Media & science2004, Sep 1st | Emner: Myths & Mysteries, Skepticism
Scientific reasoning is not something that is reserved for scientists, and it should not be. A public understanding of the scientific method is as important, if not more important, than knowledge of scientific facts. But certainly the facts are of interest, and if we are not able to check the facts for our selves we rely on others to do it for us. But whom can we trust with such important work as to tell us how things really are?
A free press is considered a cornerstone in a democratic society but we are aware of the fact that the free press do not necessarily profit from telling the truth. Many make a profit from selling spectacular news. From experience we generally learn what news sources that can be trusted and which cannot. Often the sources that try to sell on their trustworthiness are considered prestigious and can indeed be trusted; thus their mistakes are more harmful than those made by less serious media. Recently one of Sweden’s most prestigious newspapers took a closer look at the health industry in a series of articles, and did not live up to the trust of the readers.
The health industry has expanded in recent years, since being healthy seems to be important for everyone who wants to live life to the fullest, to travel, to be admired, and to find inner peace. Since life has become a project that people want to get as much out of as possible, health, both physical and mental, is something we are prepared to pay for. When people are prepared to pay someone is always prepared to sell; accordingly today there is a multitude of different therapies, products, and philosophies on the market. Much of what can be bought is contradicting other products, and specifically many alternative therapies contradict the medical knowledge of today. The Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet wanted to help the readers to choose between all the alternatives, in my opinion, they failed to do so [1-16].
In the series of articles many different aspects of health were covered and many of the articles were of good quality; though, for the uninformed reader, they were indistinguishable from the work of less quality. To mix alternative medicine and New Age philosophy with topics as the benefit of support groups and functional food will give the former notions an increased legitimacy in the eye of the public. It is possible that this “credibility by association” was intentional since it is difficult to see how the journalists could be ignorant of the fact that much of the alternative medicine is questioned by traditional scientific medicine. If they were aware of the underlying conflict it is questionable not to make this clear to the reader. The fact that they did not try to explain the distinction was apparent in the third article focusing on the conflict between alternative and scientific medicine .
The fact that more of the patients today are aware of alternative medicines and try them, was used as an argument to why physicians should learn about alternative, or complementary, methods. This is a very good argument since it is probably an advantage to know as much as possible about a patients situation, including other therapies. More problematic is the articles proposition that scientific medicine has become more accepting towards alternative medicine. Even if it has been realised that alternative medicine generally is better at interacting with the patient and work with the entire life situation of the patient, the fundamental difference between scientific testing of methods and no testing at all has not been resolved. The conflict between alternative and scientific medicine was described more as a rivalry between the privileged doctors and unprivileged wise men and women. It is surprising that an experienced reporter did not ask what the fundamental difference between alternative and scientific medicine is. That the journalists were unable to find anyone opposing an increased use of alternative medicine in hospitals was equally surprising.
Being uncritical is probably the worst sin of a journalist after intentional deceit. Still the series of articles is abundant with examples where the journalists did not question the information they were given.
The first article describes a weekend convention in Båsta where several representatives from different “alternative” disciplines were present . But the term ‘alternative’ is declared obsolete since ‘integrated’ is preferred when both ancient “wisdom” and recent scientific discoveries are included. One of the people interviewed in the article is Sanna Ehdin who is described as the leading lady of the Swedish health movement. The description also mentions that she has written four books and is an award-winning speaker. A good journalist would now recall that her first book of nutrition advice was criticised by the scientific community and livsmedelsverket (the National Food Administration) told her to change some of the advice. A good journalist might even remember, or find out, that she was awarded the price årets förvillare (deluder of the year) in 2000 by the Swedish sceptical organisation (Vetenskap och folkbildning) .
Even if the reporter was unable to find cracks in Sanna’s Curriculum Vitae the existence of ideas opposing hers is mentioned in the interview. Sanna describes how she after taking care of herself with alternative methods, felt an urge to spread her wisdom to others. But soon she realised that it was important to respect other peoples believes and not try to confront them; thus she decided to only talk to those who already shared her believes. This might sound as a very humane way of relating to the belief systems of others, though a good journalist would probably recognise this as a way of avoiding to answer tough questions. If you never speak to critics you will never have to defend your position.
