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Journalism

Oct 31, 2013

Media and a scientific leap of faith: a Catalyst for thought

It's hard to know what to believe in the reporting of science. As the Catalyst controversy shows, both sides need to do a better job, writes biologist and science communicator Upulie Divisekera.

Unlike many other media outlets, science reporting has a solid history at the ABC. How, then, can its flagship science program create such widespread controversy?

Catalyst has aired the first of a two-part special researched and produced by Dr Maryanne Demasi, claiming to debunk the popular assumption that saturated fats are a significant contributing factor to cholesterol and heart disease. Demasi used recent, relatively unknown studies and the opinions of doctors and nutritionists to explode what she and others perceived as a common misconception that saturated fats contribute to heart disease, and that this has led to substitution of foods high in sugars, carbohydrates and fat substitutes and the over-prescription of statins, a significant anti-cholesterol drug with many side effects.

The program presented both sides of a debate around whether high levels of saturated fat directly resulted in cholesterol deposition in arteries, or whether it was merely one of many factors that can lead to atherosclerosis. But the program tended towards suggesting that hypercholesterolemia was a myth that needed debunking.

The program generated significant controversy and accusations of irresponsibility; some medical professionals called for the second program on statins to be taken off air over concerns that patients might stop taking medication without medical advice. Rightly, the ABC declined, but it will be screened with a disclaimer that the program is for “information purposes” and “not to be taken as medical advice”.

So who to believe?

Is the assertion that saturated fats cause heart disease a gargantuan hoax? Is anti-cholesterol mania a misconception perpetuated by a multibillion-dollar food industry? Perhaps some vaccines do cause autism and doctors are hiding the scale of it, and since we’re on the topic, is climate change real?

How do journalists and the general public know whom to believe when attempting to unravel scientific research, and how do you report these findings without damaging further the already fragile relationship between the public and science?

In an atmosphere already polarised by the climate change debate and an increasing mistrust in the medical profession brought about in part by the debunked but persistent Wakefield Autism Myth, this increasingly vexed question becomes more and more difficult to answer and relies on the good faith in the intentions of journalists, the analytical ability of the audience and the ability of scientists to communicate their work. How much fact-checking should journalists do when presenting a scientific story, about which they may have little background and only experts to rely on for explanation?

As a scientist who is committed to the accurate reporting of science in the media, I’m always concerned whether journalists seek false balance by presenting two polar opposite views on a subject where there is consensus determined by evidence in the form of multiple studies. Journalists also have a fondness for the “lone genius hypothesis” revelation, which perceives scientific discovery as happening in a vacuum, coming to the enlightened and unique individual — because occasionally that lone voice may be correct.

But this feeds into the widespread perception that a single, opposing voice is as valid as multiple studies, even heroic and persecuted. In reality, most science occurs through collaboration, endless discussion and rethinking of hypotheses in the face of new experimental evidence.

In situations where controversial topics are being discussed, journalists must, and do, fact-check their work to the best of their ability. What are the options available to a journalist in this situation? Australian National University communication academic Dr Will Grant suggests three options.

“Given the nature of the debate, we can’t afford to lose more faith in the scientific process.”

“One is to do the full due diligence and actually learn all of the ins and outs of the different relevant scientific studies, and also how they’ve been taken up by the medical establishment,” he told Crikey. “That’s basically a PhD right there … The second is to just trust established authorities (the Australian Medical Association, the Academy, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), and ignore the controversy. Surely the peer review process works?

“The third is to teach the controversy — sniff for where there is a controversy, then allow both ‘sides’ a chance to put forward their case as clearly as possible. Options two and three are far easier; options one and three are likely to make the biggest impact. So you can see why journalists might be tempted with option three.”

In contrast, scientists wonder why the peer review process and weight of many articles wasn’t considered sufficient. Did Demasi take options one and three in this case? Given her background in research, it was easier for her to read and interpret the medical literature herself.

“I began to read papers that would sometimes conflict the dogma,” Demasi explained. “I put them down to exceptions. But then after a while, there were too many exceptions for me to ignore. Overall, there was enough compelling evidence for me to at least question the current thinking on saturated fats causing heart disease by raising cholesterol … I do my best to inform people of the best available evidence at the time. If the evidence isn’t there, then I like the idea of exploring the plausibility of new theories … My stories are not meant to be medical advice.”

Given the proliferation of pseudo-scientific websites catering to every possible conspiracy or “alternative” theory on the web, it’s easy to dismiss this desire to provoke debate and investigation as irresponsible. Dr Akshat Rathi, science and technology editor for The Conversation‘s UK branch, suggests that while accuracy in science reporting is important, it’s difficult to achieve perfection within a deadline.

“While covering any piece of research, a journalist should strive to run the results of a study past one (or preferably two) independent experts in the field. A journalist should be even more critical if the science being reported is controversial, “paradigm-changing” or has direct/immediate relevance to the public [health/environment].”

Ultimately, as Rathi suggests, “the problem … is not just a science journalism problem. It’s a human problem. We aren’t wired to think critically. We need to intentionally rewire ourselves to live in the complex world we’ve created for ourselves.”

