Apoplexy time again

Long time readers will know I regularly attempt to shed the crass media ignorance and stupidity that seems to accompany almost all science reporting and it has been a while so please enjoy this one:


I have become reacquainted with my own anger courtesy of the phenomenal Bad Science by Ben Goldacre (review of his new book on the way), a man who does not mince his words and who is quite happy to attack even his fellow scribes on the Guardian (or Grauniad for British readers). Today he flagged this opinion piece from his parent newspaper and my ire was sparked and this post written. Take a look, get a paragraph in, realise why I am pissed off and come back. All done? Good.

Right, so a professional journalist has sat down and presumably written that piece deliberately. “Hey everyone, I know nothing about this. Great!”. He has been paid to tell everyone that he is ignorant, and not only is he ignorant, but that somehow the very act of not knowing something somehow qualifies as an ‘opinion’.

Here’s my effort in the same vein: “I don’t know why all these doctors seem so determined to try and cure diseases? OK, so even I know cancer is bad, and HIV seems to get a lot of attention, but who cares about flu and gangerene”. Any real difference there at all?

What drives me to rage is the fact that not only has he somehow passes this off as an opinion and actual work, but he is giving the impression that ignorance is to be cherished and that a lack of knowledge or desire to change that is OK. I know someone has read this piece and thought “Fair point, waste of money these animals”.

So let’s recap (already): paid professional journalist for a national newspaper has access to a phone, the internet, his paper’s catalogue of contacts, his colleagues in the science desk, and presumably the internet and yet fails to find out anything. At all. He could ask a colleague, get an article out of the archives, google “conservation” or just call someone. I doubt there is a researcher out there who would not give him two minutes of their time to talk about their work or just conservation in general, and places like the Zoological Society of London have an entire department devoted to it. Well done there.

So with about ten minutes work he could have written this article instead: “I’ve always wondered why we bother to save all these animals, and I can’t be the only one out there. So I spoke to Professor X who explained that…. Well, isn’t that interesting?”.

Presumably this was too much effort and required thought. If he had gone down this route however he might have learned something. He could have educated his readers too and contributed to the knowledge of the world, rather than promoting insipid laziness. Nice. To put my back up further, what animal did he choose as an example oif something not worth keeping? The humble armadillo.

Now lets leave aside the good it does eating various pests across the Americas and focus on it’s use for us (since he seems to think only we should benefit from conservation for some reason). Errr, how about curing leprosy? Or having contributed more to our work on cloning than probably any other animal? No, not good enough? OK, next time I’ll make sure I pick an example that can kill malaria, or provides an anti-cancer drug, or gives us a new pain killer. What’s that? You don’t know which ones they might be either? And we keep killing them before we even know what they are? Weeeeell, best not bother then eh?

My contempt for people can only reach such a level, but he’s floating right near the top after a few hundred words.

(I should in fairness point out that typically the Grauniad is excellent in it’s science reporting in general, and very pro-science etc. at least part of the point of this rant is why then are non-science writers allowed to write about science?).

And if you want to know how the media works in the UK, then I can highly recommend this . It might be 20 years old but is still almost perfect, though I would swap the Daily Mail for the Telegraph.

9 Responses to “Apoplexy time again”


  1. 1 Richard 15/10/2008 at 8:23 pm

    I saw this. It annoyed me at the time – but it’s one of those light-hearted “slice-of-life” type columns in G2 that has no claim to actually being properly thought out journalism (the guy’s not actually a professional journalist, he’s a lawyer) and 99% of Guardian readers would recognise it as such, so I doubt that it does much damage.

  2. 2 David Hone 16/10/2008 at 8:15 am

    Perhaps that is true, but still, it does seem to advocate the position that not bothing to look soemthing up that you are actively curious about is a reasonable concept. For a lawyer this does seem especially distrubing.

  3. 3 DunkTheBiscuit 16/10/2008 at 9:15 pm

    Hmmm, well. He did say he was being deliberately provocative in order to get some answers… so there’s no way of knowing if that is his real attitude or just an attempt to get a response. And he’s certainly getting answers – lets hope he reads them and learns from them.

    I’ve struggled, myself, with trying to interest people in the world around them, when their only question about the bug / bird / animal / plant in front of them was ‘And what use is it?’ And they didn’t even have the excuse of writing an opinion piece in a national newspaper. I wish people were less tunnel-visioned…

  4. 4 David Hone 17/10/2008 at 9:10 am

    But as I say, he can be provocative in the article *and* provide tha answer. He can put forward his ‘thesis’ as to why it appears to be a waste of time and why it is not. And you must also remember that we are reading it online where there are comments, and not in the newspaper itself where these won’t appear. And of course there is no control over the comments themselves, I had a look through and many were fine and made the right noises about diversity, usefulness and resposibility etc. but not all. There is nothing to stop the ignorant spouting their rubbish as fact and it can’t be corrected. Why not cut that out by going directly to a respected authority on the subject when you have the ability to do you?

    Surely it is dangerous to jsut be ‘provocative’ when you have the answers to hand. Be provocative when questioning a goverment cover-up and you want answers, don’t be when the answers are freely available to anyone with google and half an hour of effort. In that case you are stirring up trouble that does not exist by prompting people to question soemthing that does not need questioning or has already been answered. I still can;t understand his take on this at all.

  5. 5 DunkTheBiscuit 17/10/2008 at 6:33 pm

    Yes, you’re right. There have been instances where one of the regular columnists in G2 have come back a few weeks later and said that comments and letters received have changed their minds, though. This may happen here, but I won’t hold my breath. I noticed a lot of comments had been moderator deleted over there, and most of the remaining ones were pretty civil and detailed in explaining how he was wrong. Not many supportive ones at all. At least that was the case yesterday.

    It is exasperating, but I often find myself throwing G2 at the wall because of one of the opinion pieces, whereas the actual reporting is usually fairly accurate – though I don’t think they cover science enough.

  6. 6 David Hone 18/10/2008 at 11:57 am

    Yeah, that’s largely my response. As I say, nothing wrong with be provocative over unknowns, but for this? There must be a thousand people he could have asked not to mention unbelievably obvious (and trustworthy) places on the internet to start looking like the Zoological Society of London, the Royal Society, WWF, the RSPB, Jersey Wildlife or most major universities. It just seems so pointless.

  7. 7 ScottE 23/10/2008 at 3:54 am

    Time was journalists were paid to first do research, and then write. Why? Because that was their goddamn job.

    Fewer and fewer realize this anymore, it often seems.

  8. 8 Mike from Ottawa 23/10/2008 at 11:23 pm

    “the guy’s not actually a professional journalist, he’s a lawyer”

    Doesn’t let him off. If anything, lawyers more than journalists should be aware of the need to research and consider possible answers to their arguments since what they do has to consider the background possibility of being adjudicated in public (and of being sued for malpractice). Journalists can just not read the letters sent in and as long as they’re not slagging some person, need have no fear of being sued.

    Perhaps Mr Berlins is a solicitor who does nothing but conveyancing.

  9. 9 Mike from Ottawa 23/10/2008 at 11:25 pm

    “the guy’s not actually a professional journalist, he’s a lawyer”

    Doesn’t let him off. If anything, lawyers more than journalists should be aware of the need to research and consider possible answers to their arguments since what they do has to consider the background possibility of being adjudicated in public (and of being sued for malpractice). Journalists can just not read the letters sent in and as long as they’re not slagging some person, need have no fear of being sued.

    Perhaps Mr Berlins is a solicitor who does nothing but conveyancing.


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