There’s a habit amongst journalists to act as if there’s a continuum between opposing viewpoints and that the truth must therefore lie somewhere roughly in the middle, especially on health, science and certain tech stories. We saw it before with the reporting on now disgraced ‘scientist’ Andrew Wakefield and his very well debunked claims that MMR causes autism. And we’ve seen it regularly since.
Now the House of Commons science and technology committee has examined homeopathy provision on the NHS and has concluded that evidence shows homeopathy works no better than placebo and that the NHS should not provide or recommend it. The media seems to have decided that solid science is one end of a continuum of truths with homeopaths at the other end, and that it’s their job to shilly shally around in the middle and to present both sides in a ‘fair and balanced’ manner. To which I call bullshit.
Science isn’t about the balance of opinions but the balance of evidence. Evidence is bigger than any one person or research institute: it’s the findings of experiments that can be consistently repeated by anyone, anywhere with the right knowledge and equipment. When the evidence stacks up in favour of one theory, then that’s the theory that we must hold as true until/unless reliable and repeatable experiments lead us to refine or change it.
And that’s the thing. The reliable and repeatable experiments show that homeopathy performs no better than a placebo. Yet journalists seem intent on portraying this story as “MPs say one thing, homeopaths say something else, and who knows who’s right?!”. The Guardian, for example, uses a lot of fightin’ words (my bold):
To true believers, including Prince Charles, homeopathy is an age-old form of treatment for a wide range of ills. To most scientists, it is nothing more than water. Today the sniping between the devotees and the denialists became a head-on collision, as the House of Commons science and technology committee challenged the government to live by its evidence-based principles and withdraw all NHS funding from homeopathic treatment. …
…the money could be better spent, said the committee, accusing the Department of Health of failing to abide by the principle that its policies should be evidence-based. …
The Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health countered the MPs’ attack by citing a peer-reviewed scientific study in the International Journal of Oncology which, it said, proved that homeopathic remedies were biologically active. …
But this isn’t a fight. It’s not seconds out, round one. Evidence points overwhelmingly to the conclusion that homeopathy doesn’t work.
The Guardian, along with many other news outlets, also gives quite a weight to pro-homeopathy voices as if all opinions are equal and that this is a debate. Ben Goldacre is collecting examples over on Bad Science. The BBC, for example, comes in for a lot of criticism in Ben’s comments:
I just saw this story break on BBC News. They brought on a Homeopath GP who just went and told I don’t know how many millions of viewers that the “evidence is clear” that homeopathy works and she then proceeded to start quote papers.
An excellent report, nice to see that MPs can sit down, review the evidence and then say something intelligent.
On the other hand, The BBC (and some other news outlets) seem to be so obsessed with giving each side of the story, they make it sound like there is reasonable evidence for both points of view.
When someone is found guilty of a crime, journalists doesn’t put guilty in quotation marks. Nor do they pick a self appointed expert to rant about why that person was actually not guilty. So why doesn’t the BBC simply report that supporters of homoeopathy say it works, but all independent reviews shows that it does not.
Instead, we get “many people – both patients and experts – say it is a valid treatment and does work”, without at least caveating that with “but all systematic reviews show it is no better than placebo” and explaining who these “experts” are. Experts in giving homeopathy perhaps, but are they experts in telling whether it works better than placebo?
Just sent a few comments to the BBC via their well hidden complaints website:
The problem is, this is not a debate. The evidence is in: Homeopathy doesn’t work. Perpetuating the myth that taking ‘remedies’ which amount to nothing more than sugar pills or water that’s been shaken up a bit is potentially harmful. In fact, people die because they are convinced that homeopathy will work and so don’t seek proper medical attention. The media is complicit in those deaths because they help to keep the myth of homeopathy alive.
What I don’t understand is why journalists feels the need to create this false dichotomy in the first place. When astronomers discover a new planet orbiting a distant star, journalists don’t start looking for dissenting astrologers. When palaeontologists discover a new dinosaur, journalists don’t seek out creationists or intelligent design advocates to say that it’s all just a big trick by God. Why is it that in other fields they feel at liberty to talk utter hogswash and to ignore solid evidence?
This isn’t a science problem, or a science communications problems, this is a serious journalistic problem. This is journalists imposing a frame onto the story that is utterly inappropriate. This leads to a misrepresentation of the evidence and does a serious disservice to everyone who reads these stories and takes them at face value.
There is always some doubt in science, but this does not mean that science is unreliable or that opposing views are always as valid. In homeopathy, the level of doubt is very, very low, so low in fact that I feel perfectly happy saying “homeopathy doesn’t work”, because that’s the hypothesis that’s been proven correct time and time again.
Other scientific theories have more doubt and there we do need to be careful to be clear about what levels of confidence we should have. But this doesn’t mean that even in those stories that we need to give equal weight to for and against: we just need to be clear about how tentative or firm the science is.
And again, let me reiterate: This is important not just from a journalistic integrity point of view, but because misinformation kills. Actual people actually die. They actually get ill, actually fail to get the right treatment, and actually suffer because of it. Any action on the part of journalists that encourages people to believe in provably ineffective treatments is unethical. I just wish more journalists thought through what they are writing when covering stories like MMR and homeopathy.