Who Is Listened To? Science and Science Journalism

This book review of Spillover by David Quammen is quite unfavorable about Laurie Garrett, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning science journalist. Several years ago, at the UC Berkeley journalism school, I heard her talk. During the question period, I made a comment something like this: “It seems to me there is kind of a conspiracy between the science journalist and the scientist. Both of them want the science to be more important than it really is. The scientist wants publicity. The science journalist wants their story on the front page. The effect is that things get exaggerated, this or that finding is claimed to be more important than it really is.” Garrett didn’t agree. She did not give a reason. This was interesting, since I thought my point was obviously true.

The book review, by Edward Hooper, author of The River, a book about the origin of AIDS,  makes a more subtle point. It is about how he has been ignored.

When I wrote The River, I did my level best to interview each of the major living protagonists involved in the origins-of-AIDS debate. This amounted to well over 600 interviews, mostly of two hours or more, and about 500 of which were done face-to-face rather than down the phone. Although the authors of the three aforementioned books (Pepin, Timberg and Halperin, Nattrass) all devote time and several pages to The River, and to claims that I definitely got it wrong, not one of them bothered to contact me at any point – either to challenge my findings, or to ask me questions. However, I have been contacted by someone through my website (a lawyer and social scientist) who asked me several questions, to all of which I responded. Later, this man read the first two of these three pro-bushmeat books and contacted the authors of each by email, to ask them one or two simple questions about their dismissal of the OPV hypothesis [= the AIDS virus came from an oral polio vaccine]. His letters to Pepin, Timberg and Halperin (which he later forwarded to me) were courteous and non-confrontational, and in two instances he sent three separate letters, but apparently not one of the authors could be bothered to reply to any of these approaches.

In other words, there is a kind of moat. Inside the moat, are the respected people — the “real” scientists. Outside the moat are the crazy people, whom it is a good idea to ignore. Even if they have written a book on the topic. Hooper and those who agreed with him were outside the moat.

Hooper quotes Quammen:

“Hooper’s book was massive”, Quammen writes, “overwhelmingly detailed, seemingly reasonable, exhausting to plod through, but mesmerizing in its claims…”

I look forward to the day that the Shangri-La Diet is called “seemingly reasonable”. Quammen and Garrett (whose Coming Plague has yet to come) write about science for a living. I have a theory about their behavior. To acknowledge misaligned incentives (scientists, like journalists, care about other things than truth )  and power relationships (some scientists are in a position to censor other scientists and points of view they dislike) would make their jobs considerably harder. They are afraid of what would happen to them — would they be kicked out, placed on the other side of the moat? — if they took “crazy” views seriously. It is also time-consuming to take “crazy” views seriously (“massive . . . exhausting”). So they ignore them.

6 Replies to “Who Is Listened To? Science and Science Journalism”

  1. Reminds me of a thought attributed to Max Planck – – much of the time, new paradigms in science aren’t accepted by scientists after much debate and introspection. No, new paradigms become accepted only after one generation dies, and a new, younger generation comes into power.

  2. related to davids comment about Max Planck. Many readers of this blog we are probably interested in the topic: extension of lifespan. so this is something to make us feel uncomfortable. Also there is the thought that nature by using death gives various benefits to evolution. Science is not a very natural activity so maybe the choice nature has made for our lifespan is bad for doing science, if Max Planck was right maybe it should have been smaller.

    Seth: I think the problem is self-correcting in a way different from what Planck said. Science, although unnatural, produces great benefits. Those benefits increase how much free time we have, time that we don’t have to work. During their free time, some people do science as a hobby. Science was a hobby for Mendel and Darwin, for example. When science is a hobby, the scientist is perfectly free to seek the truth and nothing but the truth. As our free time increases (and the cost of doing science decreases) more and more people will do science as a hobby. Personal science — science done to help yourself — is a big part of what they will do. As hobby science increases, total science — professional science plus hobby science — will become more accurate.

  3. Decades ago I saw a mention of the work of someone who had looked at the data about scientists changing their minds in the light of some substantial theoretical advance. He said that the evidence proved Planck wrong.

    On a different tack: I used to have a colleague, an ambitious but rather dim fellow, whose favourite dismissive phrase was “not mainstream”.

  4. This reminds me of something I found while writing a review of breast cancer prevention methods. Back in the 1980s, an amateur scientist had noticed that some women she (he? don’t remember now) knew who wore their bras in their sleep had gotten breast cancer. So she interviewed many women at random and found that women who wore bras at night were something like 20 times as likely to develop breast cancer.

    Unfortunately, instead of getting a respectable scientist interested, she published a book on her findings. This made the breast cancer/bra connection toxic. Despite indicating a much stronger association with breast cancer than any known behavioral factor, no “respectable scientist” in America or western Europe has ever investigated this. Now two studies have come out on it, one in China and one in Eastern Europe, both indicating a strong connection between wearing a bra at night and breast cancer. This discovery could not have been made in the US or in western Europe, because the claim had been made toxic “crank” material by being promoted by amateurs.

    Seth: I remember that finding, which I read about in the National Enquirer. I think the researcher failed to control for breast size — women with larger breasts were more likely to wear a bra at night. It’s no surprise that if you have larger breasts (i.e., more breast cells) you are more likely to get breast cancer. This may be why it was ignored.

  5. I think there is more to the bra-breast cancer thing than just breast size. There have been various studies that do show correlation of breast size with cancer, but there are also others that suggest the wearing of bras, especially at night, interferes with the function of lymph nodes by constriction. Impaired lymph function can also lead to a decrease in melatonin, a known risk factor for cancer.

    I’m sure it would be hard to get funding for a serious bra- breast cancer study!

    Seth: Yes, that makes sense. And I agree with your basic point that the connection should have been studied, once it was noticed.

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