Media Science 101: Be stupid, be afraid
My scientific knowledge is above average, but still quite basic compared to a real white coated person. However, I do know that while absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence, it certainly suggests that it is not the time to start scaring the public. I could not be arsed to watch the Panorama ‘documentary’ on the invisible menace that is WiFi. After John Sweeney was provoked into shouting at a Scientologist media stormtrooper as part of a lightwieght 30 minute doc into one of the most frightening cults of our day, I realised just how much Panorama has dumbed down in its new slot. So I should not have been suprised when the newly lightened programme broadcast a heavily trailed episode on the dangers of WiFi.
I couldn’t be bothered to watch it as I knew it would be baseless rubbish which would soon find opportunists amongst the healing crystal brigade (as already chronicled by the uniformly excellent Ben Goldacre ) but it is something that comms firms should nip in the bud before it grows into a full scale nonsense phenomenon like the phone mast hysteria.
Science and mainstream media do not mix well because scientific discourse is chock full of conflicts and seemingly contradictory results. This does not make a good story. “Blueberries prevent cancer” is a better headline than “Blueberry eaters may possibly suffer fewer cancers in some circumstances, says study, but fierce debate continues…” Few journalists stop to ask the GSCE level questions I would like to think I would (how big was the study, who funded it, was there a control group, are results published in a peer reviewed journal, etc etc) and it leaves the public either scared or cynical.
This does open up opportunities for canny PRs however. The ‘health scare’ has been deployed by Nintendo recently (in the form of ‘Wii elbow’ etc) and I for one recall an HP placed story seemingly proving that commuting is more stressful than air combat (which I know in my heart to be true). I actually think that this PR exploitation of the media’s health frenzy is actually more responsible and less harmful than the tin foil hat luddite brigade running riot and making people afraid of technology. At least Wii Elbow will not prevent children being vaccinated or cause sleepless nights thinking about death rays.