Science Crossfire

By Liam Scheff
Salvo Magazine – Summer 2006

Here are three ideas that you will never see debated by the major media:

  • Was a bird-flu pandemic ever really likely?
  • Is AIDS in fact a sexually transmitted disease?
  • Does current evolutionary theory truly explain the diversity of life on earth?

Each of these widely-promoted beliefs is contradicted by more competing evidence than you can shake a stick at (from wide and varied sources), but you’ll never hear about it from the major outlets for science news – the New York Times, PBS, NPR, the BBC, or CNN – because the media simply doesn’t question the received scientific wisdom.

Because the major media doesn’t do science journalism the way it reports news.

When watch the news, we expect to hear crossfire and flak. We’re not flustered by divergent takes on policy. We feel that government business should be aired and battled over in the public sphere. We expect policy-makers and government officials to regularly submit to hard questions from the press, and to take the hot seat on the news shows.

We love the way the McLaughlin Group argues the issues – we’d feel cheated if they all got along. We tune into Hardball for the sheer entertainment value of hearing words thrown with force and bluster. We even go to TV personalities like Jon Stewart, Al Franken and Bill O’Reilly for their spin on events.

The bottom line – We need a variety of sources to get a feel for a story. No single media source is going to give the whole picture – and fortunately, we are free to shop around.

But not so with science reporting. When an official from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) throws out an edict (“Get vaccinated for bird flu!”) or the World Health Organization (WHO) makes one of its famously failed predictions (“One in 5 American citizens will have AIDS by 1990!”), it’s front-page news around the globe.

We’re not allowed to think; we’re just supposed to swallow. And when scientific claims do turn out to be false, we don’t get angry. “Better safe than sorry,” we tell ourselves. “Anyway, we all know that a bird-flu pandemic awaits us; only crazy people question evolutionary theory; and everyone knows AIDS is a sexual disease.”

But what if there was good evidence that these things weren’t true? Would Fox and CNN report it? What if serious, established researchers had strongly disparate views on an issue? Should they be allowed to debate each other on the nightly news?

“Maybe so,” you say. But at present it’s not allowed.

The major media work hard to create the illusion that science is uniform: a single-minded group of hard-working researchers, joined hand in hand, in a race against the clock, seeking the chemical cures that will save humanity from obesity, cancer, AIDS, death, and all of the other ravages of nature that must be conquered.

But when you approach this monolith, the illusion dissipates, and you are greeted by the multiple competing faces of science – the power players and capitalists, the iconoclasts and rebels, the materialists and reductionists, the atheists and agnostics, the spiritualists and mystics, all arguing, debating, squabbling, and fighting for a chance to present their material while also maintaining the facade of a united front. When you read for yourself the serious books and papers on any scientific discipline, you see that diversity writ large.

Take evolutionary theory, for example. We’re asked to believe that there is one view of evolution, that gradual, accidental change at the genetic level somehow accounts for the formation of all species that exist or have ever existed. However, this view is not supported by the fossil record and is only propped up by our poor understanding of genetics and morphology. And yet it’s held in place by fierce argument and strong political concerns.

When you move past the orthodox view of evolution, you find an incredible array of thought, from the symbiotic-species evolution of Lynn Margulis to the morphological resonance of Rupert Sheldrake, from the fast evolutionary snaps of Niles Eldredge and Stephen J. Gould to the wholesale gene-shuffling of Barbara McClintock. There are worlds here waiting to be explored, but science journalism takes a dim view of anything that falls outside the orthodoxy. It is politics, not science, that rules the day.

The same can be said for coverage of AIDS. Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome throughout the world is being labeled a sex disease, despite much conflicting evidence.

Take the case of Dr. Nancy Padian, an AIDS researcher who set up the longest-running experiment to check the transmission rate of HIV. Padian took 175 couples in which one partner was HIV-positive and the other HIV-negative and, over a 6-year period (1990 to 1996), and recorded what happened when the couples had sex. All kinds of sex: vaginal, anal, you name it—with condoms and without.

