Sunday, 18 November 2007

What do health correspondents know?

I thought that it would be rather interesting to survey the health correspondents, who work for the major media outlets in this country, to examine just how well educated they are in the field of science. The reasoning behind this was that in my opinion it is rather hard to do a decent job as a health correspondent without a reasonably scientific education, given how so many health related issues are so very scientific in nature. Unsurprisingly only a minority of those surveyed responded.

Credit must go to those who did respond. Nigel Hawkes of the Times who writes some excellent pieces, unsurprisingly has a very scientific background with a scientific degree and A Levels in Maths and the sciences. Jeremy Laurance of the Independent has A Levels in Maths and science with a philosophy degree. While Sarah Boseley of the Guardian has no science beyond GCSE level with an arts degree, she also felt the need to comment as below, she obviously knew the line which I was probing:

"I would add that I think the job of reporting is not necessarily to bring any previously-acquired knowledge to a story but to find out and understand it well enough to interpret for a reader who usually knows even less than we do. Some scientists have difficulty with that."

I think Sarah Boseley's argument shows exactly why a scientific education is needed to report to a high standard on scientific issues. I think scientists have difficulty with this argument because of the flagrant lack of logic it demonstrates. A good scientific education is invaluable in analysing scientific evidence and scientific stories; it is essential for weeding out the good science from the dross, for spotting the dishonest lies that some people peddle as indisputable science. It seems to be no coincidence that the mainstream media gives so much time to medical treatments with no evidence behind them such as homeopathy and natural remedies, while so called experts in nutrition and psychology are trusted just because they have paid a few hundred dollars for a cheap masters degree in their field of expertise. I would argue that a proper scientific education is essential so that our health journalists can weed out the likes of Gillian McKeith, rather than naively believing anyone who can talk the talk.

I am still waiting for replies from several journalists, including the BBC's health correspondent. I am sure that journalists will have very wide ranging views on this topic, but surely this debate should be heard; as there is a real concern that if the dumbing down of science continues in the media as it is, then more and more con artists will continue to rip off the general public in a variety if ways with their dishonest pseudoscience. Sometimes it may only mean that someone wastes a few quid on a potion that doesn't work, but on other occasions it may mean that someone dies because they seek the attention of quacks instead of the real doctors who may be able to cure their health problem. I have seen early stage and eminently treatable breast cancer kill needlessly, because a patient was convinced that 'natural remedies' would cure her without the need for surgery. If any journalists wish to join the debate then please feel free to add your name and the details of your education below. Science is the foundation upon which so much modern progress has been built, so if we let these foundations wash away the consequences could be rather disastrous.