how the mass media fuels denialism
Today, dismissing scientists and experts is the new black, popular with both religious fundamentalists and post-modernist pseudoscientists. And this is why New Scientist created a special report about denialism in an attempt to give scientists and science writers a chance to examine the problem of science denial in depth, be it creationism in science class and global warming manufactroversies, or anti-vaccine hysteria. But as the columns analyzed the effects of out of context quotes, corporate astroturfing, and the psychological comfort of going along with popular opinion over scientific consensus, the special report shied away from naming a key contributor to denialism and overall lack of respect for scientific findings: the media. From the fiercely partisan pundits with an agenda, to baseless, sensationalistic pronouncements, the press can not only start denialist movements, but also feed existing ones, instantly raising their profiles and boosting their confidence.
Let’s consider a few examples, shall we? For starters, why don’t we go back to a recent report on widespread inaccuracy in popular science stories which caught outright fabrications by major newspapers? When facts aren’t being collected from reputable experts but get substituted for whatever the editors think will be a better, more controversial story, its not hard to see how easily pseudoscience can creep into key issues just waiting to be hijacked by denialists. If that’s not enough, consider the ridiculous media circus over Ida The Fossil by a part time paleontologist and full time media hound, Jørn Hurum, and how one scientist’s quest for airtime to the detriment of doing proper due diligence and peer review had creationists trumpeting “yet another failure of evolutionism” across newspaper comment sections and anti-scientific blogs. And speaking of giving fodder to religious zealots, what about major UK newspapers distorting a psychologist’s research of religious beliefs to make it seem as if there was scientific proof that we’re born with faith when that wasn’t at all what the actual science implied? Finally, didn’t New Scientist once run a ridiculously over-hyped and sensationally titled tale about Darwin’s conception of the tree of life which fired up creationists and incensed biologists?
The list can easily go on and include fawning exposes of anti-vaccination activists and “shocking reports of vaccination gone terribly wrong” by credulous reporters, as well as conspiratorial coverage of the CRU e-mail leak which devolved to full blown accounts of sinister geo-engineering schemes. Even an exploratory paper talking about the potential benefit of an enzyme found in a certain fruit for certain cancer patients tends to turn into an advertisement for this fruit being a potent weapon against cancer with no regard for the mile long list of qualifiers and limitations painstakingly listed in the study being abused by grinning talking heads. Then, when the very same talking heads finally take the time to read some of those limitations confirmed in another study, they do their best impression of a manic depressive and present it as the end of all promising research into a cancer treatment involving the aforementioned enzymes. The public thinks that the scientists are flip-flopping on their research while the reality of the matter is that the media doesn’t know what it’s talking about, including when it’s important that reporters get their facts straight. Remember how the press mishandled the swine flu outbreak, overhyping the disease to the point that people no longer thought it could be a serious problem?
So now, after considering how badly the media deals with science, imagine a loud and splashy denialist idea pitched to an editor who rushes it on the air, then has pundits pitting pseudoscientists against experts while giving the cranks the same kind of standing as the real scientists. Then, as the story spreads, it’s covered by journalists who don’t know what questions to ask of the denialists they interview and are usually easy prey for technobabble and flashy con artists pretending to have science on their side. Suddenly, what was once just a small denialist community gets a platform, dedicated followers, a steady stream of coverage, and editors who are all too happy to put them on the air and milking the ensuing debates for ratings. This happens day in, day out, and we can’t discuss denial without pointing a finger toward the media and holding reporters responsible when they put ratings and potential controversy over factual accuracy.