Editors, producers, journalists: drop the false balance

By Grant Jacobs 08/03/2013 28


If the ‘alternative’ viewpoint isn’t sound, there is nothing to report on the alternative viewpoint.

For some things there are no sound alternative viewpoints.

There seems to be a number of media personnel who feel obliged to offer ‘another’ viewpoint, as if everything were decided by opinion.

It is, at best, lame journalism to rope in some unorthodox opinion to fill in some imaginary requirement that an alternative viewpoint be offered.

Alternative views make sense for things defined entirely by opinion: a dress at the Oscars, the colours an automobile manufacturer choose for it’s cars – and so on.

Scientific things are determined by evidence, not opinion.

There can be alternative viewpoints in science for issues that have yet to be settled. In that case it ought to be noted that the material is still under open investigation: the ‘state of play’ of the science should be presented.[1] It would be quite misleading, though, to place unsound alternative viewpoints alongside science that is well-resolved. In that case, the alternative views incorrectly imply the science is unresolved, leaving the piece misrepresenting the subject matter.

Similarly, if views that are not sound are presented alongside sources that are sound, the audience may take away that the ‘alternative’ view has a creditability that they do not.

I’ve been reminded of this by Radio New Zealand, who usually do a good job,[2] offering Hilary Butler as a counterpoint to information on vaccines by Immunisation Advisory Centre immunisation research director Helen Petousis-Harris.

This is the same Hilary Butler who believes that baking soda can cure cancer, who listed homeopathic[3] remedies as treatments for radiation illnesses and more.

There is no obligation to present an ‘alternative’ views. If there are no sound alternative views, best not to offer any.[4]

Footnotes

Even more egregiously Radio Rhema, a religious programming station, simply offered a platform for a ‘spokesperson’ from an anti-vaccine organisation to speak in what could scarcely be called an interview. No critical questioning of the interviewee, just an opportunity for them to babble on. I’m not going to attempt to address the (many) inaccuracies presented by the spokesperson, but I will point out that them merely giving themselves the title of ‘researcher’ doesn’t not make their view sound. Perhaps as a religious station they might think of it this way: it’d have as much value as a minister granting themselves the title of bishop because they liked the idea.

1. This is particularly true for initial reports. There is also is also a related issue when reporting subsequent findings.

2. Radio New Zealand have hosted some of my science blogging colleagues and has some excellence science coverage, for example Our Changing World.

3. I have a rule-of-thumb that anyone who advocates homeopathy as lost their ability to critical judge claims. Homeopathy is the easiest of ‘nonsense’ remedies to see through: the repeated dilutions ensure there is nothing of the original ingredients!

4. I suppose some would like the entertainment value of someone talking nonsense. There is that, admittedly. But if the piece is meant to present a topic seriously that wouldn’t gel with the aim.


Other articles on media issues at Code for life:

Dear journalists and editors, (again)

Dear journalists and editors,

Media thought: Ask what is known, not the expert’s opinion

Note to science communicators–alleles not ’disease genes’

Bad science: baking soda, fungi, cancer, nuclear fallout, rosacea


28 Responses to “Editors, producers, journalists: drop the false balance”

  • Thank you, Rob – that was a new one to me, a great little sketch. It’s a nice reminder of how humour can poke at serious topics, too.

    I also couldn’t help noticing a comment offered by a viewer there – “haha its seven sharp”. For those outside New Zealand, Seven Sharp is a new current affairs program we have here that replaced Close Up. I’ve no idea if the writer is referring to the program or not, but they do read out emails sent to them… (see the video Rob linked)

    To offer some balance (ha), the people I am referring to in my piece—those who journalists sometimes use as false balance—do try be “informed” in a sense, it’s just that they are (very) badly informed – from unsound sources and echo chambers of their peers in on-line forums.

  • Fair comments. However, there are many examples of ‘established’ science becoming ‘unsettled’. It is not uncommon for the establishment to ignore or ridicule new theories or even data that don’t fit the mould; even more so when produced by relative outsiders or newcomers. One well-known example is that of Barry Marshall and Robin Warren who showed that peptide ulcers are caused by Helicobacter pylori, which went against medical dogma. Of course, eventually they went on to receive the Nobel Prize for their discovery. Similarly, Peyton Proust developed the theory that viruses could transmit and cause cancer. He also was ridiculed and it was 40 years (!) later before he got awarded the Nobel Prize. Since Peyton’s original discovery in 1910 many human cancer viruses have been discovered and this field is littered with Nobel Prize winners.

