Meeting with Pat, 23.01.07

January 23, 2007

Discussed AHRC funding application form: Pat suggested rewrite to make it more eye-catching, including an introduction stressing the importance of the research – impact of journalism on public opinion, the nature of the three main subjects (MMR, ID, climate change), the nature of balance in reporting, and why print journalism over, say, TV news (less regulation in TV news). Will send Pat rewrite ASAP for her to make further suggestions.

 Training – sign up ASAP for “reviewing existing research”, “using documentary sources”, “elite interviewing” and “appraising research critically”. Await information from KILT about teaching certificate application deadlines for 07/08 academic year. Ethical approval relies on interview training so can’t do interviewing until after approval meeting – probably June (training in April).

Update work plan with deadlines for next meeting.

Write extended version of AHRC application entry on new direction (controversy, balance, science rather than merely medicine etc) to explain thinking behind it.

Start work on methodology section – comparison of academic journals with popular press and so on. Need to find sources for ID/evolution and for climate change – can use BMA, Lancet, JAMA, NEJM for MMR.

Read comments on ethics thing

Continue with philosophy of science

Next meeting 2:30pm 06.02.07

More on Controversy

January 9, 2007

More specific questions:

How should we define a scientific controversy? Working definition – where two mutually exclusive explanations are being proposed for a single phenomenon (perhaps “Autism caused by MMR”, or “autism NOT caused by MMR”). Should we narrow it down to “by researchers in the field”?

Obviously this means almost everything is a controversy to a greater or lesser extent. How do we determine this extent within the scientific debate on the topic? Possibility: for MMR/autism, PubMed search for MMR/autism in the BMJ, JAMA, Lancet and New England Journal of Medicine, say, and see year-by-year how many articles continue to admit possibility of a link. Am limiting only to the very large and reputable scientific journals – is this appropriate? Does all significant research make it into them eventually? Ask.

To what extent is the level of controversy within the scientific debate reflected in the public arena? Are there common factors determining which scientific controversies get picked up in the popular press? How would we establish such a reflection? One possibility – check whether the number of articles on a topic in the reputable peer-reviewed journals corresponds to the number of articles in the popular press, and also whether the tone and balance corresponds. So for MMR/autism: PubMed search for MMR/autism in the BMJ, JAMA, Lancet and New England Journal of Medicine, say, and see year-by-year how many articles continue to admit possibility of a link; compare with similar search on LexisNexis or something. Comparison both of NUMBER/FREQUENCY of articles and PERCENTAGE SUGGESTING LINK. Need comparable system for other controversies. In event of the two corresponding less than we might expect, attempt to show factors; preferably common factors between examples.

Are there any examples of “major” (term will need defining) controversies that don’t get picked up by the popular press? Am thinking continental drift and tectonic plate theory, but will need to check. Why don’t they?

How should the balance of a debate be represented in print?

When is it appropriate for mainstream journalism to report on controversy within the sci community? E.g. if a small piece of research suggests a public health risk might exist but doesn’t confirm anything, should the journalist await further confirmation by research or is it more responsible to publish straightaway? Does the level of possible “scariness” (would like a better word than that) affect that decision – i.e. does the increased possible public interest necessitate lower threshold of “publishability” (and again) or does the greater risk of public panic have the reverse effect? How does one determine all of this?