27 April 2010

ABC believes Jenny McCarthy is a valuable source when it comes to medicine

Ars Technica | John Timmer | Why is the news media comfortable with lying about science?
Well they're pretty comfortable lying about everything else, so why not science?

Hyuk hyuk. But seriously folks, Timmer has a very good point.
A recent review in the journal Pediatrics examined the incidence of digestive problems in children with autism. It concluded that there was no clear evidence that these problems occur at higher rates among those with autism, and absolutely no evidence that dietary interventions help autistic children. What the authors did suggest is that autistics may have dietary issues at the same rate as the regular population, but have difficulty communicating them; therefore, changes to diet can significantly improve their behavior.

It's a complicated message, which really requires a credible and authoritative source to convey. ABC News responded to that requirement by turning to actress Jenny McCarthy, who (predictably) complained that doctors weren't "listening to our anecdotal evidence." McCarthy has a long history of dismissing epidemiology, statistics, and all the other evidence-based tools we use to make public health decisions, so ABC News knew exactly what it was doing by giving her a podium. In essence, the message it sent was "we will intentionally undercut the best available science using a celebrity." Calling that message irresponsible grossly understates the problem.
What kind of bullshit complaint is "doctors aren't listening to our anecdotal evidence?" She admits it's only anecdotal evidence, and yet she wants it to take precedence over real evidence.  What kind of producer lets that empty-headed shit on the air?
If a news organization had put words in the mouth of a political figure, there would almost certainly be a firestorm of controversy. The same would occur if one had turned to a Hollywood star or sports figure for comment on, say, a Congressional Budget Office report. When it comes to science, however, the response seems to be limited to a few outraged bloggers. It's difficult not to think that there's a double standard involved in the complete indifference to accuracy when it comes to scientific information.
I actually feel that way when most news organizations interview politicians as if they are experst on the topics they legislate on. Politicians are experts only at getting elected. Asking someone like Chris Dodd about finance is useless.  I bet some of his aids could give you well-informed opinions, but Dodd's job is to be professionally popular, not to be an expert on anything.

It's worse with celebrities, but even that isn't limited to science.  Why should anyone care what Brad Pitt or Bono thinks about international development?

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I'll take this opportunity to dredge up one of my posts from the archives about Prince Charles' vacuous opinions about agricultural genetically engineering.  Why anybody cares what the British royal family thinks about anything other than crumpets is beyond me.

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