#4: Who Profits?

Question #4 in our ongoing series of things to ask when you're thinking about the science news: Who profits from the story? Okay this sounds cynical, but we have to get real: A lot of science and health stories in the news are there not because of the inherent value of the research, but  because they profit somebody. Sometimes it's denominated  in dollars, sometimes it's measured by political power, or how it furthers a social agenda. 

And everybody’s got an agenda. We know, we know, science is supposed to be neutral, pure, objective, and above all this, right?

A little, maybe. But not entirely. And certainly not when it comes to the science news. The stuff that makes it into the news -- a tiny fraction of the science that is done every day -- is often the end result of a complicated system that is more like making a business deal than presenting new knowledge. News organizations want to attract more eyeballs and bring in more advertising income. Corporations want to sell things and reward shareholders. Nonprofits want to trumpet successes and build support. Scientists want recognition and grant money. This is not to say that there are not selfless and goodhearted people in all these fields, but rather to emphasize that there are other strong forces at play. 

There remains the noble goal of increasing the sum total of human knowledge – the agenda of the best scientists. That gets something into a research journal, not all over Twitter. Most science  is slow, cautious, and incremental, adding small bits to correct, confirm, or tweak what we already know. That doesn’t make for exciting news copy. So the media play up other angles, highlighting controversies (even where little controversy might really exist), hyping little things as if they were big things, working harder to attract readers than to give a clear idea about an issue.

Add to that the endless pressure from special-interest groups who use science to promote their endeavors. When tobacco companies were attacked because cigarettes were shown to cause cancer, they fought back with a handful of well-paid scientists who argued the opposite view. They managed to take an issue on which the majority of scientists agreed, and make it look like an argument between two equally balanced sides. The same technique is being used to make the scientific consensus on climate change into a debatable point. There are so many researchers in the world that you can always find someone with a Ph.D. to argue your point for you. And the media loves that. A good fight always attracts an audience, so the media play up both sides, regardless of how valid the arguments. 

That's the suspicious side of the news. It's only gotten worse since big newspapers and news organizations cut back on positions for trained science writers, the kind who can judge what's real news and what's smoke. The good side is represented by organizations that actually seek out real news and present it fairly. SciCentral links to many of these; the BBC and Science Daily are reliably good.

Is the science news you read based on substance, or it ginned up to promote an agenda? Whenever you read a story, ask yourself, “Who profits?” It will help you put the hype into perspective.