Science fact or fiction?


PRESENT TENSEI DON'T KNOW MUCH about physics, but I was sure the world wasn't going to end on Wednesday. It's a good thing, because my ego would have been smashed into leptons by the remarks of Brian Cox, a dashing scientist who appears to have been formed out of a light-speed collision between Blur's Alex James and 1980s TV icon Johnny Ball. "Anyone who thinks the Large Hadron Collider will destroy the world is a twat," he declared.

A great many people, indeed, had called the scientists, seeking reassurance that their children's futures were secure. Others had sent death threats, promising, I presume, pre-emptive action rather than reprisals should scientists actually destroy the Earth.

It was a tough week to be a physicist, then. "Will the world end on Wednesday?" was the straightforward and popular headline in the run-up to the atom smasher's test run. In Wednesday's papers, more than one report led with the rather predictable observation that "if you're reading this then the world hasn't ended".

Those with a keen interest in the project will have read these reports with a nagging sense that this cheeky speculation was - how can I put this in scientific terms? - drivel. Hadn't it been clearly explained in a lot of the more straightforward articles (including in this newspaper) that the test would only involve beams of protons being sent around the full length of the tube? Nothing was ever going to smash into anything else. No Big Bangs were to be made. No mini-black holes were to be formed. No planets were ever going to be harmed in the making.

By the time they eventually start recreating the Big Bang in miniature, however, the papers will have moved on from the apocalyptic angle. But it will be worth remembering Brian Cox's complaint because it forms part of a wider criticism levelled at the media by some scientists. Once again, science had created a project of awesome sophistication aimed at understanding the world instead of destroying it. And what did much of the media do? It focused largely on this most improbable, but satisfyingly outrageous, outcome.

It did so because, even if dubious, it was still the most arresting and accessible angle, and it's possible that the collider - for all its worth - may not have received so much attention without it. But critics of journalism would see it as another example of how the media, unable or unwilling to explain the science, instead reports the trivial or inaccurate. Just as it often takes "research" at face value even when there is dodgy or non-existent methodology behind it, reads PR releases instead of research papers, or gives science stories to journalists with no scientific training.

It is why Ben Goldacre, author of the excellent Bad Science column in the Guardian, has asked: "Why is science in the media so often pointless, simplistic, boring, or just plain wrong?" It must be said that some of it is also pretty good. And science is covered in British and Irish newspapers to an extent that it is not in the US. Nevertheless, Goldacre also complained that "the media create a parody of science, for their own means. They then attack this parody as if they were critiquing science".

This week's other "science" stories included one on how "hobbies are inherited". The research was released by a genealogical website, and accompanied by no information on the methodology. In the past fortnight alone, the Daily Mail has reported that being tall can lead to cancer; that cholesterol-lowering tablets can cause cancer; that bin tags could lead to bonfires which could cause cancer.

What's valid and what's not? I haven't a clue most of the time. Like most lay people, I rely on decent journalism to weed out the science from the nonsense. Increasingly, I know where to look for the trustworthy reporting, but I also realise that it would be easier to escape a rampaging black hole than bad science coverage.

Why does it matter? Because good reporting broadens people's understanding of matters that affect them directly. Lazy reporting fuels a distrust of science and scientists. It means that non-science, such as homeopathy, is treated as legitimate. It means that food brands and shampoo-makers alike get away with impressive, but often ridiculous, scientific claims. It means that issues such as climate change or genetically-modified food are not properly debated. It means that the creators of fad diets - dubious and sometimes dangerous - are treated as gurus. And, occasionally, it can have very serious consequences for society.

One of the most damaging stories of the last 20 years remains the supposed link between autism and the MMR vaccine. By the time the evidence and the researcher, Andrew Wakefield, had been thoroughly discredited, it was too late. The result is that the take-up of the MMR vaccine in the UK is still lower than it was 1998, when this hit the headlines. Ireland, meanwhile, has one of the worst immunisation rates in Europe, stunted by parents' unfounded fears.

Confirming Goldacre's notion of the "parody", some quarters of the British media - stoked by an underlying distrust and wilful misunderstanding of science - continue to propagate the original "link", making them far more dangerous than Wakefield ever was. It might not be on a par with the end of the world, but it's serious enough all the same.