    You also mention baking soda as a mythical cure for cancer. I think you may have to be a little more cautious before you write this off as complete nonsense without scientific evidence or sound theoretical underpinning. A very recent article in the hard-core (AACR) cancer journal Cancer Research by a very reputable group showed that tumours invade surrounding tissue along pH gradients generated by the cancer cells. This is not entirely new and a known result of the Warburg and Pasteur effects. However, their findings were summarised as follows:

    Striking findings show that tumor invasion into adjacent normal tissues proceeds in the direction of low pH and that simply lowering the acidity of adjacent tissues in vivo by [orally] administering sodium bicarbonate is sufficient to block invasion.

    Other recent studies have used more ‘pharmacological’ inhibitors of the sodium-hydrogen exchanger-1 (NHE-1), which is one of the main players in the acidification, and also found inhibition of tumour invasion.

    So, perhaps the anticancer effects of sodium bicarbonate are not that far-fetched after all.

    The Cancer Research article is an Open Access Article (great stuff): http://dx.doi.org/10.1158/0008-5472.CAN-12-2796

  • I don’t think Grant was saying baking soda was a mythical cure for cancer. There may be some utility and research is being done. But that’s a long way from making a profit from promoting it as a panacea as Sircus and Butler do.

  • Rob,

    Of course, Grant didn’t say that literally, if anything it was the opposite. I was paraphrasing his paraphrasing, as you did referring to “panacea” and making a profit promoting it.

    What I tried to point out was that things are never as simple (black & white) as they seem. Just because some nutters say some nutty things, and possibly take advantage of desperate (gullible) people, this doesn’t mean that ALL they say is nutty and should be written off akin the baby & bath water.

    I believed Grant was using the baking soda example as an alternative viewpoint that is not sound and best should be ignored and may only offer some entertainment value.

    In this case, I disagree with his take on the baking soda example and with his 3rd foot note.

    I have not read any of the links in Grant’s article, only the article itself, so that’s the context of my responses. I don’t know anything else about the claims of the people that Grant is referring to.

  • Frederik,

    Your offering a paper that I “should” has you implying I had not read the topic before writing on it, whereas you admit you have not even checked what it is that you are criticising.

    Links are provided for a reason…

    If you had checked, you’d have seen that in fact I did read what people are doing in this area. (And, yes, I saw the paper you linked to during the backgrounding.) I also read Hilary’s claims.

    If you read the linked article and the following comments you’ll see that I gave it what (little) creditability that it might have – contrary to what you make me out to have done.

    Rather than “caution” me, wouldn’t it have been best to check you have your position on me right first?

    Hilary believes in Dr Tullio Simoncini’s idea that cancer is a fungus (literally, not figuratively) that should be treated with baking soda. (They guy is a convicted fraudster, apparently.)

    My own writing on it distinguished her ideas and the general research area you refer to.

    It seems to me that rather than “cautioning” me, you should instead be grateful. (I’m not advocating that area of research, by the way – it has it’s faults.)

    I’d add that your examples of people whose ideas later being proved right don’t really have meaning here (and you’ve exaggerated them somewhat, too).

    Regards your disagreeing with my footnote on homeopathy: no-one with any science background should be accepting homeopathy as possible, never mind plausible.

  • Grant,

    I realised when replying to Rob’s comment that I should have made it clear from the outset that I had not read the links in your article. This would undoubtedly have provided me with more background information on your position. Instead I treated your latest blog as a stand-alone, which led to the now obvious consequences.

    I quoted a paper to support my viewpoint but I never wrote that you “should” [read] it. There was nothing in your current blog that suggested that you were aware of this area of cancer research. Providing a link to an Open Access Article and a good scientific paper was well-intended but not well-received. Clearly, my writing style and language rubbed the wrong way, which is another valuable lesson for me.

    I don’t quite follow what I should be “grateful” for.

    Which area of research are you not advocating and has its faults? This was also unclear to me.