The results: After 6 years, there were no seroconversions, “We observed no seroconversions after entry into the study”; nobody who was negative became positive. Padian kept injection-drug users out of the study, and concluded that “this evidence argues for low infectivity in the absence of either needle sharing and/or other cofactors.”

But when the BBC reports on African AIDS, they tell us that it’s without question a sex plague. What they don’t tell us is that all that’s required for an AIDS diagnosis is any form of immune deficiency. Famine, waterborne illness, desperate poverty: these are the scourges of the third world, and they are things we can do something about. But reporters never mention the important details and the immense contradictions hidden behind the standard sacrosanct view on AIDS.

The same factors apply to the bird-flu scare. We were told to run for the hills with Tamiflu in hand. But if you review the actual medical papers on “bird-flu deaths” in Vietnam, you’ll quickly discover that the patients who died (mostly children) were grossly overmedicated with strong, immunosuppressive drugs (corticosteroids) and overdosed with abrasive, cell-damaging antibiotics.

Additionally, these patients lived in areas with high levels of endemic illness (fever, water-borne illness and chronic diarrhea). Some had a single water source for washing and drinking that was also shared with local animals. But none of these details made the papers. All we were told was to prepare for the worst.

But is a pandemic really on its way? How do the experts know? From 1997 to 2006, there were about 100 deaths in Southeast Asia attributed to bird flu. How did we get from 100 deaths in 9 years to fears of a pandemic? Simple. By not asking questions.

Remember SARS? How about West Nile Virus? Weren’t thousands supposed to die? Weren’t we all in danger? So what happened?

Are we really “being safe” by excluding all of the relevant details from our critical thinking? What do we get for it but more fear, panic, and paranoia and less control over our own lives?

When we listen to National Public Radio report on these issues, we’re given one small piece of a complex story, but that piece is reported as the absolute truth—without contradictory evidence.

The BBC and NPR are especially good at this trick. The earnest, dull patter you hear coming out of your radio during their broadcasts is suggestively hypnotic. There’s no back and forth, no argument presented. You hear the predictions of death, destruction, and mayhem from the authorities themselves with no dissenting voice, and you’re swayed into believing it’s true. Suddenly, you think you’re an expert in the field. You go marching through the land, regurgitating omens of terror: “Bird Flu, AIDS, SARS, Cancer! Isn’t there anything we can do? Won’t somebody save us?”

You want to be saved? Here’s my suggestion: Do your own reading. Read the orthodoxy and the dissenters. And stop believing that what you read in the papers is the whole story.

In 1991, Natalie Angier, science journalist for the New York Times wrote, “We science journalists . . . too often serve as perky cheerleaders for our subject and our sources.” I don’t know to what we owe this startling bit of truthfulness, but she was quite right. And that’s how it goes today: science journalists cheering for the orthodox view instead of reporting on it critically. It’s a real problem.

But I have a solution. I propose a new kind of news show. Picture a “Science Crossfire” where the proponents of a given orthodoxy and the dissenters go at it every week in a public forum. Call it “NIH Hardball,” “CDC in the Crosshairs,” or “WHO Firing Line.” Panelists could even take calls and emails from the anxious and curious public.

How will academic researchers respond to a public challenge of their work? Badly, I imagine, at least until they get used to it. After all, it’s hard to sit in the hotseat, when you’re used to being put on a pedestal.

Liam

6 Comments

  1. Liam,

    so incredibly well-said!

    During my morning walk yesterday, I was thinking about cultures and their various “blind spots”…the things people don’t question because those things are so ingrained as to be invisible.

    You’ve hit upon some of these blind spots. Your take on science reporting is on the mark. I admit that I’ve found myself to be uncritical of things I may have heard on NPR for precisely the reasons you’ve stated.

    When we read or hear science reporting, what’s reported on becomes its own instant religion. In becoming a religion, it escapes critical questioning.

    We know scientists disagree. They disagree on very important issues. But the public sees very little if any of this disagreement. What a great idea to have a science-version of “Crossfire”. I’d tune in for that!

