An interesting read this morning from Fiona Fox, chief executive of Britain’s Science Media Centre: “What If There Were Rules for Science Journalism?”
She proposes a “checklist” for science reporting, which sounds to me a bit like the “Nutrition Facts” that the government puts on a box of cereal.
A checklist would look something like the following. Every story on new research should include the sample size and highlight where it may be too small to draw general conclusions. Any increase in risk should be reported in absolute terms as well as percentages: For example, a "50 percent increase" in risk or a "doubling" of risk could merely mean an increase from 1 in 1,000 to 1.5 or 2 in 1,000. A story about medical research should provide a realistic time frame for the work's translation into a treatment or cure. It should emphasize what stage findings are at: If it is a small study in mice, it is just the beginning; if it's a huge clinical trial involving thousands of people, it is more significant. Stories about shocking findings should include the wider context: The first study to find something unusual is inevitably very preliminary; the 50th study to show the same thing may be justifiably alarming. Articles should mention where the story has come from: a conference lecture, an interview with a scientist, or a study in a peer-reviewed journal, for example.
I think these are good recommendations for health reporting. An awful lot of people have adopted diet recommendations that at best can lower disease risk by a small fraction. Meanwhile, many continue smoking despite much larger and repeatedly demonstrated risks. Science and health reporting have not historically helped people to understand relative risks, and they do a poor job of informing people how scientific conclusions are produced. This lack of transparency has enabled a large niche for “health advisors” who are essentially quacks. People are poorly informed about how to distinguish quack advice from science.
Nevertheless, I think some of Fox’s recommendations verge on censorship – their aim is to stop the public from being misdirected to unreliable findings, but the solutions are all oriented toward stopping the reporting of unreliable findings. I would prefer to see a change in emphasis away from reporting findings and toward reporting process. Scientists trust science without trusting every result, because they understand the process of science. The public will be better informed about scientific results when they see the process in action. A sharp reporter should not only attend to the immediate result of a study but the process underway to test and possibly reject today’s findings.