Science is the news at the beginning of the 21st century. The Human Genome Project, stem cells, global warming, genetically enhanced crops, toxics, energy generation, cancer rates, artificial heart transplants, cloning, new AIDS treatments—the list goes on and on. The front pages of America’s leading newspapers carry at least one story about a scientific breakthrough or technological advance nearly every day. The television news programs also broadcast at least one segment nightly dealing with new health information or medical treatments. But how accurate is the scientific information that we get from the media? All too often, the answer is, “not very,” according to the riveting new book, It Ain’t Necessarily So.
Written by an all-star team of science and media savvy critics (including Philanthropy contributor Joel Schwartz), It Ain’t Necessarily So takes readers inside America’s leading media outlets to explain why and how science stories get covered. After analyzing scores of high profile science stories, they conclude that science reporting often goes wrong because reporters and editors choose and report stories that fit well-worn narrative templates. “A moral stage filled with heroes and villains, dangers and triumphs, greed versus disinterested sacrifice, alarms and escapes, dastardly cover-ups by the powerful, heroic unmaskings, and plucky underdogs successfully fighting city hall” is a partial list of frequently-employed reporting templates. Unfortunately, wedging scientific findings into these molds more often than not distorts rather than illuminates them.
The authors show us “a process that is almost alchemical: as laboratory results make it into headlines, scientific uncertainty mutates into journalistic conviction.” To illustrate how this alchemical process works, the authors offer scores of misreported and misunderstood science stories for readers to consider.
For example, the authors cite a Chicago Tribune article on a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found that “women accounted for 19 percent of all AIDS cases among adults and adolescents [in 1995], their highest proportion yet.” However, if reporters had looked at the raw data, they would have found that safe sex public health measures had been effective, leading to a drop in AIDS diagnoses—from 78,863 in 1994 to 73,380 in 1995. In fact, AIDS diagnoses for both men and women fell:
Since AIDS diagnoses among men fell still more sharply than they did among women, the small decrease in the actual number of women’s cases in 1995 (123 fewer than in 1994) registered as a small increase in the percentage of all cases (from 18 percent to 19 percent). By misleadingly focusing on the percentage increase and not the actual numbers, reporters and the CDC may have been trying to foster a campaign to convince the public that AIDS is “an equal opportunity scourge.”
Whatever the merits of this campaign, it was nevertheless deceptive to highlight the percentage increase of women diagnosed with AIDS and not report that the actual number of women diagnosed with AIDS had fallen from the number diagnosed the preceding year.
Similarly, there’s the news report that meat contaminated with a dangerous strain of E. coli bacteria kills 500 Americans per year. New York Times columnist Frank Herbert cited that figure in a blistering 1995 column supporting new meat inspection regulations that he claimed were being blocked by “the meat industry and its stooges in the Republican Party.” As the authors show, when one traces the provenance of the figure, it turns out that it is highly speculative. In fact, the underlying data could just as easily be read to indicate that only three Americans might die from E. coli contamination annually—a more than 100-fold difference!
Everybody knows that reporters sometimes get stories wrong, so why focus so much attention on the accuracy and fairness of science reporting? Because science reporting has real world consequences. Policymakers and philanthropoids increasingly turn to science to answer critical questions: Does burning fossil fuels cause catastrophic global warming? Do synthetic chemicals cause cancer? Do jurisdictions with concealed carry gun laws have lower crime rates? Are genetically enhanced crops safe? These are important questions that scientific investigation can shed light on.
These investigations, however, don’t take place in isolation. “Policymakers like to invoke science in support of their political agendas because it lends an aura of inevitability to their proposals by implying that Nature herself approves of their decisions,” explain the authors.
If policymakers or activists can plausibly claim that science is on their side, in modern America that’s half the battle of enacting their agenda. As the authors note, “In the policy arena data are judged less by whether they are true or false than by whether they are useful or not.” The problem is obvious: if policymakers and the public get bad information about what science is really telling us about the world, they are more likely to agitate for and adopt injurious, useless, and costly policies. That’s exactly the outcome that It Ain’t Necessarily So seeks to prevent.
Ronald Bailey is the science correspondent for Reason magazine and editor of Earth Report 2000.