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Bias in Defense of Truth is No Vice

September 13, 2009

(Published in Canta Sept. 14th 2009 edition)

The outbreak of H1N1 swine flu has provided a vivid demonstration of the weaknesses of journalism and public opinion.  The commercial demand, driven (so we are told) by the public’s preferences and desires, for big, exciting stories, coupled with a complete lack of any kind of factual commitment by journalists, and the general public’s lack of understanding of the technical concepts of risk and probability have combined to produce a vast volume of reporting that has oscillated between panic and skepticism.  This lack of decisiveness and clarity is not restricted to big stories either, and the failures of journalism are just as acute in the everyday stories in the Science/Lifestyle sections.

News businesses love disasters and crises.  Reporting on natural disasters is generally excellent, since the facts are either undisputed or developing and can be reported in a direct way.  When the crisis is merely predicted, however, the coverage becomes distorted by an obsession with balance.  As soon as the story goes from “Earthquake Kills Thousands” to “Mad Scientist’s Experiments May Kill Thousands” the journalistic rules forbid decisive coverage.  An opposing view, no matter how incredible, instantly moves the story from a presentation of facts to a presentation of opinions, which, like all opinions in the media, are immune to factual challenge: when was the last time a newspaper columnist or talkback host was reprimanded for their endless wrongness?  Once this ‘balance’ point is reached there is no hope of a decision on the facts.  The media becomes incapable of simply pronouncing the facts of the matter, lest it be seen as ‘biased’.

Swine flu coverage, as with Y2K, SARS and bird flu, began with prophecies of doom and eventually became mockery and disdain of the ‘hype’.  Once the hilarious posturing of the hype-makers themselves as watchdogs of media hype begins the discussion of facts ends.  Was it hype or real?  The question doesn’t even make sense: The risk was real, but did not turn out badly (though swine flu has since been in and out of panic mode again).  That uncertain predictions turn out wrong does not cause the warnings to be instantly valueless.  In fact, these warnings themselves can (shockingly!) result in the problem being solved before it causes much of a problem.  This was most obviously the case with the Y2K bug, which was predicted to cause global chaos and then miraculously did nothing.  The men behind the curtain who worked to fix all the bugs were of course paid no attention.  With disease outbreaks such as foot and mouth, SARS or flu it is perfectly rational to expend large efforts on reducing the probability of a massive global disaster, and if the final effect of the outbreak is minimal that does not mean the precautions were hype: it is a wise choice to have airbags in your car even if you never crash.

The journalistic obsession with balance and two-sided coverage strongly discourages uncertain views and statements about risk.  Expert predictions must be either right or wrong, and a statistically nuanced view is frowned upon.  As with the weather, it only takes a small fraction of predictions to turn out wrong before the conventional wisdom turns against the predictors.  The common failure of the public to understand the probabilistic nature of scientific results and predictions leads to anecdotal rejections of indisputable facts (“Well, homeopathy worked for me…”), and this continues in mainstream journalism, nowhere more clearly than in climate change coverage, where the IPCC report with its reams of evidence and scholarship is balanced with miscellaneous cranks.  There are many other examples, such as immunizations and private prisons, where facts lie overwhelmingly on one side but are presented as ‘just one view’ against the spiels of more or less clueless (or even mendacious) lobbyists.

But journalists are not the only ones that deserve blame.  Cases of fraud, misrepresentation and hype in scientific studies are widespread.  SSRI medication has been shown to have little benefit except in the most severely depressed patients, but drug companies systematically chose not to publish studies whose results were unfavourable.  Drug giant Merck has set aside five billion US dollars to cover its legal costs for the unsafe drug Vioxx, which Merck relentlessly pushed, even to the extent of getting publisher Elsevier to produce a vanity journal that was packed with biased studies in favour of Vioxx and other drugs.  There is also the endless stream of “Study Shows” stories, usually the results of a poorly-designed experiment pushed to newspapers in the form of an exciting press release.  Stories about new fad diets are published instead of the well-known but boring facts of caloric intakes and basic exercise.  These fraudulent or hyped stories make perfect subjects for daily news coverage, but they steal credibility from serious, important research and provide space for the circus show of hucksters pushing ‘natural’ and ‘alternative’ remedies to the confused and uninformed public, who could be forgiven for concluding from all these conflicting studies (Red wine is good! No, bad!) that the experts don’t have a clue.  When the other side ‘balancing’ these stories is the fraudulent drug companies in absentia, there is no room left for the correct but boring view that both ‘sides’ are simply trying to suck away the dollars of gullible people.

But what can we do?  The Broadcasting Standards Authority requires that both sides of controversial issues of public importance are given time, despite the fact that in many cases the ‘controversy’ is invented and there is no way to reduce the issue to a few distinct ‘sides’.  The BSA rules also state that ‘the accuracy standard does not apply to statements which are clearly distinguishable as analysis, comment or opinion.’  Conveniently, such statements are also far cheaper to produce than real reportage.  With the commercial media and the laws of the land both indifferent to provably false claims, where should we turn to find the truth?

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