Unbiased reporting can help call time on pseudoscience
Citizens need to ask for, understand and trust scientific evidence
In July 2013, a 21-year-old man died of leukaemia in the Spanish city of Valencia. Mario chose to dismiss his doctor’s advice, turned to a so-called expert in ‘natural and orthomolecular medicine’ and abandoned chemotherapy, choosing instead to fight his illness with alternative medicine. Mario was not, as some might conclude, an uneducated young man who did not know better. He was studying to become a physicist, but even this background did not prevent his believing a charlatan’s claims. Tragedies like this beg the question: What can journalism do to better encourage trust in scientific evidence? The 4th European Conference for Science Journalists aims to answer such questions in a series of sessions that examine the roles of policymakers, citizens, scientists, and science journalists in making scientific facts great again.
In a world where alternative facts, conspiracy theories, and science denialism are becoming mainstream at an alarming rate, dubious medical theories are flourishing. Toril Aalberg, lead author of the report Populist political communications in Europe, sees this “as part of the anti-elitism that is typical of populist communication.” One that “sees science, and scientists, as part of the immoral elite who work against the interest of good people,” adds Aalberg.
In response to Mario’s death, Ciudadanos, a relatively new political party, brought a proposal before Parliament demanding that “health professionals should be obliged to communicate to the relevant legal authorities the practices carried out by professionals, qualified or not, who, far from the scientific evidence, could cause real prejudice to the direct health of their patients.”
Not all political groups subscribe to this line of argument, however, and politicians are not above making mistakes. The Spanish former minister of health, Ana Mato, speaking at a pharmaceutical industry forum, stated that “medicines for mild conditions could be replaced by natural products.” Similarly, in an interview with the Spanish newspaper El Pais, Belén Crespo, director of the Spanish Agency of Medicinal Products and Medical Devices, said that “Homeopathic medicines are just like every other medicine,” equating these concoctions with proven effective drugs.
In Spain, many politicians are too scared of public opinion to speak out against alternative medicine, according to Elena Campos, president of the Association to Protect the Sick from Pseudoscientific Therapies (APETP), a campaign group founded by Mario’s father only two weeks after his son’s death. “This is completely irresponsible,” says Campos in a statement to El País. It means that when concerns are raised, they often go unanswered.
The solution to this lies in accurate, responsible journalism that reports facts and allows the public to make up their minds about the effectiveness of alternative therapies. “Journalism has a key role in providing fact-checking,” explains Dame Anne Glover, former chief scientific adviser to the president of the European Commission.
To form an opinion about the relative merits of alternative and mainstream medicine, policymakers and the public need access to “credible unbiased reporting of what the best evidence is,” says Glover. If journalists stick to these principles, their work can help to catalyse public opinion against pseudoscience, and this can change politicians’ minds.
“MEPs are very receptive to comments, and you’d be surprised how much impact a question from just one voter can have,” says Sofie Vanthournout, Director of the Brussels-based campaign group Sense about Science EU. In 2011, the group launched the Ask for Evidence campaign, encouraging citizens to do just that. The group supports actions that “make people in power accountable for their claims.”
Besides advising on how to contact policymakers, Sense about Science EU also explains how to make sense of the available evidence. This way, citizens are equipped to recognise inconsistencies, and they are less easily led by the improper use of available data.
Even when good studies are used to justify certain decisions, Vanthournout explains that many claims do not hold up. “Cherry picking” (choosing only a handful of data to suit an agenda) “is common,” she observed. As is “the use of studies which had no quality control, such as peer review, and are of very low scientific quality. I also see a lot of examples of studies being provided to prove a point, which are actually very high quality but after a closer look, you see that they don’t support the claim at all,” she says.
In Brussels, the EU has established the Scientific Advice Mechanism to help policymakers see through the claims of pseudoscience. “In my view it is important to actually provide the evidence, tell policymakers what is known and what is not known,” says Professor Pearl Dykstra, a member of the central panel of scientists that provide the recommendations. “We need to trigger people to ask questions.”