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.