Science denialism is a litmus test for quality journalism

Syringe with vaccination
Syringe with vaccination

As reporters harassed by science denialists, often wrongly described as "sceptics" - as if their views on climate change, vaccinations and the age of the Earth carry any weight of evidence - we should remember the aim of science, writes George Claassen.

The announcement by the South African National Editors' Forum that it will formally set up an inquiry into media ethics, with former Judge Kathy Satchwell as chair, is an important, even vital step to reaffirm and ensure accountability of local journalists. This comes in an era where anything you do not agree with can be called "fake news", often despite the evidence to the contrary.

Accountability of the media was one of the issues discussed earlier this month during the annual conference of the international Organization of Newsombudsmen and Standards Editors (ONO) at Columbia University's School of Journalism in New York. The conference, Journalism in a Polarized World, was jointly presented by ONO and the Columbia Journalism Review under the editorship of Kyle Pope.

One of the burning questions the more than 40 public editors, also known as news ombuds or readers' editors, from all over the world debated was how they should deal with complaints in the field of science amid the upheavals created by science denialists who put immense pressure on journalists to spread their pseudoscience.

In sound ethical journalism, the audi alteram partem principle (let the other side be heard, or more commonly known as the right to reply), forms the basis of any report where different viewpoints reflect a diversity of voices. The South African Press Code emphasises that the media shall "take care to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly". The right to reply stems from the pursuance of this fairness doctrine. The Code goes further: the media shall "present news in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by distortion, exaggeration or misrepresentation, material omissions, or summarization".

Does the right to reply in science reporting also apply to pseudoscientific claims and quackery? The ONO members and other vastly experienced media specialists were united in their approach that science journalism is a unique facet of reporting, where balancing a story is important to reflect the uncertainty of scientific findings, but that in the overwhelming number of cases the right to reply does not extend to accommodate the view of science denialists and quacks.  

A few examples: next month, as part of the 50-year commemoration of the first moon landing, the media will publish the iconic pictures taken by the Apollo astronauts of the Earth rise, clearly showing the planet as a globe. Should the media then, in the name of balance, get the opinion of the Flat Earthers? Surely not.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and thousands of credible climate scientists agree that climate change is taking place at a very dangerous tempo, that humans are mostly the cause of this, and that the next generations of all species on Earth will be detrimentally affected by this, even already becoming extinct at an alarming rate. Should stories about scientists' findings on climate change give the right to reply to climate change denialists? Surely not.

Ignorant phalanx of celebrities

One of the most dangerous developments over the past two decades has been the anti-vaccination movement. Based on a fraudulent and seriously flawed, disproven "study" by the leading anti-vaccination quack, former British doctor Andrew Wakefield, outbreaks of life-endangering diseases like measles and rubella have led to governments taking emergency measures. This to counter the health fakery propagated by Wakefield, banned from practicing medicine ever again by the UK medical authorities. His fraudulent and totally unethical paper that linked the mumps, measles and rubella vaccine to autism, was retracted by The Lancet which should never have published it in the first place.

Today, he basks in the glow of praise heaped upon him by an ignorant phalanx of celebrities like Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carrey, Robert de Niro, Jessica Biel, Oprah Winfrey ("one of the most powerful enablers of cranks on the planet", as Vox calls her), former US Congressman Robert Kennedy, and others continuing to spread their dangerous misinformation about vaccinations.

Should reports by science journalists that vaccine-preventable diseases are resurfacing and endangering the whole of society under the influence of religious fundamentalism and celebrity willful ignorance, be balanced by following the right-to-reply dictum to the book? Surely not.

The resurgence of polio in northern Nigeria, the serious outbreak of measles in New York City, and numerous other examples of the devastation the anti-vaccination movement is causing in the US, Australia, the UK, Germany, India, Africa and elsewhere, have become a litmus test not only for quality science journalism but journalism in general.

