Why do people believe scientific myths?

21 November

On the whole, I’m optimistic about the way the public sees science. Most people understand it as a way to generate new knowledge, and they are not particularly credulous when presented with a controversial or counterintuitive new fact. The natural instinct is “well, how do these people know that?”, and that’s healthy. You need to interrogate science and its discoveries.

But they have to be presented with the science accurately in the first place. News reporting is very important indeed in terms of how the information generated by science gets to the people who can benefit from it. The public don’t read peer-reviewed academic journals. They find about what scientists do through the media, and there are a number of problems in the way that happens.

Specialist science journalists are an increasingly rare breed. Journalism as an industry is under unique pressures, and journalists are having to be jacks-of-all-trades, so they don’t have a good grounding in science. People who’ve gone into journalism tend to be among the least scientifically-educated professionals in the country.

That doesn’t mean they can’t do a good job of it. They just need some fundamental understanding of the scientific method: what science is and how it works. If you don’t understand the scientists’ cycle of observe-hypothesise-test, then how can you approach a bit of scientific work and assess its validity?

Likewise, if you want to understand scientific results, you need to understand scientific publishing. The final results of our work are what we publish in peer-reviewed journals. Often the first things people will hear about the peer-review process is that it’s imperfect, it’s a flawed system – but it’s the best system we’ve got to ensure that the published record is as close as we can get to objective truth.

If you don’t know that, then how do you assess the information you’re getting from scientists for reliability? Scientists are human and want to promote their work as much as anyone else. A journalist needs to know that peer-reviewed published work should be taken as the gold standard as far as anything can be.

You get so many stories that are written on the basis of a press release from a university PR department, which might contain rather a lot of exaggeration and spin. It’s really important for journalist to know that they can and should access the primary literature, or at least be aware that they can trust the science itself.

Another problem we have is “false balance”, where especially broadcasters believe that they have to provide opposing views to anything they’re presented with, no matter how strong the evidence is. Actually in recent years there’s been some progress on this. The BBC had a review, identified false balance as a problem in science reporting, and is now tending to do a good job in terms of presenting evidence and not having to have a counterpoint against it.

You don’t need journalists to have specialist degree-level knowledge in science subjects. But because they’re people who have very limited time to do their jobs, you can equip them with the tools to assess what they’re seeing. These are simple principles, things you can explain in ten minutes. Just with these basic bits of understanding, you can get so much grounding in assessing the truth of things. 

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