Thursday, October 6

Scientific journalism: also for democratic quality

About seven years ago I published here a proposal that I believed had –and today I still think it has– two qualities: it is relevant in itself and it is a test or examination of whether our democratic quality is progressing at a good pace or not. The proposal is: we must and can better clarify the knowledge, interests, biases and the role of disseminator or scientific researcher that the supposed expert who values ​​it has in each journalistic news about science. ‘Science’ here includes medicine and public health, sciences and professions that we are experiencing in particularly unusual and often problematic ways during the pandemic.

As you know, a news story on a scientific topic is often published accompanied by a few brief comments from a so-called expert. The capital letters of his name and his institution, his position or position (professor or other) not only tend to seem natural, mistakenly, but are eagerly sought by the newspaper or medium that has decided to report the news; a decision that is often made with haste and doubts. Natural.

The expert’s comment must be competent, rigorous, sober and well understandable. And it must offer the reader a perspective, a context: is it for as much as the authors of the study or the press release say, the reason for the news? does it have so many implications? the study reply or refute a relevant earlier finding? It seems simple and minor but it is not: acting as an expert requires knowledge, ethics and courage. A disservice to the readers and to democratic quality is done by the experts and the media that do not meet these qualities.

Sometimes the resource to the expert seems or is parsley, ornamental, aesthetic. Sometimes the journalist who has called me to comment as an expert on a fact or scientific news has laughed when I asked him if he wanted a serious comment or just needed me as parsley for a already cooked dish. He laughed because it was the latter. Nothing tragic.

Often with the comment of the expert the journalistic medium wants to give authority or legitimacy to the news. Other times it is the opposite, it seeks to relativize it. Or take care of your health, don’t mess up, give one lime and one sand. And he is looking for an expert who will give him what he is looking for.

All this is interesting for those of us who believe –or want to believe– that the journalistic, ethical and scientific level of media treatment of scientific issues is important for the quality of our democracy and for our quality of life. A treatment that in recent decades in Spain has experienced a notable change for the better, in the press and on the networks (so overlapping, one and the other). Of course, the change has been imperfect, as is the case with all socially significant human activity.

In medicine and epidemiology, for example, it is not easy to draw conclusions about cause-effect relationships; thus, on the efficacy of a treatment or on the risk that an environmental exposure entails. Make causal inferences it often requires the integration of knowledge from various specialties and levels of study (microbiological, clinical, social, environmental levels). One way to do it is to listen to how those who know not one but several specialties integrate this knowledge; or different specialists. It is therefore important that the journalist asks specialists from other specialties, different from the study that he is going to comment on; it’s helpful if he doesn’t just ask colleagues, friends, or adversaries of the study authors. A good Internal Medicine specialist or other good clinician is almost always the best choice: they will often be able to offer a considered judgment on the possible clinical relevance of the finding. Will it be as useful as they say?

Giving a rigorous perspective on the possible clinical and population usefulness of the finding is essential to avoid false promises, deception, anxiety, and unjustified expense. Well, calm and honesty are essential for quality of life, for media and democratic quality, right?

The media presence of science should not generate false expectations about the clinical utility of a product, nor false alarms or assurances about the environmental risks that research has observed. False for patients, relatives, clinical professionals, Administration, citizens in general and, as if that were not enough, false for science itself: scientifically false. Yes, it happens. These mistakes are made by incompetent “experts” in medicine or public health, for example; and people competent in them but with biases or conflicts of interest. Even experts with international scientific recognition.

There are criteria to act, but there are no unequivocal recipes. Wow, then. Democracy and science, is what they have. But the objective is very attractive: that the efficacy and safety of a new drug or vaccine, or of a new screening, diagnostic or prognostic technique, should not be exaggerated or belittled. That the findings on the environmental, sociocultural or technological causes of human diseases not be inflated, trivialized or disregarded.

In Spain and currently, the ideological biases (concerning scientific activity) of experts, scientific organizations, companies and the media are still little analyzed. There is some fear. To screw up, maybe. To assess whether certain scientific wrens are more or less naked.

Two examples. First, observational studies are often unreasonably reviled and experimental studies equally uncritically praised. When at least since the last two decades a lot of scientific work of the maximum level has shown how both are necessary, interrelated and complementary. In medicine, epidemiology, public health, and many other disciplines and professions, the findings of observational studies are often as valid and important as in the experimental studies.

Second example of biases. Sometimes probabilistic causal models are considered second rate and deterministic models first. When probabilistic causal models are no less causal for being probabilistic. In medicine. In epidemiology. In economics. In physics. A risk factor is no less causal for being probabilistic.

As it went, all this is not something purely technical, since there are considerable interests at stake. Material interests (of the professional, the media or the network and its funders), but also the egos and prestige of individuals and institutions (these tend to write a good part of the press releases, with a tendency to exaggerate the importance of the study ). Ideological, psychological, cognitive or other interests. The infodemic –information epidemic– that has become so famous during the pandemic comes from afar.

So individual courage, professionalism or ethics are not everything. The most dominant social cultures, the rules of journalistic companies and scientific organizations, the democratic, ethical and media quality of a society help more or less to make the corresponding level – democratic, ethical and media – of the media more or less high. expert comment. Both things influence each other. Unfortunately, to some people and media, even honest and progressive, these issues seem technical, simple, irrelevant. Democratically, ethically and mediatically irrelevant. Politically irrelevant. When they are relevant in themselves, they are profoundly political and are a test or examination on the course of our democratic quality.

Text adapted from the book Nearby epidemiology (Publisher Triacastela, 2022)