    My examples of Proust and Marshall & Warren were meant to show that “well-resolved” science can become ‘unsettled’, which was one of the points you made in your blog I believed. These are well-known examples and well-publicised, including auto-biographic, stories. They are examples of challenging orthodoxy in science with the unsurprising consequences, reactions, and repercussions. I am not sure what I “exaggerated” but I think I got the context right nonetheless I stand to be corrected on this as well.

    With regards to your 3rd footnote, it did not say that nobody with a science background should consider homeopathy possible. Certainly, this could follow from your footnote. However, the footnote referred to a rule-of-thumb of yours that advocates (believers?) of homeopathy have lost the ability of critical thinking. As written, I disagree, even as a rule-of-thumb (heuristic). I tend to give people the benefit of doubt and generally too much credit, strange as that may sound to you.

  • Hi Frederik, Thanks for the reply. It’s not your writing style that is the problem, it’s that you were telling me how I ought to be doing things, where a little checking would have shown I already do and did. Teaching grandmother to suck eggs is rarely a good idea and all that 😉 Your first comment was off-base and I’m afraid you’re going further off-base with the other things you are “reading into” in what I’ve written. Sorry about this, but with that in mind I’m afraid I’m not going to take this further as I don’t see value in it.

  • and now for something completely different…

    this reminded me of someone who likened ‘anti’ and ‘pro’ vaccination as logical as an ‘anti’ and pro’ slavery arguments.
    just because there is a view point doesn’t mean there is an ‘equal’ opposing view.
    I like to think of myself in this PC world as ‘pro choice’ for immunisation. Everybody in NZ, whether they think immunisation is a good idea or not can choose to have it (or not).

    I also find that those who are ‘pro’ are aware of the risks of vaccines, or at least tend not to discredit data relating to known side effects, whereas those who are ‘anti’ won’t have a bar of any supposed benefits…

    Theo Brandt
    Immunisation Advisory Centre.

  • Hi Theo,

    Thanks for dropping by.

    Side-tracking away from my key point (the use of “false balance” by media), then…!

    I guess one aspect is that those using vaccines accept there are small risks associated with everything we do and that this comes with doing something that for the very large part is beneficial, whereas (some of) those opposing vaccines insist there never be even the slightest risk from the treatment but for various reasons aren’t willing to accept that the benefits (far) outweigh the risks.

    (There’s an issue of distinguishing effects known to be cause-and-effect and those that are really only associations, too. I wonder if it’d help if the two distinguished more clearly when the risks are presented in, say, package inserts or websites, etc. – ?)

    Certainly claims that vaccines have no benefit, exaggerated stories of harm, and so on pushed by those opposing vaccines aren’t helpful.

    I suppose it’s a good opportunity for me to say that I like to distinguish those that at the heart of advocacy or lobbying efforts against vaccines from, say, parents who have chosen to follow these people’s ideas. Those that publicly advocating a position are opening their views to whatever criticism their views might get. It comes with the territory, so to speak. Here I’m referring to the likes of, say, Hilary Butler, Suzzane Humphries, the core members of the IAS and so on.

    By contrast I have some sympathies for “followers” (for want of a better term) – they’re essentially being encouraged by people who are claiming to know better than the medical or scientific communities but whose views aren’t supported by the evidence or are over-played.

    Having said that, I think it’s worth remembering that most of the people opposing vaccines probably mean well even if they’ve advocating, or have gotten swept up in, inaccurate ideas.

  • >Scientific things are determined by evidence, not opinion<

    Not so fast! Scientific things are PARTLY determined by evidence! The other part involves whether advocacy free objectivity has really been achieved, and if the methods and data used are really adequate to address the issue. Ultimately, this amounts to an opinion over whether the science has been done appropriately.

    I am concerned that this "false balance in the media" stuff is coming purely out of the science side of the debate. If so, it is hardly unbiased. The scientific opinion (or opinions) only carried more weight if you are looking from the science camp. There is actually no problem in the media giving alternative viewpoints, provided that they are not portrayed as being equivalent. So, there is no problem if the scientific consensus view is presented as just that, and minority alternative opinions (outside of science) are presented as just that. They are not equivalent because they are based on different "methods", and have different numbers of "followers" from different walks of life. To claim that only the scientific view is worth reporting is begging the question of the whole debate.

