[ASC-media] Fresh Science - is breast cancer caused by a virus?

Niall Byrne niall at scienceinpublic.com
Wed Oct 1 12:15:33 EST 2003

There's been a lively discussion over this story and I've been thinking hard
about my role in it. 

I coordinated the selection process, edited and/or approved all the press
releases and promoted all sixteen stories to the media. 

In the last few days I've consulted with various scientists and science
journalists whose opinions I value and trust. And my conclusion.

I stand by everything that I and the Fresh Science team have done.

Caroline presented peer reviewed scientific research. She met our criteria
and deserved her place in Fresh Science.

Her press release (which I edited) was speculative but balanced. It was
headed, "Could breast cancer be caused by a virus?"

The resulting media coverage was equally speculative and balanced (most of
the stories can be seen on Google - just type Caroline Ford breast cancer).
Caroline worked effectively with the media to discourage over interpretation
of her work. I have no concerns with the stories I've seen. 

I'd run the story the same way if I had my time again. I confess there were
a couple of media alerts where I dropped the question mark and shouldn't.

Speaking more broadly I think David is attempting to move the goalposts for
the media.

Many scientists think that the media should only cover peer reviewed science
(I disagree but that's another discussion for another time). 

I think David is arguing that the media should only report peer reviewed
science that he also agrees with. 

To David, this is simply a case of poor (and possibly dangerous) science
being publicised, and therefore wrong. To me, this is a case of two
reputable research teams having a dispute over technique and the
interpretation of results. It is therefore worthy of reporting given
appropriate context and balance.

I fundamentally disagree with the views he and others have expressed on the
role of the media. The public must be exposed to the uncertainty and
processes of science just as we are to the uncertainties of every other
field of human endeavour. Science should not be performed in private. It
should be conducted, debated, and rewarded in public. That's why I've got a
new email and web address (in addition to the separation of BYC's motor
sport interests - but that's another story)

The consequences of pursuing David's line--where essentially only a single
"right" view of science holds sway--and getting it wrong is the sort of
thing that has occurred in Britain following the Mad Cow and the FMD
outbreaks (among other incidents). In the UK there is now a fundamental
distrust of science, scientists and the Government which can be seen in the
recent reports of public attitudes to GM foods and the whole wrangle over
WMD in Iraq. I think this is a consequence of the scientific secrecy. It can
only be combated by open public discussion of science - the good, bad and
indifferent. I think we achieved that for example during the recent genetics
congress in Melbourne. 

I know I won't win over the old guard. But if you like my way of
communicating science you know where to find me.

Ps. David, this could make a great topic for a future Science at the Redback
discussion - you, me and a couple of journos - perhaps someone from the Age
and someone from New Scientist - Rachel's always got a strong view.
December's free or perhaps February.

Pps. All correspondents: don't forget that ASC media is intended for
distributing media releases and is archived online. Therefore anything we
say here could be used by the mass media.

Niall Byrne

Science Communication Consultant
PO Box 199 Drysdale 3222 Australia
(185 Scotchmans Road Portarlington 3223)
Ph +61 3 5253 1391, fax +61 3 9923 6008, mobile 0417 131 977
niall at scienceinpublic.com, www.scienceinpublic.com
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