Science journalism – it’s a serious matter, damn it

So I’ve been reading about the latest Ebola epidemic in West Africa, and then I’ve read something in the Independent. Apparently a “leading scientist” “launched a devastating attack” on “big Pharma”.

Except that leading scientist actually appears in the comment section to say something:

“This article claims that I, Adrian Hill, have “ launched a devastating attack on Big Pharm, accusing drugs giants including GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), Sanofi, Merck and Pfizer of failing to manufacture a vaccine, not because it was impossible, but because there was no business case.” I did no such thing.

I simply explained to Mr Cooper what is widely known in the biomedical research and development community: that vaccine development is extremely expensive, usually takes a very long time and the market is dominated by some very large pharma companies. Because outbreaks of diseases such as Ebola are rare and unpredictable and, until now, have afflicted small numbers of people in very poor countries, it is widely understood that is no business case for a private company to invest tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in vaccine development for such diseases. It may be the Independent’s view that this is a telling indictment of the global pharmaceutical industry, but it is not mine and I am unhappy that the first paragraph of this report wrongly attributes that view to me. […]”

Ouch. It seems like you can’t really take journalism seriously any more, doesn’t it? When you read about incoming Giant Spider Invasion of 2014 on yahoo news, imagine a scene like this, only to find out that the article is about spiders growing a bit bigger due to the good weather during the Fall.

This will not do. I mean big stupid spiders, I get it. I hate them, too. I read the headline and clicked, so it achieved its purpose. Moreover I’ll probably get some big (and I mean BIG) bug spray just in case. But this sensationalized science only will serve those who will do anything to discredit it. Global warming deniers (not skeptics; deniers) will jump on one or two 40-year-old newspaper articles about the Global Cooling, which had no scientific support, but are very handy when you want to dispute the climate change that is actually happening.

While it’s easy to bash “Big Pharma“, it should be done fairly. These criticisms should be based on facts, and not on taking someone’s words out of context. Yes, it’s not profitable to produce Ebola vaccines, so the companies whose only interest is generating profit will not embark on making one. Color me surprised. After all it’s not me who praises the forces of free market as a solution for all problems. Yet to turn around and use a scientist’s explanation how free market capitalism works in the pharmaceutical industry strikes me as oddly hypocritical. If free market suddenly is not cool, then don’t twist some poor professor’s words to suit your needs. Write some damn articles explaining why it failed people. Perhaps, as a journalist, you could do some actual research, and figure out why DEFRA, an evil government institute, had to cough up 10 million quids so that the free market finally got on eradicating rinderpest. Sensational headlines might catch attention, bring in readers, but they will leave the readers with the idea of evil GM, autism-causing vaccines, disputed climate change facts, suppressed cancer cures, and, apparently, devastating attacks (spider or otherwise). And when the next crook comes along claiming that the seasonal flu shot will turn your dick green, they will refuse to get vaccinated.

Science journalists have greater responsibilities than readership numbers. They are supposed to be the ones telling the public about what scientists do in a way everyone understands without prior scientific training. Perhaps this is a responsibility they should take more seriously, because there’s a huge problem with anti-science attitudes already. And if there is one thing that will enable us to survive on a planet of 9 billion people, it’s going to be science.



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