Monday, August 06, 2007

Did Scoop Campbell Pull a Brizendine? More on Science and Journalism

monorail cat is out of service
There have been lots of tedious stories in the news about the alleged chattiness of women and the Trappist-like qualities of men. One of the major sources for this recent nonsense is Louann Brizendine.
The San Francisco Chronicle took the appearance of the new paper in Science about women's and men's chattiness as a prompt for a front-page story last Friday (July 6), and of course got some quotes from San Francisco resident and myth spreader Louann Brizendine. Quotes of astonishing disingenuousness, it turns out. Brizendine's newest story is this:
My book is really about hormones, and that one line [about women uttering three times as many words per day as men] has been taken out of context. It's fascinating, anytime you talk about sex differences, it's controversial. But the bottom line is, there are more similarities than differences between men and women.
So first she claims to be just an ordinary working endocrinologist. Then, like a politician caught on tape saying something derogatory about negroes, she plays the "I-was-taken-out-of-context" card. Next, she ruminates in wonderment at the controversiality of the whole topic (could it be the fault of the press, perhaps, pumping all this up?), and then, in a dramatic big-lie U-turn, she endorses the "more-similarities- than-differences" position that properly belongs to her critics...

[I]t's Brizendine now who is the hunter of the origins of the myth — a myth that she now implies she has almost nothing to do with!
Scoop Campbell is responsible for a new myth, that of the wretched 1 in 58 prevalence for autism among UK schoolchidren (see, e.g., this discussion about autism and MMR on WDDTY). Campbell is also responsible for significant inaccuracies about the content and safety profile of vaccines. Yet, it is Campbell who has produced a Special Report for Those Confused By Muddled Medical Research; first amongst those muddlers who are responsible for such confusion would be Scoop Campbell.
many media reports last week [detailed] new medical or scientific research on key health issues. Some involve real breakthroughs, others are more questionable.

'The public ends up very confused,' says Professor Jack Winkler, a sociologist of science at London Metropolitan University. 'Every week we are told about some new wonder ingredient in our diet that's different to the one we read about a year ago.'
A UKDietitian has responded (comment 2), arguing that:
Campbell's attempts to disguise his central role in the 'muddled world of medical research' - with regards autism last week and nutrition this week - by pointing the finger elsewhere fails miserably.

It's ironic that this article - just like his MMR article that preceded it - demonstrates beautifully the central role of the journalist (and this one in particular) of perpetuating 'muddle'.
Is this an elaborate ruse for Scoop Campbell to claim that although mistakes were made, they were not by him, it's the fault of pesky scientists and their muddled research? Not his muddled research for his journalism, nor his lack of understanding of even the basics of his subject-matter? Not his fault for failing to check his sources and materials with relevant principals?

Has Campbell pulled a Brizendine yet, or will that only be true the next time that he purports to inform the public understanding of MMR, autism or vaccinations?

How much of this can be attributed to newspapers failing to educate their readers in how to distinguish reputable sources of information and well-validated research? How much responsibility do newspapers accept for muddling health and medical news that has plausible physiological/scientific mechanisms and those that do not?

Back in 2005, Mark Liberman argued that we would raise standards in science reporting by lowering them. Liberman has a very well-worked out plan, but if Campbell is anything to go by, the mainstream media has little interest in the public understanding of science, choosing to concentrate on what science and health have to offer in the way of fodder for the gaping maw of newsrotica (an obsession with salacious news stories).

Other than scoopmania, is there a neologism that captures sloppy, sensationalised reporting of health and science?

Scienceblogs host many good discussions about science. However, too frequently, there is little discussion about the science, more the public statement of different views and the interpretation/rejection of publications in line with the respective writers' or commenters' confirmation bias. In non-specialist fora, the science discussion has a distressing tendency to favour the more attractive narrative rather than the scientific plausibility.

There is more to be said about whether journalism is changing and the issue of wisdom v. ignorance in networked crowds. Scoop Campbell is thought-provoking in some ways - it is a shame that it is more about his potential emulation of Brizendine rather than a positive contribution to the public understanding of science.

Related reading

Wakefield: another triumph for mainstream journalism in the UK
Autism: The Truth Plus Sensitivity, Specificity and All That Is Decent to Reveal About Predictive Values
The British Medical Journal Embarrasses Itself by Reproducing That Notorious 1 in 58 Figure
Ben Goldacre Breaks His Silence on the Media Coverage of the MMR, Autism Stories
Observer Gives A PoMo Clarification: Retract Already
Anthony Cox: How virulent were The Observer’s MMR articles?
Myth: Measles Is A Trivial Illness, There's No Point to Vaccination
MMR Vaccine Does Not Contain Mercury, Thiomersal, Thimerosal and It Never Has
Myth: Autism Omnibus Hearings Have Not Included Evidence About MMR
The Observer Still Doesn't Understand Corrections of Fact
Confused by 'Muddled Medical Research'? Scoop Campbell to the Rescue

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