  • Stephen,

    I prefer to think of it as science is based on evidence, however, decisions on how to response to issues involving science also needs to incorporate the values of those involved.
    However, when it comes to balance it seems to me that pseudoscientific views should be avoided, while allowing arguments from a values point of view need to be heard (along with science based arguments)

  • Michael,

    I don’t think it is quite so clear cut. Theoretically, in a perfect world, science is based (solely) on evidence. The “what to do with the science” question is another issue (for both the perfect world and the real world). In the real world, scientific results may be tainted with advocacy and agenda, due in large part to funding issues. To claim that only science is kosha amounts to an opinion.

  • As usual, reports of this story are not entirely consistent. This source (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/bbc/10944629/BBC-staff-told-to-stop-inviting-cranks-on-to-science-programmes.html) gives a version as [quote]BBC Trust says 200 senior managers trained not to insert ‘false balance’ into stories when issues were non-contentious [unquote]. I would say that climate change IS CONTENTIOUS. Of course, it is not contentious among scientists, but it is contentious in the wider context, so the whole thing is ambiguous! Also, [quote] “The Trust wishes to emphasise the importance of attempting to establish where the weight of scientific agreement may be found and make that clear to audiences,” wrote the report authors [unquote]. This seems fine to me. In a media article relating to climate change, the article should make clear the view that represents the scientific consensus. But this is very different to not mentioning alternative views!

  • Stephen,

    I have meant to reply sooner, but have been busy.

    You appear to be writing about a tangent (i.e. not what I’ve written about).

    I wrote about media placing unsound alternative viewpoints alongside science that is well-resolved”. (See in particular the paragraph I’m quoting from here – “There can be alternative viewpoints … the subject matter.”)

    (I also made clear I was talking about topics are resolved by evidence, not opinion.)

    If you‘re trying to present the state of the science, presenting unsound views on well-resolved topics is either unproductive, at best, or, at worst, may have the effect of artificially presenting the topic as if it were ‘unsettled’ science when in fact it’s well-resolved. (In a different type of presentation it might show that some people have unfounded opposition to something that is well-resolved.)

    “Ultimately, this amounts to an opinion over whether the science has been done appropriately.”

    I suspect what you’re talking about is really about if the research done has been reported fairly, e.g. without over-reaching. (By the researchers, too, not just the journalists.) That doesn’t oppose or take away the point I was making; it’s a fair topic in it’s own right, but it’s a different topic to what I wrote about.

  • No, I’m bang on topic, I suggest. To label an alternative viewpoint as being “unsound” is question begging in the present context. You appear to be judging “soundness” on scientific consensus, but alternative views outside of science cannot be judged on that basis. Take the creationist/evolutionist debate for example. Some people believe evolution on scientific grounds, while others choose to believe creationism on religious grounds. There is absolutely no reason for the media to silence the voice of either group. The religious group could run the same argument, and say that the science camp is of unsound faith, so should not be reported. On the other hand, if we are talking about disagreement within science, where a few scientists disagree with an otherwise nearly unanimous consensus, well that might be worth reporting (e.g. dung beetle introductions), but I agree that it should be made clear that one view is a nearly unanimous consensus, while the alternative views have few supporters. The reader should decide for themselves, based on unbiased reporting.

  • “There is actually no problem in the media giving alternative viewpoints, provided that they are not portrayed as being equivalent.”

    The issue is that they are all too often portrayed as being of equal value. The vaccination example Grant’s provided is a case in point. The same is true for proponents of Intelligent Design. Lacking any proposed mechanism for the action of their designer reduces ID to the status of an hypothesis (& a fairly weak one at that); there is no good reason to present it as of equal standing to evolutionary biology when addressing issues to do with evolution. (Incidentally, those who accept evoluion on scientific grounds do it on the basis of evidence, not personal belief.)

    If the question in hand is to do with science (eg vaccination, evolution), then arguments/discussion should be advanced on the basis of science if they’re to hold any weight.

