My Storify recapping of last week’s “Science Writing in the Age of Denial” conference continues….
Previously, I recapped the first two sessions of the meeting organized by the University of Wisconsin-Madison (April 22-24, 2012), which covered “Communicating Science in Politicized Environments” and “The Denial of Evolution, and the Evolution of Denial.” (In the interest of disclosure, I should note that last fall I was a science writer in residence at UW-M, and that I was a paid, invited participant in the meeting.) Now I’ll pick up with what happened in the two later sessions that first day.
Cheerleading, Shibboleths and Uncertainty
There was no better keynote speaker for this session than Gary Schwitzer (@garyschwitzer), the founder of HealthNewsReview.org. The site, funded by the Foundation for Informed Medical Decision Making, provides independent reviews of the accuracy, balance and completeness of news stories about medical treatments, tests, procedures, and products.
Unfortunately, Schwitzer explained, about 70 percent of all the stories evaluated by HealthNewsReview failed to meet those criteria. Rather, too much of the time, medical news was dominated by an attitude of uncritical cheerleading for any and all new offerings, without an adequate exploration of the relative costs, tradeoffs in risks, credibility of the evidence or conclusions, conflicts of interest, and other important considerations. (A list of the site’s rating criteria can be found here.)
New medical technologies he said, get treated like “shibboleths”—objects of cultish devotion. As a consequence, journalists who should be helping to their audience to set intelligent health agendas are instead just flooding the public with half-baked information and conflicting messages, according to Schwitzer. With a dig at FOX News (which he said was notably awful in this regard), Schwitzer called the present “an age of infoxification.”
For a good example of a dreadful phenomenon, Schwitzer pointed to coverage of cancer screening. Mass screening is expensive and potentially harmful, so it should be balanced against the potential benefits. But anyone recommending that younger people not get mammograms or prostate antigen tests was loudly accused of wanting to “ration health care” or not caring whether people died.
Schwitzer has posted some of the slides from his presentation online. …
Read the rest of my recap on Storify….