Age of Denial (recap, part 2)

More on UW-Madison's recent conference about the public's resistance to scientific messages about evolution, climate change, vaccines, and other matters.

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  1. Previously, I recapped the first two sessions of the "Science Writing in the Age of Denial" conference organized by the University of Wisconsin-Madison (April 22-24, 2012), which covered "Communicating Science in Politicized Environments" and "The Denial of Evolution, and the Evolution of Denial." (In the interest of disclosure, I'll note that I was a science writer in residence at UW-M last fall and was a paid, invited participant in this meeting.) Now I'll pick up with what happened in the two later sessions that first day.
  2. Cheerleading, Shibboleths and Uncertainty

    There was no better keynote speaker for this session than Gary Schwitzer (@garyschwitzer), the founder of HealthNewsReview.org. The site, funded by the Foundation for Informed Medical Decision Making, provides independent reviews of the accuracy, balance and completeness of news stories about medical treatments, tests, procedures, and products.

    Unfortunately, Schwitzer explained, about 70 percent of all the stories evaluated by HealthNewsReview failed to meet those criteria. Rather, too much of the time, medical news was dominated by an attitude of uncritical cheerleading for any and all new offerings, without an adequate exploration of the relative costs, tradeoffs in risks, credibility of the evidence or conclusions, conflicts of interest, and other important considerations. (A list of the site's rating criteria can be found here.) 

    New medical technologies he said, get treated like "shibboleths"—objects of cultish devotion. As a consequence, journalists who should be helping to their audience to set intelligent health agendas are instead just flooding the public with half-baked information and conflicting messages, according to Schwitzer. With a dig at FOX News (which he said was notably awful in this regard), Schwitzer called the present "an age of infoxification." 

    For a good example of a dreadful phenomenon, Schwitzer pointed to coverage of cancer screening. Mass screening is expensive and potentially harmful, so it should be balanced against the potential benefits. But anyone recommending that younger people not get mammograms or prostate antigen tests was loudly accused of wanting to "ration health care" or not caring whether people died.

    Schwitzer has posted some of the slides from his presentation online.
  3. Leading off the follow-up remarks was Ivan Oransky of Reuters Health and Retraction Watch. (Disclosure: Ivan and I are former colleagues from Scientific American, and I've often said that the creation of Retraction Watch is potentially one of the most important developments in science journalism in recent years.) Oransky discussed how credulous news coverage of the medical literature contributed to a "medicalized" view of life and the public's confusion about health. He suggested that the problem with the denial of evidence in health news is the mirror image of that the problem in evolution and climate denial: namely, that the public seems too eager to accept every utterance of science and that the media haven't spent enough time cross-examining the claims. He prescribed steps that health journalists could take to improve their work. (He has also shared online a longer version of his slides, which include warnings against false balance)

  4. Nancy Shute discussed some of the "perverse incentives" that encouraged journalists (however unintentionally) to be more sensationalistic and glib in their coverage of medical news, particularly online. On the other hand, she noted, online media also presented great ways to improve health journalism by making it easier to add more information and to capture nuances.
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