  • Alison,
    You and a lot of others that I’m seeing comments from on this topic are speaking from within the science camp. My point is that when it comes to media reporting, there is no reason for them to do the same. If there are alternative opinions from outside the scientific camp, then there is no reason for the media to ignore these opinions. It is an opinion to believe that science can answer certain questions better than other means. For example, the late Steve Jobs was of the opinion that alternative medicine could cure his cancer better than conventional medicine. The fact that he died doesn’t really prove him wrong. You (and others) seem to think that science is defined by the question. I say science is a method for going about answering the question. There are, in some people’s opinion, other, perhaps better ways to answer the question. These are the terms of the debate. Why should the media necessarily side with the scientific opinion? To say that [quote] those who accept evoluion on scientific grounds do it on the basis of evidence, not personal belief [unquote] is misleading. They have a personal belief in science, a belief which then let’s them jump from the data (evidence) to the theory of evolution as an explanation for that data. In the case of evolution, the data/evidence doesn’t get you to the conclusion with certainty, not without certain “leaps of faith [in science]” to gloss over missing data/evidence, etc. Unless you can detach yourself from the scientific perpective, you will never properly understand the terms of the debate here.

  • Stephen,

    “My point is that when it comes to media reporting, there is no reason for them to do the same.”

    Best as I can tell, your ‘point’ really seems to just to be argumentative! – nevertheless a few words:

    If journalists are reporting things are, essentially, scientific matters they’d do well to present what the scientific understanding of the matter is, right? (Remember reportage here is about the ‘facts’, not what people might ‘believe’.)

    Presenting unsound material as sound possibilities misleads, hence the issue of false balance. (As Alison points out, a key issue is that placed side-by-side they’re given the same ‘weight’.)

    I tried to explain these things to you briefly in my previous comment, and pointed you to a key passage, but you appear to not have taken these on board AFAICT.

    “You (and others) seem to think that science is defined by the question.”

    No, and what a strawman. I can’t speak for others, but I doubt they think this either.

    (Incidentally, the reasons Jobs’ case doesn’t prove anything is simply because it’s anecdotal; anecdotal data can’t ‘prove’ anything either for or against.)

    “I say science is a method for going about answering the question. There are, in some people’s opinion, other, perhaps better ways to answer the question. These are the terms of the debate.”

    What ‘debate’ & why do you think you can force your terms on us?

    I wrote about how the media presents the current understanding of a scientific matter. Not people‘s opinions: what is reliably known.

    Offering unsound ‘alternatives’ doesn’t aid that and can mislead, and can give the misleading impression that well-resolved matters aren’t.

    Some people may well believe their anecdotes count for more than they can (you frequently see this from those opposed to vaccines, for example), but that doesn’t make them able to accurately present what is known about a matter. (In practice it’ll almost certainly cause them to represent the matter poorly.)

    “Why should the media necessarily side with the scientific opinion?”

    You’re using that word opinion in again.

    I’ve previously pointed out that it’s what is well-resolved—‘known’—that matters.

    Opinion and ‘what is known’ are different things. You’re conflating the two.

    I said nothing about ‘taking sides’. I wrote about presenting what is known accurately. There is a tangentially-related issue of media presenting things as under debate, when in practice the issue is well resolved (i.e. there is no debate on the substance of the matter). It is misleading to present a well-resolved issue as if it were ‘unsettled’ – it misrepresents what the situation is.

    “Unless you can detach yourself from the scientific per[s]pective, you will never properly understand the terms of the debate here.”

    Now who’s begging questions? See earlier comments re opinion v. understanding what is known.

  • OK, Grant, gloves off! Truth is what you have written is (perhaps deliberately) vague and ambiguous, giving you plenty of elbow room to impose interpretations which suit you in response to my comments. Anyway, firstly, you may not appreciate this fact, but media reporting is in part entertainment. That is the nature of the beast. If you want “the facts and nothing but the facts”, then read the scientific literature, not the popular media. This is why they interview cranks and crackpots. But, more seriously, I suspect you are just lobbying for the media to align itself with your own personal opinions on certain matters, and stifle opposing opinions. Your opening sentence, viz. [quote] If the ‘alternative’ viewpoint isn’t sound, there is nothing to report on the alternative viewpoint [unquote] is question begging because it evaluates “soundness” in scientific terms only! Take climate change as an example. The debate is over whether the scientific viewpoint really is sound or not. That uncertainty is what makes the alternative viewpoints relevant. You seem to be assuming that a consensus within the scientific community implies “soundness”, and that it depends only on evidence, when in fact it may be agenda driven to more or less of an extent, in response to what the funders of the science want the science to “prove”. Whether or not this is the case in any particular example I don’t know (though I think I do know in the case of the dung beetle release application and approval thereof), but these are the terms of the debate as I see them.

