Science journalism: the tyranny of evidence?

Sunday 20 October, 1.30pm until 3.00pm, Frobisher Auditorium 2 Battle over Scientific Information

When the Independent gave front-page coverage to the discredited scientist Andrew Wakefield’s suggestion that government policy was responsible for a recent measles outbreak in Swansea, the paper was roundly condemned as irresponsible. Similarly, energy secretary Ed Davey has attacked some sections of the press for giving ‘an uncritical campaigning platform’ to anyone sceptical of the consensus view on climate change. Meanwhile, the media are often accused of misinterpreting studies, overstating casual links, inappropriately extrapolating from research results and failing to report details such as sample size or the institution carrying out the study. And eminent scientists have called for supporters of homeopathy and ‘obesity deniers’ to be deprived of the oxygen of publicity. Science reporting is mentioned a number of times in the Leveson report, which recommends a set of guidelines to ensure scientific accuracy, with penalties for reporting that is not up to a required standard. 

But is the demand for accurate, evidence-based science journalism at odds with the broader principles of a free press? After all, there has always been a place for opinion, bias, fair comment, speculation and sceptical analysis.While some worry regulation will narrow the space to explore scientific controversies and political challenges to mainstream scientific opinion, others contend that without some obligation to hard science, the media can propagate quackery, scaremongering health panics and irrational prejudice disguised as fact. 

Is there a crisis in science reporting, and are its problems different from those in the media in general? Is the nature of science such that we need more scientifically-trained journalists, even if a lack of specific training is rarely seen as a problem in other journalistic fields? Are journalists failing to listen to the right experts when they report on an issue – or are they failing to be critical enough of the studies and scientists on who they are reporting? Can we fix science journalism without the need for regulating the press, or are the consequences of bad science reporting just too serious for the media to be given free rein? 

Tom Chivers
assistant comment editor, Daily Telegraph

Hannah Devlin
science editor, The Times

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick
writer on medicine and politics; author, The Tyranny of Health

Mark Henderson
head of communications, Wellcome Trust; author, The Geek Manifesto: why science matters

Dr Jamie Whyte
philosopher and writer; author, Crimes Against Logic and Quack Policy

Craig Fairnington
associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; university finance and accommodation officer

Produced by
Craig Fairnington associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; university finance and accommodation officer

Why isn't poverty history yet?

"What I love about The Battle of Ideas is that it really is a battle. I've still got the scalps (and wounds) to prove it. The audience were battlers too. A brilliant, memorable weekend."
Andrew Keen, entrepreneur; founder,; author, Digital Vertigo

follow the Academy of Ideas