So what advice concerning how to live ones life did the first article give in the end? According to most of the people at the convention everyone should follow his or her own hart. One expressed it as: “One need to focus at one thing, walk one path, and stay on course. Then one can reach deep and heal oneself.” This is quite opposite to the scientific method, which rather emphasis on going with what works best and constantly be prepared to change to what works better. A good journalist should perhaps have mentioned this conflicting opinion.
Other examples of the uncritical attitude of the journalists are shown in an article about Matthew Manning , a healer , and an interview with Jeremy Halpin, a shiatsu therapist . Manning is described as a healer supported by science although even on his home page one finds that all tests of his abilities were done more than 20 years ago and most of the publications are called “a pilot study” or “a preliminary report”. Why further tests of someone who can kill cancer cells were not done is difficult to understand, if he really had the ability. But Manning confess that he cannot cure everyone and say that he is happy even if he only ease the pain and anxiety for someone before they die; without doubt he also lightens their wallets.
In the interview with Halpin he tells the reader how he correct the energy flows in the patient’s body and can diagnose an illness only by looking at and touching a patient. What kind of energy this is supposed to be is never clarified although it is stated that scientific medicine and alternative treatments are not following the same logic. How this can make any sense to the reporter is hard to comprehend; if it at least were a question of different premises it would be understandable. The misuse of the term ‘energy’, from a scientific point of view, and the inability to define the term in its alternative use, is obvious throughout the series of articles and still not commented upon except at one place; in a review of a book therein the author tries to scientifically describe the “alternative” energy. The journalist r
esponsible for the review finds the attempt lacking, and this reduce his trust in the author unlike if no attempt of description had been done !
At times one wonders over the relevance of what is being reported. In some of the articles the life of a person is described; how the person searched for something to make them more harmonic or was suffering from some ailment and overcame it. One of those stories is about Rahasya Fritjof Kraft who is enlightened; something that he should be glad for because it apparently gives him the possibility to sell books and travel around the world on lecturing tours . That people strive for inner peace is perhaps understandable but what is presented is nothing else than one philosophy among many. There are many other philosophies, religions, and psychological methods that might just as well give inner peace, so why was Kraft allowed two pages of free advertising?
These are some examples of the kind of careless reporting that was involved in the articles. Not everything was as badly researched as these examples. Concerning different companies requests to label their functional food with their health benefits the requirement and method, of double blind testing was explained .
Journalists are not necessarily experts in the field they are covering and thus it is understandable if they from time to time make mistakes. Still they are to be experts in being journalists. In a way a journalist’s work is reminiscent of the work of a scientist. A journalist should always be critical to the information obtained, always be prepared to investigate further, and avoid being too much in love with their own ideas. Sometimes they are not, and then they can cause great harm.
It is not possible to say what harm Svenska Dagbladet have done but they have unquestionably contributed to a more relaxed attitude among people towards claims outside of the normal. Just repeating a message does not make it true but it will cause people to believe in it. By helping people repeat unsubstantiated claims they have lost some of my trust. This is an example of the harm incompetent journalists do to the media they are working for. Every time a consumer finds that their paper or news channel is not well informed and vigilant they will trust it less and a competitive edge will be lost. It is thus beneficiary both for the public and the news media if great care is taken in researching the news, greater care than what Svenska Dagbladet took this time.
Still, the only why to know if what you read in the paper or hear on the news is correct is to be well informed and never stop thinking.
 Svenska Dagbladet 12 July 2004 p. 14-15.
 Svenska Dagbladet 13 July 2004 p. 14-15.
 Svenska Dagbladet 14 July 2004 p. 16-17.
 Svenska Dagbladet 15 July 2004 p.16-17.
 Svenska Dagbladet 19 July 2004 p. 14-15.
 Svenska Dagbladet 20 July 2004 p. 14-15.
 Svenska Dagbladet 21 July 2004 p. 16-17.
 Svenska Dagbladet 22 July 2004 p. 16-17.
 Svenska Dagbladet 26 July 2004 p. 14-15.
 Svenska Dagbladet 27 July 2004 p. 14-15.
 Svenska Dagbladet 28 July 2004 p. 16-17.
 Svenska Dagbladet 29 July 2004 p. 16-17.
 Svenska Dagbladet 2 August 2004 p. 18-19.
 Svenska Dagbladet 3 August 2004 p. 14-15.
 Svenska Dagbladet 4 August 2004 p. 16-17.
 Svenska Dagbladet 5 August 2004 p. 16-17.