  • “OK, Grant, gloves off!”

    No, thank you. I discourage argumentative approaches as they’re rarely helpful and they’re not something I like on my blog. If you really want to do that, try another forum, please. (My earlier reference was that I was setting out to reply politely in face of the possibility that you just wanted to be argumentative and I offered with a little gentle humour.)

    “Truth is what you have written is (perhaps deliberately) vague and ambiguous, giving you plenty of elbow room to impose interpretations which suit you in response to my comments.”

    No. (Below the belt, really. I’m not conspiring to anything and what I wrote looks clear and straight-forward to me.)

    “Anyway, firstly, you may not appreciate this fact, but media reporting is in part entertainment. That is the nature of the beast.”

    Most people know the general nature of that part of media eh? 😉 There are programmes and segments that aim for ‘straight’ news, too, even some entire channels for that matter. There are also documentaries. Most people know that too, and that, too, is part of the nature of the beast 😉

    It ought to be pretty obvious I referred to reporting that should be offered ‘straight’.

    There are people that want ‘straight’ reporting and fair enough. Plenty of people object to the distorted nature of segments of the media, too. (Most want their entertainment as well, but there’s a place for wanting news to be news and documentaries to accurately reflect their subject, etc.)

    “If you want “the facts and nothing but the facts”, then read the scientific literature, not the popular media.”

    People who aren’t scientists deserve accurate accounts of things, too, and offering accurate material is what the sort of reportage I referred to is supposed to do.

    “This is why they interview cranks and crackpots.”

    Some journalists do it because they don’t know better; some mistakenly think that that ‘alternative’ views are substantive when they are not; some are trying to please their editor/producer, etc.

    “But, more seriously, I suspect you are just lobbying for the media to align itself with your own personal opinions on certain matters, and stifle opposing opinions.”

    No (and below the belt again. If you don’t mind me saying this it’s a bit silly).

    Key was that ‘what is known’ is presented accurately – I tried to point this out earlier.

    Opinions are anecdote and by their nature can’t to ‘settle’ substantive topics – I’ve have written on this previously, too, I think. This is not ‘stifling’ opinions, but that opinion and substantiated material have different merits and shouldn’t be conflated by presenting them as if they were equal (especially) if the substantive position is well-resolved.

    “Your opening sentence, viz. [quote] If the ‘alternative’ viewpoint isn’t sound, there is nothing to report on the alternative viewpoint [unquote]”

    Try read it in context, please. The opening lines are set to encourage people to read on for an explanation. (Lifting something out of context and fitting your own things to it often leads to misrepresentation.)

    “is question begging because it evaluates “soundness” in scientific terms only!”

    Not going to argue, but this isn’t right. (Just food for your own thought – i.e. in your own time: try think about the value of opinion and evidenced ‘facts’—for want of a better word—in resolving an issue based on substance and why placing them alongside one-another might mislead. Your re-interpreting me in an odd way appears to trace back to this.)

    “Take climate change as an example. The debate is over whether the scientific viewpoint really is sound or not. That uncertainty is what makes the alternative viewpoints relevant.”

    From what those that know climate science say, that’s not really what is unsettled. Talk to Gareth Renown or Ken (who both write here); I don’t cover climate change.

    (Also, read back. If a viewpoint is unsound, it can’t increase understanding of what is known about a topic. At best it’d add no more understanding and at worse confuse, e.g. if people think the unsound viewpoint should be considered as equal to the well-founded ones.)

    “You seem to be assuming that a consensus within the scientific community implies “soundness”,”

    Not quite.

    (Don’t try speak for me if you could – it has the effect of putting words in other’s mouths. Generalising, the strength of an explanation is how well it explains the observations. Scientific consensus is to allow people with different backgrounds to cover the different aspects of an issue – modern scientists rarely can cover all aspects as one team. Consensus across statistics, as in Cochrane reports is a slight different thing; you might be crossing these two here.)

