Monday, July 9, 2007


What a tricky business it is trying to figure out how to stay safe these days. One scientific study says one thing, the next one says something else. And the scary parts are magnified by the 24/7 barrage of news reports screaming about the risk du jour. How are we supposed to make informed decisions about our health and safety?

A recent example illustrates the broader dilemma. The news media have reported at length that mercury can damage cognitive development in the fetus. The biggest source of exposure to mercury for pregnant women, we are warned, is consumption of seafood. The safe thing to do, then, is eat less fish, right?

But seafood is rich in all kinds of nutrients, particularly the fatty acids the fetal brain needs for healthy development. A study a few months back in the British medical journal The Lancet found that the less seafood pregnant women ate, the worse their kids did on a raft of developmental tests. Kids born to mothers who ate less than about three quarters of a pound of seafood per week were at risk of having lower verbal IQ scores, and “… increased risk of suboptimum outcomes for prosocial behaviour, fine motor, communication, and social development scores. For each outcome measure, the lower the intake of seafood during pregnancy, the higher the risk of suboptimum developmental outcome.”, the authors write.

So what’s a pregnant mom to do? Some science says that more fish = more mercury = possible brain damage to the unborn child. Other science says less fish = less nutrients = possible brain damage to the unborn child. Conflicting scientific evidence. How are we non-scientists supposed to decide?

The news media could help, but in several ways they make things worse. There is generally more emphasis on the threatening side of things, so a story about how “Fish Is Bad For Your Kids” will get more play than one that says “Fish is Good For Your Kids”. In the three days after the Lancet study was published, there was less reporting about it (fewer stories, smaller stories, buried-inside-the-newspaper stories) than there generally has been about the dangers of mercury in seafood. (The New York Times didn’t report on the Lancet study at all, based on a search for the words “Lancet” “seafood” and “mercury”.) That means some people won’t learn about these new findings. It’s hard to make an informed choice about conflicting scientific evidence if some of it, particularly the more reassuring information, is missing.

Sometimes the information is widely reported, but misleading. Many news reports about scientific findings suggest that the study being described offers THE definitive answer. Several stories about the Lancet study had headlines like this one from a Texas TV station’s website; “Study: Eating fish while pregnant leads to smarter children.” Case closed. Scientists know it takes a lot of evidence from a lot of studies to develop a clear answer. It shouldn’t be hard for journalists to acknowledge this. In fact, for the sake of accuracy, it is their obligation.

News reports about risks also usually fail to give both sides of the risk-benefit tradeoffs involved. Mercury and seafood is a classic example. There were lots of scary stories about the dangers of mercury in fish, but only some of them, usually late in the story, mentioned the benefits of seafood. The mercury story isn’t the only example. Stories about estrogen replacement therapy cite the cancer risks, but rarely mention the potential heart and bone protective benefits. Stories about the risks of nuclear power almost never mention the tens of thousands of people who get sick or die each year due to air pollution from burning coal and oil. There is no general right or wrong to any of these risk-benefit choices. It’s up to each individual to decide. But in order to make informed choices we need to know what the tradeoffs are.

Journalists are only part of the problem. Too many scientists trumpet their findings as THE answer. Some do it out of intellectual arrogance, some out of honest passion on their issue, many out of a desire for career advancement and more research money. And many scientists need to win the war of ideas. It matters to them personally, intellectually, that they’re right, that their view prevails. Conflicting studies breed disagreement between scientists with differing views that can be really personal and nasty. The public and policy makers get caught in the confusion of this intellectual combat.

We deserve some of the blame too. In our rushed, short attention span world, we want things black and white. What’s safe and what’s not. Spare me the details, my cell phone is ringing. Even if the news story has all the relevant facts, if we don’t read more than the headline and the first few paragraphs, shame on us for not knowing what we need to know.

Many of the hazards of our modern world are complex, and our scientific understanding of them can only develop one piece at a time, each new study adding another piece to a giant jigsaw puzzle. Sometimes the new piece doesn’t seem to fit with the ones already laid down. But there are solutions to the confusion from conflicting scientific evidence. Scientists have to be honest about how they develop, interpret, and report their results. They have to be careful about claiming that their findings are THE answer. And we have to be smarter news consumers and collect more information before we make up our minds.

But in the end, a great deal of responsibility falls on the news media. Beyond our own personal daily experience, what we know of what’s going in the larger world is determined by what the news media tell us and how they tell it. What stories get covered, how the reporter gets his or her information, how the story is written…they all involve decisions. There is a huge public trust involved in how journalists make those choices.

We can’t expect journalism to be some high-minded calling that serves only the public interest. Journalism is largely a for-profit affair and journalists are driven by self-interest. The bosses want news that will grab our attention. Reporters want news that will make the front page. Both motivations are inescapable realities, and both encourage coverage about threats and danger that is more alarming, not less.

But we are their customers. We can and should demand better. We should reward with our readership and viewership and listenership those news organizations that report risk well, with accuracy, balance, a bit of caution, and an occasional touch of context, so we can make sense of conflicting and incomplete scientific evidence about the risk-filled complexities of our modern world.

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