The weight of science journalism

Joe Boswell writes: Re. “Media and a scientific leap of faith: a Catalyst for thought” (Thursday). Your piece by Upulie Divisekera about ABC’s Catalyst program was strange indeed. “Given the nature of the debate, we can’t afford to lose more faith in the scientific process.” Well, yes; but we should only have faith in that process when it is seen to be conducted properly and is open to legitimate challenge. Conflating the doubts about current nutritional advice raised by many serious researchers for decades with the lunatics who oppose vaccination or the vested interests who deny global warming is shoddy (to put it as mildly as possible) and does no service to science. Burying conflicting evidence and shouting down opponents only entrenches errors. If we adopted Divisekera’s approach science would never have abandoned phlogiston, the four humours theory of disease or N-rays, for fear of damaging faith. Faith is not science.

Gathering and critically examining objective evidence to test theories is more to the the point.

On that scientific basis there are substantial doubts about the quality of the science that underpins the official advice of the last few decades concerning the relationship of diet and diseases such as diabetes, atheroscerosis, obesity, certain cancers and so on. If the advice is seriously wrong many people will become ill through following it, and their lives will be ruined and cut short. This is a huge and very important subject, and there is no way to sum it up adequately in an email of any reasonable length. For a very fair and thorough review of all aspects of the relevant science over past century or more, including a comprehensive bibliography of over 60 pages referencing the research and related publications, which should help anyone make up their minds about this, I suggest Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes.

Upulie Divisekera responds: In a piece of this nature, tackling a complex topic within a finite space and attempting to be fair to all parties results is what I would call a summary of the issues at hand. I did not focus on debating the science Dr Maryanne Demasi disputed, I was concerned with whether controversial information that people may act on immediately to their possible detriment was covered clearly and delivered responsibly.

Placing this within the context of the current extremely negative, almost dismissive atmosphere around any scientific debate is hardly demanding that people take any science on faith alone, or conflating legitimate scepticism with the crank end of the scepticism spectrum. As suggested in the piece, both journalists and scientists have critical responsibilities: the former to report fairly accurately relevant sides of a scientific issue especially where there is conflicting evidence; the latter to ensure the integrity of the research and that the information is accurately transmitted. This is very difficult to do, as Will Grant and Akshat Rathi discuss: how we do this without spreading misinformation?

Scientists are currently engaged in vigorous debate about the accuracy of data, the need for open access publishing, reform to the peer-review process and the importance of publishing negative results. These are topics beyond the scope of this piece but have been covered elsewhere, but they are part of this debate. To suggest that I’ve asked people to blindly accept science on faith, disputed the right of alternative views to commonly held beliefs to be aired or asked conflicting evidence be buried is quite the extrapolation.

Stop robbing savers

Gary Woodman writes: Re. “The price of too-big-to-fail set to weigh bank shares” (Thursday). In their commentary on moves by APRA to strengthen the biggest four (banks), Glenn Dyer and Bernard Keane say “all banks benefit from the guarantee”, which is true enough, except they’re forgetting the savers who would provide the funds for the levy. It’s much fairer, and eliminates moral hazard, if “the regulator wants the banks to start accumulating more capital for these special liquidity buffers” instead of robbing savers. With record profits yet again, they can afford it.

Competition winner

Congratulations to Kaeleen Dingle, who has won an iMac in Crikey‘s competition.

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Peter Fray
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