    “and that it depends only on evidence,”

    I think most people would rather hope things that matter to them rest on substantive evidence not people ‘just saying so’!

    “when in fact it may be agenda driven to more or less of an extent, in response to what the funders of the science want the science to “prove”.”

    If research is like this in your corner of IT, then your field has a problem. I don’t see academic research as a whole is even close to this. You might level this with businesses pushing a product, but this ought to show up on inspection of the evidence, etc. (Investigative journalism does similar to this.)

    In any event, this is tracking off-topic: I wrote about where unsound statements are placed alongside subject matter that has been well-resolved.

  • The “gloves off” remark was just a tongue-in-cheek dig (it seems to have worked quite well!)

    Anyway, trying to “stick to the point” of what you wrote. You say ‘I wrote about where unsound statements are placed alongside subject matter that has been well-resolved’. You also say ‘Scientific things are determined by evidence, not opinion’. As I have already tried to explain, I suggest that scientific things are only partly determined by evidence. They are not “unfettered opinion”, but they are still based on opinion nonetheless.

    Let’s look at your example (below), though I don’t know anything about the specifics, so will make only general comments:

    I’ve been reminded of this by Radio New Zealand, who usually do a good job,[2] offering Hilary Butler as a counterpoint to information on vaccines by Immunisation Advisory Centre immunisation research director Helen Petousis-Harris. This is the same Hilary Butler who believes that baking soda can cure cancer, who listed homeopathic[3] remedies as treatments for radiation illnesses and more.

    I do see the problem here, and I do have sympathy with your frustration, which is presumably based on the worry that something along the following lines will happen: parents will listen to the crackpot, reject the sound advice of the Immunisation Advisory Centre, and children could die as a consequence of irresponsible/misguided reporting. Well, two comments:

    (1) You haven’t specified how the two opposing views were introduced. Presumably (I haven’t gone to the source), immunisation research director Helen Petousis-Harris was introduced as just that, while Hilary Butler was introduced as some kind of independent homeopathy advocate? So, rightly or wrongly, the argument from authority weighs on the former side. I agree it would be BAD if this wasn’t the case!

    (2) Arguably, some decisions do need to be made by the state, and forced on the people, and it does happen. The people cannot be realistically expected to make rational decisions regarding technical matters. Ironically, democracy makes this water a bit muddier, as governments will try to avoid unpopular decisions which might not get them re-elected!

    So, in the specific case of vaccination, things are relatively clear. But I am more worried about the general case. Things are a lot less clear in the case of “climate change”, yet there are many in the science camp who claim that it is perfectly clear and setlled and well-established that we need to reduce carbon emissions or else face extinction or at least extreme hardship.

    So the difficulty, as is often the case in life, is in applying a general rule which solves the specific cases like vaccination, while at the same time not being open to possible abuse in other cases. Yes, we should probably follow the recommendations of the Immunisation Advisory Centre, but should we also accept the rulings of EPA on dung beetle releases? How do we decide who we can trust, when in both cases a “reputable scientific institution” is advocating strongly for some side of a debate? Therefore, in general, I do not agree with forcing the media to disregard opposing views just because some group of scientists says the matter is settled!

  • Stephen,

    You’re making something very simple unnecessarily complicated.

    Something that is unsound is not of the same merit of something that is sound.

    Presenting these two as if they have the same merit would likely mislead.

    Bringing this forward: “Therefore, in general, I do not agree with forcing the media to disregard opposing views just because some group of scientists says the matter is settled!”

    I wonder this has more to do with some things you are saying on Ken’s blog about how sciblogs is, supposedly, rabidly pro-science, etc. That doesn’t nor reflect what I’ve written, do or think. I can’t help wondering if this is the nub of it: that you’re trying to ‘see’ this in my words, as it were.

    (re ‘force’ – something I could hardly do; loaded language, too.)

    “So the difficulty, as is often the case in life, is in applying a general rule which solves the specific cases like vaccination, while at the same time not being open to possible abuse in other cases.”

    If you read you’ll see I covered where the science isn’t well-settled and link to more on how what is known might be presented. I’ve tried to draw your attention to this several times now – see my first reply to you, e.g. “See in particular the paragraph I’m quoting from here – “There can be alternative viewpoints … the subject matter.”

