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The Problem of Science Reporting

by Liam Scheff

Here are three topics that you will never see debated by the major media:
• Is a bird-flu pandemic really likely?
• Is AIDS in fact a sexually transmitted disease?
• Does current evolutionary theory truly explain the diversity of life on earth?

Each of these topics comes with more competing evidence than you can shake a stick at (and from wide and varied sources), but you’ll never hear about it from the major outlets for science news—the New York Times, PBS, NPR, the BBC, or CNN—because the media simply doesn’t question the received scientific wisdom.

When an official from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) throws out an edict (“Get vaccinated for bird flu!”), or the World Health Organization (WHO) makes one of its famously failed predictions (“One in 5 American citizens will have AIDS by 1990!”), it’s front-page news around the globe. We’re not allowed to think; we’re just supposed to swallow. And when scientific claims do turn out to be false, we don’t get angry. “Better safe than sorry,” we tell ourselves. “Anyway, we all know that a bird-flu pandemic awaits us; only crazy people question evolutionary theory; and everyone knows AIDS is a sexual disease.”

But what if there was good evidence that these things weren’t true? Would Fox and CNN report it? What if serious, established researchers had strongly disparate views on an issue? Should they be allowed to debate each other on the nightly news?

“Maybe so,” you say. But at present it’s not allowed.

The major media work hard to create the illusion that science is uniform: a single-minded group of hard-working researchers, joined hand in hand, in a race against the clock, seeking the chemical cures that will save humanity from obesity, cancer, AIDS, death, and all of the other ravages of nature that must be conquered.

But when you approach this monolith, the illusion dissipates, and you are greeted by the multiple competing faces of science—the power players and capitalists, the iconoclasts and rebels, the materialists and reductionists, the atheists and agnostics, the spiritualists and mystics, all arguing, debating, squabbling, and fighting for a chance to present their material while also maintaining the façade of a united front. When you read for yourself the serious books and papers on any scientific discipline, you see that diversity writ large.

Take evolutionary theory. We’re asked to believe that there is one view of evolution, that gradual, accidental change at the genetic level somehow accounts for the formation of all species that exist or have ever existed. However, this view is not supported by the fossil record and is only propped up by our poor understanding of genetics and morphology. And yet it’s held in place by fierce argument and strong political concerns.

When you move past the orthodox view of evolution, you find an incredible array of thought, from the symbiotic-species evolution of Lynn Margulis to the morphological resonance of Rupert Sheldrake, from the fast evolutionary snaps of Niles Eldredge and Stephen J. Gould to the wholesale gene-shuffling of Barbara McClintock. There are worlds here waiting to be explored, but science journalism takes a dim view of anything that falls outside the orthodoxy. It is politics, not science, that rules the day.

The same can be said for coverage of the AIDS crisis. Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome throughout the world is being labeled a sex disease, despite much conflicting evidence.

Take the case of Dr. Nancy Padian, an AIDS researcher who set up the longest- running experiment to check the transmission rate of HIV. Padian took 175 couples in which one partner was HIV-positive and the other HIV-negative and, over a 6-year period (1990 to 1996), recorded what happened when the couples had sex. All kinds of sex: vaginal, anal, you name it—with condoms and without. The results: After 6 years, there were no seroconversions; nobody who was negative became positive. Padian kept injection-drug users out of the study, and concluded that “this evidence argues for low infectivity in the absence of either needle sharing and/or other cofactors.”

But when the BBC reports on African AIDS, they tell us that it’s without question a sex plague. What they don’t tell us is that all that’s required for an AIDS diagnosis is any form of immune deficiency. Famine, waterborne illness, desperate poverty: these are the scourges of the third world, and they are things we can do something about. But for some reason reporters never mention such mitigating factors.

The same factors apply to the bird-flu scare. We’ve been told that we may have to run for the hills with Tamiflu in hand. But when I reviewed the medical papers on bird-flu deaths in Vietnam, I read that the patients who died (mostly children) were overmedicated with strong immunosuppressive drugs (corticosteroids) and overdosed with abrasive, cell-damaging antibiotics.

Additionally, these patients lived in areas with high levels of endemic illness. Some had a single water source for washing and drinking that was also shared with local animals. But none of these details made the papers. All we were told was to prepare for the worst.

But is a pandemic really on its way? How do the experts know? From 1997 to 2006, there were about 100 deaths in Southeast Asia attributed to bird flu. How did we get from 100 deaths in 9 years to fears of a pandemic? Simple. By not asking questions.

Remember SARS? How about West Nile Virus? Weren’t thousands supposed to die? Weren’t we all in danger? So what happened?

Are we really “being safe” by excluding all of the relevant details from our critical thinking? What do we get for it but more fear, panic, and paranoia and less control over our own lives?

When we listen to National Public Radio report on these issues, we’re given one small piece of a complex story, but that piece is reported as the absolute truth—without contradictory evidence.

The BBC and NPR are especially good at this trick. The earnest, dull patter you hear coming out of your radio during their broadcasts is suggestively hypnotic. There’s no back and forth, no argument presented. You hear the predictions of death, destruction, and mayhem from the “authorities” themselves with no dissenting voice, and you’re swayed into believing it’s true. Suddenly, you think you’re an expert in the field. You go marching through the land, regurgitating omens of terror: “Bird Flu, AIDS, SARS, Cancer! Isn’t there anything we can do? Won’t somebody save us?”

You want to be saved? Here’s my suggestion: Do your own reading. Read the orthodoxy and the dissenters. And stop believing that what you read in the papers is the whole story.

In 1991, Natalie Angier, sciencejournalist for the New York Times wrote, “We science journalists . . . too often serve as perky cheerleaders for our subject and our sources.” I don’t know to what we owe this startling bit of truthfulness, but she was quite right. And that’s how it goes today: science journalists cheerleading for the orthodox view instead of reporting on it critically. It’s a real problem.

But I have a solution. I propose a new kind of news show. Picture a “Science Crossfire” where the proponents of a given orthodoxy and the dissenters go at it every week in a public forum. Call it “NIH Hardball,” “CDC in the Crosshairs,” or “WHO Firing Line.” Panelists could even take calls and emails from the anxious and curious public.

How will academic researchers respond to a public challenge of their work? Badly, I imagine. After all, it’s hard to sit in the hot seat when you’re used to standing on a pedestal. 

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