The papers love a scare story, this much we know. Every week a different food is denounced as cancer-causing, and we are instructed to avoid it like the plague for the sake of preserving the health of ourselves and our children. The data behind this kind of story is often quite wishy washy. In fact, some papers go so far as to report that the very same things that cause cancer can also protect us against it (here’s a comprehensive list of the every day objects, chemicals and foods that one particular newspaper claims will cause or prevent cancer, or both. And here it is in musical form).
In my previous blog posts I have mentioned the importance of a good relationship between science and the media a couple of times. The MMR jab scare perfectly exemplifies the danger of a breakdown in this line of communication. With measles cases still rising, the papers are full of articles about where it all went wrong; who was to blame, and how such a fiasco could be prevented from happening again. In thinking about this, it’s very easy to point the blame squarely at the media. The journalists reporting the scare failed to understand the science, or lack thereof, behind the claims. But scientists must also take a more active role in maintaining a good relationship with the media.