This thought hit me over the weekend in Tesco’s car-park; I was still mulling over the reliability, or lack thereof, of science reporting in the media. I was also thinking about the PCC and how powerless it is, largely because it’s simply a boys’ club for editors.
However, in my finding-a-trolley reverie, it occurred to me that there could be a solution. There’s already a couple of papers that run debunk columns – the most high profile of these is obviously Ben Goldacre’s “Bad Science” in the The Guardian (with its corresponding blog, to which I’ve linked from here more than is absolutely healthy), but there’s also Tim Harford at the FT whose “Undercover Economist” pieces throw light onto often highly-spun news stories; he also presents Radio 4’s “More or Less”, which does its bit to look behind the headlines. From the blogosphere, Lay Scientist, Ministry of Truth, and many, many others all provide sterling work evaluating science, the reporting of science, and the integration of science into policy. (Peter Sinclair’s films on global warming, for example, are wonderful.) There’s no shortage of people that care about accuracy.
What they have in passion, they lack in organisation.
So here’s the idea: its that there should be convened a panel of independent experts drawn from science, medicine and a few other fields: most importantly, statistics. Every so often, this panel would meet and give news media a “reliability rating”. In return for this, each member of the panel would be given a small honorarium – say a couple of grand a year – from a fund supported by the newspapers (rather as they fund the PCC). Or maybe fewer members would be able to farm out consultancy work to academics. Whatever – let’s not sweat the details yet. Newspapers then would be able to print a little logo – say, a test-tube that’s more or less empty – next to their titles, to give readers a sense of the paper’s scientific trustworthiness. The odd daft story would get through, but over the course of, say, a year, it’d be possible to build a picture of reliability. The papers themselves would have an incentive to contribute to the scheme, and to be as reliable as possible, because they could use their trustworthiness as a selling point. Papers that don’t participate in the scheme would, by omission, be flagging their own worthiness for scepticism. Granted, there’re weaknesses in the picture: my guess is that people buy the Daily Fail for its scientific insight. But they’d at least have an implicit warning that, if they were going to believe its on-occasion utterly daft health reporting, they’d only have themselves to blame.
There has to be a fatal flaw in this scheme (unless it is, so far, so sketchy right now that there’s nothing in which there could be a flaw). Tell me what it is.