Me and my Soapbox: The importance of proper journalism on science/medical topics

You probably saw it in the news: a woman that (somehow) was called a wellness guru admitted that in fact she never had cancer and hence she was never cured by her diet. Now, I will admit that before these news, I have never heard of her. Or maybe I did, but I discarded her story as of yet another person, with no medical/science background whatsoever, selling her image (insert snarky comment about "Food Babe").

But what really bothered me with this whole thing was not that she lied, not even that yet another person was given (unsolicited) advice about a subject she/he had no real knowledge about. No, what really bothered me was this:
Gibson, whose survival story was praised by the media despite never having been verified, has now admitted that she didn’t have, and never had, cancer.

Because the problem I see, not only with her, but with a lot of the self called "health gurus" is that they tell a story, a wonderful "heal with no pain" story that almost everyone would love to believe and then the people who hear this story eat it all up without taking the time to question it and more importantly, verify it. Now that she admitted the whole thing was a lie, you can find almost half a million news sites if you Google her name, either shaming her or shaming the ones who believed her. Very few are addressing the source of the problem: no fact checking whatsoever. It's the same situation with Jenny McCarthy and vaccines, Vani Hari and "unpronounceable words" or Dr. Oz and his "miracle diets": no one is verifying before sharing and endorsing their "wellness approach". Or rather, the people doing the questioning and fact checking are being dismissed.

There are numerous people who dedicate their lives to do proper science (or medical) journalism, who spend their days making all these topics accessible, well explained. And yet, when a new food/health/diet/whatever guru (also, shouldn't we stop with this already?) comes out, it would seem like they don't matter. It would seem the "best case scenario" is a talk show where one of the aforementioned people will discuss their views with a scientist, acting like both sides have the same weight and where (sadly) the person who screams the most but knows the least will gain the sympathy of the masses because "the scientist is just using big words to confuse us". Kimberly Moynahan wrote a great post on how this attitude would be considered ridiculous if it were another subject, other than science.

I've said before that we need more scientific and medical journalists, and I stand by it. But more and more it seems to me that we also need more general journalists that do all the homework and not get sold for just a "human side" story. We need the people sharing these news to do the proper fact checking, to discuss it with the people who have the background to point out inconsistencies and validate things that (in context) might make sense. Otherwise, these snake oil salesmen will keep becoming celebrities and people will keep on ditching science as scary.

No comments:

Post a Comment