Friday, July 18, 2008

Who do you believe?

What do you read in the morning? When I start my computer I scan through the sites of The Times, Telegraph, Guardian, Independent and the Mail (the latter for scandal not facts). Then I start reading the blogs and the one I turn to first is Fresh Bilge . Alan Sullivan is a poet of considerable distinction, a yachtsman with an interest in the Earth sciences, climatology and vulcanology, and a CLL sufferer. He posts several times a day and among the most interesting posts are what he calls FB randoms. Yesterday he linked to couple of articles that my readers might be interested in. The first is a piece by Thomas Dalrymple written in 1999 about real and relative poverty, and the second an editorial by a physicist who can understand those math equations that we feel we could understand and when we get to heaven we will understand but in reality have decided that life is too short to understand.

I enjoyed both articles because they concur with my diagnosis that most commentators know more about how to write than how to evaluate data. It is rare to find scientists who can write clearly and even rarer to find writers who understand science.

It is perhaps best to begin every article that you read with the assumption that you are being lied to and then search for who has a vested interest in your believing the stuff you are reading.

Newspapers make their money by attracting advertisers, which they do by selling more copies. People buy newspapers because they like to read 'stories'. My experience with the press is that there are only two stories in medicine - 'breakthrough' and 'disaster'. Every medical story can be tweaked to make it fit the pattern. I don't see why medical stories are any different from stories about politics. All stories are tweaked to make good copy. I'm not saying that bloggers don't tweak their stories, but it is difficult to see how they can make money from doing it.


Anonymous said...

Fresh Bilge is indeed a very interesting site and is also part of my daily meanderings in digital space. Your comment about writers is well taken and matches my impression. Why is there a preoccupation with astronomy over, say, chemistry? As for health issues, most writing is quite abbreviated to the point of driving the reader back to the original article. I remember one snippet on a diet which promised to lower LDL levels but on closer inspection required the consumption of 3 kg of veggies a day turning the dieter into a near bovine! At least your writing is clear and well documented although challenging for a non-medical person to comprehend.
Please don't change as there no alternate source for the information you are conveying!

Terry Hamblin said...

I am concious that I am writing for people with a lot of different backgrounds. You may expect to see some of the topics revisited for a more lay-audience in future.

Anonymous said...

I forgot to mention that I am one of those still on earth that understands the equations you referenced. That probably explains why I have trouble with medical literature.

Anonymous said...

I am a journalist. I have a BA in journalism. Am I qualified to comment on your post? You decide.

Your point is well taken, if obvious. Newspapers, magazines, radio stations, etc. are in business to make money, pure and simple.

No one is going to buy a newspaper with terse narrative and graphs you find in medical journals. I think you would agree. Someone has to translate that into interesting copy.

I will also tell you that all media, to some extent, relies on press releases, interviews, news syndicates, wire services, etc. No paper has enough staff nowadays to do all their own research and investigations.

An article on cancer research is not going to wow people if it is equivocal. And I must tell you that many press releases put their own spin on things. We look at things with a jaundiced eye, but what can you do if the two or three people you talk to are 'excited' about results, or have their own ax to grind.

A journalist is a generalist, usually with a liberal arts background. We have to write coherently on the arts, sports, financial goings-on, the city council, garbage rate increases, well, you get the picture.

I'd suggest that people read 'breathless' reports on medical 'breakthroughs' with skepticism, and realize that, yes, media is a business, too. And the scientists involved in this 'miraculous' breakthrough depend on grant money, in many cases, and the more hype, the more dough.

Terry Hamblin said...

I agree with all that, but there is no reason that we have to perpetuate CP Snow's 'Two Cultures'. It is possible to be a scientist and write not only clearly but with style. It is also possible for jounalists to understand science. Too many regard their ignorance of the simplest scientific concept as a matter of pride rather than shame. A simple sizing seive should be used to strain every story. Is the magnitude of this effect really likely? Ben Goldacre who writes in the Guardian is a good example of someone who writes well and understands science. Every week he exposes one more scam where the perpetrator relies on the ignorance of jounalists to hoodwink them.

A good question to ask scientists is, "Who is paying you and is your funding secure?"