  2. I would also love this to be a reality! Kudos, a bright idea. Why has no one thought of it? A Science roundtable for the public view is precisely what is needed right now. Good work Sir!

  3. Thanks Stan and Dan,

    I’d love to see it too. I really, really would love to watch a tough but informal roundtable of medical so-and-so’s, plus challenging researchers, journalists, and patients.

    Would love it.

    Won’t happen soon, though. But again, I suppose, it’s ours to create, if we want it…

  4. Hi Liam, I read your post on the way the press reports science. My criticism of the press (or other news outlets) with respect to the debates between evolutionary theory and say “scientific creationism” was that the journalists (with a few exceptions) reported the controversy as a debate between two theories. Evolution is a theory, creationism is not even a good hypothesis because it can’t be tested. Taking into account that evolution is a theory, that means it has gone through a hypothesis phase and tested. For argument’s sake let’s go to another theory – one that few would quibble with: Relativity Theory. You know, that’s the one the Einstein came up with. While I am not at all expert in theoretical physics, I know that Einstein’s theory has a few holes in it – and theoretical physics is one of the most hotly debated areas of scientific research – String Theory is just the latest to try to explain what relativity can’t. But, relativity theory was good enough to advance our understanding of our physical environment (nuclear bombs and reactors). Evolutionary theory has also been useful even though it can not explain everything – that’s why it has remained a theory – and until a better explanation comes along, evolutionary theory works well enough for many applications. Biological science is very complex because of so many variables – those organisms simply won’t cooperate!

    The problem with so-called AIDS science is that I believe that the world has had the wool pulled over our collective heads. Initially, the investigations into the phenomena that was taking place in a stratified segment of the gay population, were beginning focus on what may have been the correct track – it centered on many of the health related behaviors (recreational drugs, proper rest and nutrition, heavy use of antibiotics, etc) of the population that was getting sick. The objective research stopped once Gallo announced at a press conference his “discovery”. It was now politically incorrect to question what was really just an unsubstantiated hypothesis that was then transubstantiated into fact (HIV the virus that causes AIDS). We know that the AIDS “scientific establishment isn’t really scientific because there are no critics within the establishment – as contrasted with theoretical physics. Of course atoms and subatomic particles don’t have a political agenda, do they?

  5. Brilliant comment Martin. I love it.

    Yes, yes and yes – ‘Science and its limits’ – (What, science has…limits??!!)

    Why, yes. It surely does. You point out relativity theory, among other grand (unified theories) as being widely contended within the specific community that is permitted to address its question (Theoretical Physics, which is allowed, by general consent, to address the slightly, oh, metaphysical questions that we no longer give to theology).

    And so we have small, artifically segregated communities, each practicing its own highly specific (and self-limiting) argot, tech talk, its machine language… (see Lynn Margulis on the Fractured Sciences)

    The fundemental problem with contemporary science is that almost all of it begins with an immovable a priori: We demand that everything must be explicable in human terms, based on observations made, generally in laboratories, under glass, or in some other highly limited, artifical test phase of an observation.

    Is the observation true? Can our artifical test really answer the question? (We’re not nearly so interested in that last bit these days, versus the ‘can we make some money selling the idea?’).

    But we believe, or are asked to, that we will bring in some good-enough-to-be absolute truth, by observing this limited artiface with our admitedly limited senses – we attempt to record the data within the confines and limits of our eyes, ears, nose and fingers, and the pre-existing hypothesis, the hopeful observation, that they serve.

    I think that if we’d liberate ourselves slightly from that cudgel of (hardly empirical) ’empiricism’, (that itself was meant to liberate us from poisoned theology), well, we might be able to admit that at least half of what we were hoping to find might, in effect, be unknowable to our senses…and certainly to our senses as we currently relate to them.

    That is, what we’ve chosen to measure (what is ’empirical’ in our estimates) is only a very small part of what is, and that if we hope to get a larger understanding, we’re going to have to admit that we’re part of something grander than ourselves.

    How you name that grandeur is up to you, and take the side of no particular orthodoxy in that game… But I do see this is the primary problem – our religious devotion to reductionism is getting in the way of our full vision.

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