Unfortunately, science is a seriously neglected field in journalism, where quite often inexperienced reporters are assigned to cover intricate and technically difficult science news, not understanding the basic principle of science, the crucial question of evidence. The media give far too much space to dangerous quackery views by celebrities. Recently, Julie Gunlock, a senior fellow at the Independent Women's Forum and leader of the organisation's Culture of Alarmism Project, wrote in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal that the "antivaccine hysteria Ms Winfrey helped incubate was more dangerous than mere 'fake news.' It actually put people's lives at risk". Similarly, Gwyneth Paltrow, on her website Goop, is propagating dangerous pseudoscience.

Problematic to introduce dissent into area where science largely agrees

Because of the right-to-reply ethical principle, editors and journalists far too often give pseudoscientific quacks and science denialists exposure, or think it is imperative to apply the audi alteram partem rule diligently and rigorously in these science stories.  

The South African Press Code and the codes applied by most media houses, also by my fellow public editors at ONO dealing with complaints by science denialists, state the broad principle that the media shall "present only what may reasonably be true as fact". How do we then weigh clearly pseudoscientific claims made in the name of science?

Scientists and award-winning science reporters generally agree with Boyce Rensberger, former head of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Knight Science Journalism Fellowship Programme: "Science demands evidence, and some forms of evidence are worth more than others are… Balanced coverage of science does not mean giving equal weight to both sides of an argument. It means apportioning weight according to the balance of evidence (as set out in the Nieman Reports; my emphasis).

Rensberger's view is further substantiated by a recent study by Christopher Clarke from Cornell University, published in the peer reviewed journal Science Communication. Clarke investigated the question of balance in the autism-vaccine controversy in the British and American press and concluded: "By adhering to a point-counterpoint format – in which two particularly well-known sides are afforded relatively equal attention – journalists can give the impression of uncertainty where there is none, elevate a fringe group to a high-profile status, or suggest that opposing perspectives are equally well-supported by evidence. In essence, coverage can be biased against the accurate perspective."

Clarke's argument is strongly supported in another study by science communication specialists Julia Corbett and Jessica Durfee at the Global Change and Sustainability Centre of the University of Utah. They observed, in a 2004 study in the same journal, that "[although] the long-standing tradition of bringing in opposing sides is an attempt to provide balance and objectivity… it is problematic to introduce dissent into an area where science largely agrees, particularly for readers unable to evaluate where the balance of the evidence lies".

Don't provide platforms for quackery

As journalists practicing and applying ethical reporting, we should constantly be reminded of the words of science author Michael Shermer in The Borderlands of Science – Where Sense Meets Nonsense: "The best knowledge filter ever invented is science. Flawed as it is at times, the methods developed over the past four centuries were specifically designed to help us avoid errors in our thinking."

The clear message about the nature of science, in many instances very similar to journalism, is the Pulitzer Prize-winner Edward Wilson's emphasis that science is an ongoing process of testing and re-testing, and that "blind faith, no matter how passionately expressed, will not suffice. Science for its part will test relentlessly every assumption about the human condition".

Scientists have been testing climate change models and the safety of vaccines relentlessly, the result always countering the quackery of the Trump brigade on climate and the Wakefield charlatans. As reporters harassed by science denialists - often wrongly described as "sceptics", as if their views on climate change, vaccinations, the age of the Earth and the universe, carry any weight of evidence - we should remember that the aim of science is to make the universe less strange, as the physicist Robert Park puts it so aptly. Less strange, but "only in the sense that it becomes more predictable. And in that sense, the universe is not nearly as strange as it used to be. The message the public should take away is that it is not the psychics and fortune-tellers who can see into the future, it is the scientists".

Journalists should reflect this reality about the dangers to the planet and the well-being and health of its inhabitants posed by denialists, by not providing the platforms to give any credibility to their quackery.

- Claassen is the public editor of News24 and Media24's Community Press and a board member of ONO. 


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