Have lessons been learned from science news coverage of issues like mad cow disease or the MMR vaccine-autism allegations?
Two weeks ago, the UK science minister, Lord Paul Drayson, engaged in a debate with Dr. Ben Goldacre, author and publisher of the site, Bad Science, on the quality of science reporting.
A video of the debate is available online. It's 90 minutes, but I loved it.
Interestingly, it was a debate fostered by a Twitter exchange between the two over whether science reporting in the UK was in good shape or not. You can find comments about the debate if you use Twitter and use the hashtag #scidebate.
Drayson surprised me with his comment, "I believe we have to support sensationalism in science reporting. I don't think sensationalism and accuracy are mutually exclusive." He went on to suggest that sensationalism was needed to "cut through the noise" and get peoples' attention about science advances.
Hmmm. Is it journalism's job to promote scientific advances?
Throughout, I sided with Goldacre, who wants to educate consumers to become healthy skeptics and evaluators of evidence.
Goldacre kept hammering on a common theme: "Ideas improve when you criticize them. Problems don't go away if you allow yourself to believe that they're not there. Science is all about critically appraising the evidence for other people's claims and ideas. When you trash someone's news story, you're actually doing something quite positive."
Overall, the "debate" lacked a key central question or focus.
If it was supposed to address, as the title suggested, whether science reporting is good for us, that sets up a yes-or-no false dichotomy. Clearly there's good and bad. Drayson seemed to want prop up the good and ignore the bad. Goldacre seemed to want to make the bad better.
Nonethless, the discussion was rich. Watch or listen if you have the time. As one UK blogger headlined it, "Science reporting cures/causes cancer."