London anti-lockdown protest April 2021

Book review: ‘Beyond the Hype’ by Fiona Fox

Image credit: Jessica Girvan/Dreamstime

How the relationship between science and the media can often allow exaggeration to flourish at the expense of fact.

It was Winston Churchill who said that when it comes to the relationship between policy and science, input from impartial experts should be “on tap but not on top”. If the recent experience of dealing with Covid has taught us anything, it is that governments can be obstinately selective when they claim to be ‘following the science’.

To the public on the receiving end of the 24-hour news cycle, it often appears that politicians prefer the hype that suits their non-scientific priorities while ignoring the imprecations of neutral scientists begging to be listened to. All too often, when science and politics collide in public, people tend to get sacked.

For confirmation of this, turn to chapter five of Fiona Fox’s superb ‘Beyond the Hype’ (Elliott & Thompson, £16.99, ISBN 9781783966172), in which she outlines the downfall of the UK’s leading neuropsychopharmacologist, David Nutt, who suggested that the risks involved with taking ecstasy were no more significant than those associated with horse riding.

As Fox goes on to say, in stating this Nutt pretty much signed his own death warrant because governments and the media fly into a moral panic over things they can’t tax, while presumably horses are vote-winners and sell newspapers. Either way, what got lost in the mix was scientific common sense, largely because Nutt had underestimated the risk that went with (what was to him) a legitimate comparison.

What’s interesting about this parable is that it represents an all-round bad day for the public understanding of science. The reason it is central to Fox’s collection of science’s biggest media controversies is that it exposes how science and the media are often to be found in opposing camps, with the result that scientists become wary of talking to a media that they perceive to be content not to let the truth get in the way of a good story.

Whether it’s the coverage of Covid-19 or Fukushima, animal research or climate change, the real victim is balance. Fox is correct when she says that over the past few years the status of science journalism has risen and that editors have become more interested in portraying science accurately. And she is also right on the money when she states that getting more scientists engaged in the reporting of science stories is a step in the right direction. But, as the founder of the Science Media Centre laments, we still end up with scandals such as the Climategate email leak or ‘Frankenfood’ headlines about GM crops. As her analysis of these and other media fiascos demonstrates, misrepresentation by the media, political interference, the timidity of the science community and journalistic sensationalism have allowed hype to flourish at the expense of fact.

One verifiable fact that can be reported here is that Fox has produced a sustained and powerful insight into the relationship between science and the media.

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles