Steve Connor: Lofty medics should stick to their day job

Science Notebook: Doctors claim media coverage is "lazy, venal and silly"

Tuesday 30 June 2009 00:00
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The sixth World Conference of Science Journalists is underway in London. I can't say it's going to change my life, as I missed out on the previous five, but I did notice that it has attracted the attention of a bunch of medics with strong views on the state of science journalism today.

"A few of us felt they were might [sic] not adequately address some of the key problems in their profession, which has deteriorated to the point where they present a serious danger to public health," according to the Bad Science website of Dr Ben Goldacre, who is turning into the bête noir of science journalists. The medics met in a pub in London last night to explain why the "mainstream media's science coverage is broken, misleading, dangerous, lazy, venal and silly". All three speakers are gainfully employed by the public sector so they don't actually have to worry too much about the sort of pressures and financial constraints the mainstream media are under. But they nevertheless condescended to offer some advice on the sort of "best practice guidelines" I should be following, for which I suppose I should be eternally grateful.

But their arrogance is not new. Medical doctors in particular have always had a lofty attitude to the media's coverage of their profession, stemming no doubt from the God-like stance they take towards their patients. Although I wouldn't go as far as to say their profession is broken, dangerous, lazy, venal and silly – not yet anyway.

Museum's eBay treasures

I enjoyed a fascinating "backstage" tour of the Science Museum's vaults the other day. Staff there are busy preparing for a major exhibition to mark the 400th anniversary of the telescope, a simple enough instrument that has provided us with powerful insights into the complexity of space since Isaac Newton built the first practical reflecting telescope, below, in 1668.

I was shown the gold-plated mirrors of a sophisticated space telescope, a 400-year old drawing of the Moon and a special-edition box of "Space Monopoly", a board game where you can buy up different parts of the Solar System and space for an appropriate fee.

Curator Alison Boyle explained the board game was bought on eBay, like an increasing number of the museum's ephemera. "If we do buy off eBay we ask for back-up and where the object was originally sourced," she said. It just wouldn't do for Britain's most prestigious science museum to be dealing in hot property.

Less can be more

Thousands of fertility doctors are in Amsterdam this week for the annual meeting of the European Society for Human Reproduction and Embryology. They will be discussing the latest advances in helping people have babies. I can't help wondering whether we need the same sort of effort to help people have fewer babies given that the world's population could double to more than 12 billion by 2100.

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