We are as dependent on the ability of a journalist to discriminate between solid evidence versus opinion as we are dependent on a scientist’s integrity, presenting precise data that hasn’t been cherry-picked. In some ways, the move to online reporting and blogging, enabling useful commentary and exchange, is helping to change the nature of science reporting.

Science is a slow process, filled with constant re-evaluation and doubt, and highly qualified statements that don’t make great copy or snappy headlines. It’s harder to report that millions of dollars of research resulted in the discovery of a drug target and not a drug, or that climate change doesn’t mean that it will be summer all year round. Scientists and journalists need to work more actively together to ensure that they are accurately reporting information, and in cases where there is misrepresentation, scientists need to respond in a media-savvy way that doesn’t imply censorship or knee-jerk reactions.

Given the nature of the debate, we can’t afford to lose more faith in the scientific process.

31 comments

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31 thoughts on “Media and a scientific leap of faith: a Catalyst for thought

  1. Andrea

    As an Australian who has recently returned from living in the US for many years, I can assure you that “Demasi used recent, relatively unknown studies” is not correct. The Catalyst programs bring to Australia a debate that has been going on in the US for many years. Gary Taubes, one of the journalists in the programme, is a highly respected science writer, and his article in the New York Times “What If It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie?” in the New York Times in 2002 brought this debate to the wider public. Since then there have many books and articles by respected doctors and journalists written about the subject. I get irritated by the superficial nutritional dogma in the Australian media which is way behind the research being done in the US and Europe.

  2. Gavin Moodie

    I found this piece most frustrating. Is the Catalyst program rubbish or doesn’t the author know?

  3. John Newton

    There seems to me to be a very simple method for non-scientists to sort out the truth from the BS in these debates.

    Follow the money.

    Climate Change? The big bucks are with the deniers

    GM? The big bucks are with the pushers. Biotechs.

    The Cholesterol CHD theory? The big pushers are big pharma. Statins are the world’s largest selling drugs.

    The only disappointing thing about the final airing of this scam by Catalyst is that they have made no mention of the one medical researcher who has been onto it since the 1980s. Swedish Doctor Uffer Ravnskov.

    And for more information after Catalyst, go to thincs.org, the cholesterol sceptic’s website.

  4. John Newton

    Oops. It’s Uffe Ravnskov – his books are The Cholesterol Myths and the audaciously titled Fat and Cholesterol Are Good For you

  5. Gavin Moodie

    Unfortunately the big money rule doesn’t help me since very, very big money is made by manufacturers and sellers of foods high in sugars, carbohydrates and fat substitutes.

  6. drmick

    We visited this two years ago in Crikey and we referred non believers to the research carried out by NASA with the early astronauts. It was a sixties solution to a sixties problem. Marketing and big Pharma took over it in the early 70`s and now statins are the third biggest bill to the australian Taxpayer on the PBS. Just imagine if you can get the same “levels” taking the same medication once a week, instead of 7 times a week? What incentive is there for the manufacturer to tell you this?

  7. Andrea

    Gavin: Big money is pushing junk food, and any diet bandwagon they can jump on. Low carb, low fat; they’re not interested in the scientific theories. And they want to provide it as cheaply as possible, and preferably subsidized, hence products like high fructose corn syrup.

  8. Scott Grant

    I am with Gavin. Is Upulie Divisekera disputing the Catalyst program or not?

    In subjects where I am not an expert (everything) I place my trust in people and institutions I find believable. For me, the Catalyst program is generally a believable source of information.

    I totally agree with the point about journalists being attracted to the lone ranger versus the establishment type of story. In some ways that fits in with the prevailing neo-liberal mythology that promotes individualism over collectivism, and, as many people point out, science is essentially a collective activity: “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” – Isaac Newton.

    Nevertheless, I do find it satisfying when I see a challenge to orthodoxy that is at least worthy of further study.

    Catalyst had a similar (ie contrary to orthodoxy) program broadcast earlier this year on David Gillespie’s favorite theory: blame fructose. I ended up buying a copy of Sweet Poison.

  9. prembrowne

    This problem of how the layman is to know which scientific theories or studies to believe is far from new and I’m sure has existed since the dawn of science over 2000 years ago – the big differences now are that we are bombarded with multitudes of different, often opposing, theories. Much of it is incorrect, anecdotal or is just shonky. This info is available to us online at the click of a button and, as has been mentioned, there is major money behind the public ‘promotion’ of certain theories.
    Personally I think it’s a bit depressing that we’ve reached a stage where journalists need to re-do the fact checking that scientists have most likely already done, just to ensure they’re not unwittingly pushing an agenda, or misinformation. I guess it’s also a reflection of where journalism is heading – perhaps in the past there were more ‘Science Journalists’ on the payroll, with experience in the area, reliable contacts and an eye for detail – often now it seems that the copy-and-paste, jack-of-all-trades journos see the deadline (and the editors the headline) as more important than the content.

  10. Margaret Walker

    The top of the scientific pyrimid when looking at evidence is not individual studies (however well designed) but a systematic review of all studies using a protocol and a rigorous transparent process such as those used by the Cochrane Collaboration. I haven’t seen the program as yet but a serious science writor should always look at what systemaic reviews have been done as part of their ‘research’.

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