This year’s BioSoc debate, held last Thursday in the Sir Alexander Fleming Building, turned out a huge success. The provocative debate title ‘Has the Media failed Science?’, albeit a little misleading to the speakers who were expecting some fierce opposition, was always going to invoke some great input from the audience and speakers alike.
The evening kicked off with some great points from the Times Science Correspondent Hannah Devlin, who rightly noted the unfortunate conflict of interest between the two fields of work: science is a discipline of evidence and truth–seeking whereas journalism is very much about sales, and unfortunately those all–too–familiar sensationalist headlines seem to sell all too well.
Next, Imperial alumnus and author Simon Singh shed some light on the importance of accurate representation, refreshingly steering clear of the perhaps slightly over–discussed libel case. After noting such representation as “incredibly important”, the audience cackled away to some hilarious anecdotes as, in true Simon Singh style, he recounted the tedious but necessary process of complaining to journalists when they get it catastrophically wrong.
Much to everyone’s amusement, Singh recalled being told to “go and fuck yourself” when raising some queries about a rather dubious programme on global warming. Singh then went on to scrutinise the wonderful world of alternative medicine, showing footage from a BBC show where a patient undergoes open heart surgery with no general anaesthetic, but via the magic of acupuncture.
Of course the show failed to mention the incredible doses of powerful sedatives surging through the patient’s body – I guess modern medicine isn’t so bad after all.
Head of BBC Science Andrew Cohen asked instead ‘has science failed the media?’
Head of BBC Science, Andrew Cohen was the first panel member to flip the question on its head, asking instead “has science failed the media?” Indeed, scientists could be held accountable for some major media scandals in recent years, such as the alleged links between autism and the MMR vaccine. His general point was that at times both sides have failed to live up to standards for whatever reason, but more recently we’ve seen progression to a better relationship between the science and media communities.
Gareth Mitchell, a convenor of Imperial’s Science Communication MSc, also focussed on modern progression, but this time with reference to social media elements like tweeting and podcasting. Campaigns such as Science is Vital, spearheaded by Imperial’s Stephen Curry and others, probably wouldn’t be so successful were it not for such tools.
While there is of course still the danger of misinformation being spread, social media now makes it easier for people to better inform the previously ill–informed and point out problems.
A final show of hands requested by Richard Black, who chaired the meeting to perfection, brought us to the realisation that neither science nor the media are to blame, and that this multifactorial issue is certainly improving as we learn from the mistakes of yesteryear.
Overall some very interesting discussion from engaging speakers and a very well organised event. Kudos to BioSoc; I, for one, am very much looking forward to next year’s debate.