Tag Archives: Science journalism

Standing up to junk science in New Zealand

Last week we saw several local victories for science over pseudoscience. And the US mid-term elections also gave electoral victories supporting community water fluoridation in 5 out of 6 communities where it was voted on.*

Peter Griffin from New Zealand’s Science Media Centre reported on the New Zealand victories in his post Experts shine in fight against junk science.

“It was a week when climate change denial, a “miracle” ebola cure and homeopathy grabbed headlines.

But by and large it was also a week where the media laid out the evidence and featured expert commentary putting the science behind the claims in perspective.”

So, the media seemed to be “on-side” this time and scientific experts were fronting up to counter the pseudoscience.

“The pending arrival in New Zealand of Genesis II Church of Health and Healing leader James Humble to push his Miracle Mineral Solution (MMS) was front page news. Medsafe warned that the treatment acts like an industrial bleach and could cause serious harm to those who took it. Australia’s Nine News reported that four Victorians had been hospitalised after taking the MMS treatment.

Shaun Holt

Dr Shaun Holt

Natural remedies expert Dr Shaun Holt and University of Auckland microbiologist Dr. Siouxsie Wiles made numerous media appearances to explain the pseudoscience Humble has been spreading about MMS, including that it can cure Ebola, HIV and malaria.The Herald reported today that an Auckland man who attempted to attend one of the “non-religious” Church’s seminars in the Hauraki Plains, was removed when it emerged he had not paid the US$500 registration fee, a hint perhaps at the real reason behind Humble’s Australasian tour.”

ebola

NZ Herald’s front page piece on MMS

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change renewed the media interest in climate change.

“False balance in climate coverage

Professor Tim Naish and Dr James Renwick, who have both contributed to IPCC reports put the latest update in context for New Zealand on One News and 3 News.

However TVNZ undermined its own climate change coverage by featuring noted climate sceptic and energy sector consultant Bryan Leyland on the Breakfast show, including presenting a graph featuring data supplied by Leyland himself.

By the end of the day the item had been pulled from TVNZ’s website after the broadcaster received numerous complaints from the public, scientists, as well as journalists.”

Then there was the response to the Green Party’s natural products spokesman Steffan Browning’s folly in signing a petition calling for homeopathic treatments to be used in the fight against Ebola. This lead to his demotion within the party and removal of his spokesman role.

“The embarrassing endorsement attracted attention in the UK and the condemnation of Browning’s own caucus.

Writing on Sciblogs, Dr Grant Jacobs applauded Browning’s demotion, but pointed out that he retained other science-related shadow portfolios.

“I’m aware of a number of people who have said they didn’t vote for the Greens because of Steffan Browning’s stance on genetic engineering and others who have said that while they voted for the Greens they don’t approve of Browning’s approach to GMOs and GE.”

Peter Griffin finishes by thanking “all the scientists who stepped up to make sense of the dubious claims journalists and the public were faced with this week.”

I think this also shows what can be achieved when good science journalism is actively promoted by groups like the Science Media Centre, and when scientists and other experts  participate in the social communication media and make themselves available to journalists.


*Support for community water fluoridation in these 5 communities was pretty overwhelming:

Boyne City, Michigan – 68% support for fluoridation: http://goo.gl/BUQVev
Bronson, Michigan – 63% support for fluoridation: http://goo.gl/KogVkP
Kalama, Washington – 73% support for fluoridation: http://goo.gl/wP6xAY
Saline County, Kansas – 67% support for fluoridation: http://goo.gl/Q2IGWL
Healdsburg, California – 68% support for fluoridation: http://goo.gl/KsOCgn

These victories were probably because fluoridation supporters, families and dentists organised public campaigns. See Group wants fluoride vote to keep its teeth.

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Real science – warts and all

After the PR hype NASA seemed to purposely promote around “arsenic bacteria” research published by Science (see NASA and old lace) there has been quite a critical reaction. Critical of the way the story was hyped by NASA, but also critical of the work itself.

The whole story does raise issues of how science is done, how it is published and reviewed, and how it is reported in the media.  It also raises issues about the sometimes negative role institutions like NASA can play in all this.

There is a useful discussion of this on the latest Guardian Science Weekly podcast (see Science Weekly podcast: Global criticism of the arsenic bacteria study; plus, we expose some dating myths).

Download mp3

A panel of “those in the know,” including astrobiologist Dr Zita Martins from Imperial College London and science writer David Dobbs who has been blogging and tweeting about this specific research, discuss the issue. David writes for the Atlantic Monthly, New York Times Magazine, Slate, National Geographic, Audubon, and Scientific American Mind, where he is a contributing editor. There is also a clip from Carl Zimmer speaking on NHPR (New Hampshire Public Radio).

The discussion gives a good idea of how science is actually done – warts and all! It looks behind the sometimes ideally presented public image and considers the problem of scientists own emotional agendas, the reality of peer review and new issues arising from the way science is conducted in the internet age.

The panelists see any problems with the “arsenic bacteria” research being resolved over time by the normal process of science and stress that the issues discussed are more general.

As an extra, and for light relief, the podcast also contains  comments from Dr Petra Boynton from UCL exposing four key myths about dating.

The Guardian Science Weekly recently won an award for the best science podcast. It is well presented and informative. Worth subscribing to and following.

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