1.2.4: Science and the Media
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In March 2006, Harper’s Magazine published “Out of Control: AIDS and the Corruption of Medical Science,” in which journalist Celia Farber alleged doctors and the National Institutes of Health were covering up problems with current AIDS treatments and collusion between medical science and pharmaceutical companies that make antiretroviral drugs to treat AIDS. She described vitamin- and nutrition-based programs underway in several African countries that were successfully combating AIDS.
Farber is an AIDS denialist. She doesn't believe that the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). She also subscribes to the idea that antiretroviral drugs (ARV) cause rather than treat the virus.
She is not alone in her views. There are others who deny that HIV causes AIDS. They include former South African president Thabo Mbeki who suspended use of ARVs while in office. AIDS denialists also include a handful of scientists, one of whom is a Nobel Prize winner for work in DNA.
But scientific consensus, based on more than three decades of research throughout the world, is that HIV causes AIDS. Thousands of scientists, medical researchers, directors of research institutions and scientific academies, Nobel prizewinners and physicians have accepted that conclusion.
Given that consensus, how is it that the views of a few denialists garner so much attention?
John Moore, a Cornell University medical researcher who studies AIDS, says that dissent is normal and occurs “for any argument put forward by humans, be it scientific, political or the best shade to use for the bathroom wallpaper”. In his view, the existence of dissent, however, should not be considered evidence of cracks in consensus or indications prevailing views are wrong.
The existence of dissent and denialists also does not mean that both sides should be given equal time and equal weight in public debate or on the airwaves—particularly if one side represents only a very small number of voices. Cornelia Dean, a science reporter for The New York Times, criticizes this practice because it does what Moore says—suggests the two sides are equally strong and compelling “even if one side is much weaker than the other—or even if there hardly is another side at all” (Dean, pp. 49-50).
Today’s media landscape also allows for dissent to have a louder voice than perhaps it should. Internet-based, 24-7 access to information has led both to the decline of mainstream media and the rise of an unprecedented number of media choices. On the surface, access to a variety of media might seem like a good thing as consumers can now tailor their news to their own interests.
But while we have access to more information than we have ever had in the history of humankind, we can find media today—websites, blogs, videos—that support rather than challenge our viewpoints. In other words, we can listen to, watch, or read media that allow us to affirm what we already think or believe. Finding a news source we agree with allows us to claim we are informed while steering clear of information that contradicts or challenges our understandings.
Niche media also enables what Leah Ceccarelli, University of Washington, describes as “manufactured controversy” or “manufactroversy.” These manufactroversies claim “disagreement [that] doesn't’t exist inside the scientific community…to achieve specific political ends” (Ceccarelli, 2008). The public, in other words, is convinced of scientific controversy even though the science is settled.
It is important to keep in mind that not many news organizations have journalists with science backgrounds, and that can impact news stories about science. In a study that compared original scientific papers with how they were presented in the media, University of Maryland Professor Jeanne Fahnestock found examples where journalists had overstated claims of certainty and rarity, were selective in use of information and watered down statements scientists made that hedged drawing definitive conclusions (Fahnestock, 1986).
Gavin Schmidt, Columbia University, notes that the science that journalists focus on is often at the cutting edge and may not stand the test of time. From his podcast "Scientists Say":
Most of the science news we hear about is based on papers that have just come out in a few high-profile journals that specialize in big, splashy results, but if those results were already commonly accepted, they wouldn't have got into those journals to begin with. So we have a paradox: the work that the media supposes all scientists agree on is precisely the work that is on the edge of the uncertainties, most likely to be contested, and might in fact be completely wrong.
To identify which media have the best handle on science reporting, borrow from peer review:
- Check out reporters’ backgrounds. National Public Radio, for instance, includes bios of reporters.
- Also look for reporters whose beat is science or energy. They are likely to have more in-depth knowledge. Several Pennsylvania news organizations have been writing about the Marcellus play for years.
- Read news media from other parts of the country with shale plays and identify the reporters that cover oil and gas
- Media organizations in Texas and Oklahoma, for instance, have different takes on energy because oil and gas is a part of their history and culture, Dr. Gavin Schmidt, Columbia University - "Scientists Say"