    “Well, two comments”

    Neither of the two points you present are central to what I wrote, nor was I even making the points you raise!

    re 1: The ‘argument from authority’ element you bring up was not part of my argument. I was pointing out that Butler is an unsound source of medical information because of what information [sic!] she offers.

    As you’ll know, someone’s title or formal position in itself isn’t a reason what they say should be considered sound or not. What is important is if what they presented is sound or not, if they represent what is known fairly/accurately (see my link to my earlier article). Naturally, people trained and experienced in a particular area are more likely to get things right, but there are examples of full Professors with odd views, too.

    On the subject of introductions making clear an interviewee’s position: really, what (reputable, ‘straight’ reporting) news program is going to introduce someone as “and now let’s hear from this crackpot we found that we thought was really entertaining eh”? 🙂 (Following from your earlier writing re entertainment, etc.) Of course they usually present them as “the spokesperson for the ‘Immunisation Awareness Society’” or the like.

    (Offering ‘of course viewers/listeners will know’ would be wrong: some people don’t, that’s a reason these types of views persist.)

    re “(2) Arguably, some decisions do need to be made by the state, and forced on the people, and it does happen. ”

    Nothing to do with the point I was making, sorry, & I wasn’t suggesting something on that. (Incidentally, the word ‘force’ is inappropriate, actually: ignoring that it can be read as with a loaded meaning, it’s not how it’s done in NZ.)

    “As I have already tried to explain, I suggest that scientific things are only partly determined by evidence. They are not “unfettered opinion”, but they are still based on opinion nonetheless.”

    We’ve done this before. You’re clearly ‘stuck’. I don’t quite see why, but perhaps it’s because you are crossing (confounding, whatever) presenting what is known from science and someone suggesting use of that – two different things. To a skim read you’ve done something similar over at Ken’s blog. (Perhaps you can leave that for there?) It also doesn’t make sense if taken literally, but that’s another topic well away from this and which I have no interest in right now.

  • Grant,
    What you have written is nowhere near as clear as you seem to think! What you seem to be saying is that when the science is well-settled, then there is no need for the media to present alternative viewpoints, right? But, the difficulty is in deciding if the science is well-settled. Sometimes it is easy enough in practice to decide this. Vaccination is one of the easier cases. Applying your reasoning to more difficult cases could be problematic. What about climate change? Is that really “well-settled”? Many within the science community would say so. I just don’t think that you can come up with a generally applicable definition of what it means for the science to be “well-settled”? For example, the recent application (prepared by Landcare) to release new dung beetles in N.Z. was initially approved without much/any criticism by the EPA. This would normally be taken to settle the issue (in fact, that is the whole point!) However, the risk assessment by EPA simply accepted the answer ‘no’, by the applicants, to the question ‘is there any risk of the new organism(s) acting as vectors of diseases of man of livestock?’ The supporting “reason” with the answer ‘no’ was simply “the beetles only eat herbivore dung so they don’t vector diseases”. Wtf? And then the EPA resisted reassessement in the light of these concerns as much as they could! Ah, science in practice – such a noble beast!! Also, the freedom to make bad decisions is a price we pay for freedom. It becomes murkier if the bad decisions are made on behalf of children. In these cases, it may be appropriate for the state to intervene by enforcing compulsory vaccination, etc. I think it is better for the state to control what we do, rather than what we think..

    • Stephen,

      I don’t really have time for more of this. You seem to presume I am an idiot, or haven’t thought this through, but I can assure you my article is simple and to the point because it’s a point that I have thought through in depth earlier and the what I wrote is essentially a précis.

      You are trying far too hard to make complications to be dismissive. To me is suggesting being dismissive is your ultimate ‘aim’. I have repeatedly pointed out to you that I covered the case where the science is less certain, but you steadfastly ignore this. Ergo I see no sound reason to continue. As a practical matter one reasonable way for NZ journalists to help themselves sort out if the science is sound is to use the Science Media Centre, who host this forum.

  • OK, so in the case of climate change, how would you apply your reasoning? Is the science “certain”, or “less certain”? What if there is debate about this (1) within the scientific community; or (2) between the scientific community and others? Should the media present alternative views in this case?