Friday, October 29, 2010

A thought

Day one of Kritisk masse today ... just one event tonight, a panel discussion about the media's coverage of the sciences and related issues. Relatively interesting, but too much applause. :-) I had a thought:

One of the panel members, the journalist Bjørn Vassnes, made the point that it's difficult to get anywhere with science reporting in this country because our school system isn't very good - children and young people don't get a grounding in scientific method and critical thinking, and so it's hard to build on previous knowledge, because it just isn't there. And this applies to our journalists too, because they go through the same school system as the rest of us. Another panelist, Ole Martin Ihle of Hjernevask fame, mentioned that he thinks it's a problem that when science is reported on in our mainstream media, it's only the finding that is reported, not the method. Ie, we're only told that a cure for illness X has been discovered, but not how. And here's my thought.

It's about the reason why this is a real problem. Here's the thing. When this type of news story is reported in this way, this makes it potentially very difficult for laypeople and those ignorant of the scientific method - which in a lot of countries, Norway sadly included, means a lot of people - to distinguish between real science and woo. Because if you present one story, that real scientists have developed a real drug that will really alleviate or cure illness X, in the way that I described ... this is the finding, and that's it. Nothing to say that this new medication is the result of years of rigorous research and strictly controlled tests, where potential sources of error have been meticulously eliminated. Then it's really not obvious to the average reader that this is what is behind it. Then you have another story saying that some practitioner has discovered another cure for X, it's just as good and in fact even better because it's totally natural. Let's say it's their special patented potato extract. And again it's just this so-called finding that is presented, and nothing about the method ... nothing about the fact that the way this cure was invented was that this guy had way too many potatoes and had to get rid of them somehow.

One really negative side effect of the way these things are presented may be that those reading these articles, stories, whatever, are unable to distinguish between the findings,the quality of the findings, because they don't have the tools, and aren't presented with the tools, to differentiate between the way these results were arrived at. And so they may well end up accepting both as equal, and for whatever reason - because the potato extract is cheaper, or it seems healthier, more natural, whatever - they go with the woo option and not the real deal. So we all lose, these people as individuals and all of us as a society, because of this. The only winner is the guy with the potatoes. Sheesh.

1 comment:

Paz said...

amazing the money the "natural remedy" people make. One of those companies is after opening opposite our office, the wage/benefits packages they are offering are unbelievable, nearly tempt me to sell their placebos