WCSJ 2009 Session Reviews

Promises, Promises: The Ethics of Unbridled Optimism

Kaianders Sempler, editor of Ny Teknik, in his famous flower straw hat almost acted his introductory piece. He began from the Greek Euripides, who in his play brought first discussion tyranny vs. democracy, advantages and disadvantages of each. Discussion served as a system of solving problems by considering all possibilities without having to go to war. Politicians in democracy give promises which they forget once they are elected. Tyrants can concentrate on huge goals – but these can serve their own agenda.

Science is also a way of solving problems and together with democracy it belongs to the same school of thought. Tyranny and dogma also belong to the different school of thought. Science has evolved from religion and philosophy. Technology comes from the arts and the army. In the beginning first universities were funded by rich people who paid their prayers not to go to hell, universities were praying factories. Descartes and Newton were scientists and religious at the same time, Tycho de Brahe went to Prague to make horoscopes for Rudolph II. Even today we have such a mixture. Scientists mix with industry, scientists give promises because they want to obtain money for their research. In tyranny – modern examples of which were in the USSR and Nazi Germany – you have fake science, not the real science.

Wofgang Goede, science news editor of P.M./Knowledge Matters Magazine, took up with the subject of science journalism in the 3rd Reich. Nazis raised people´s hope and created a big enemy – this served to unify the nation. Journalists had ideals first but promoted Nazi propaganda afterward. Technology served to pacify: everyone was promised a car, weapons were produced to beat the outside enemies like USSR and the USA. Ideology was based on biology and medicine declaring Germans to be the best race and therefore they can beat the weaker ones.

Even today minorities all over the world face mobbing and bullying and most people are willing to participate in it, these principles are still in our society. Even after the WWII some of the criminal Nazi doctors and scientists were not punished – Werner von Brown was taken to the USA to develop a rocket program. The Japanese used similar methods, e.g. marked the Chinese as “Dead Wood”, meaning that they can kill Chinese without feeling guilt. There are other examples when the press traces behind, never digs and never sets a different agenda – the arms race and the race to get to the Moon during the Cold War, Bush against the Islamic world. American Guantanamo prison, unit 731, Soviet Gulag, Nazi concentration camps – all of it belongs to the same company and if you as a citizen don´t go along, you are dissident and you have to be punished. Journalists can make a difference. One of them revealed BMW´s cooperation with Nazis, inmates from concentration camp worked there in 1944. Press and science journalists have to play the central role to reveal such exploitation. And be aware of any ideology which promises heaven on Earth. Does nuclear fusion power ring a bell?

James Cornell, President of the International Science writers Association (ISWA), called attention to the fact that there is also another kind of journalist – the watchdog. In the USA (where the Freedom of Act is established) an interlocked network of scientists and enterprises spend a lot of public money. For example, a Boston researcher published in 1999 that certain substances effect angiogenesis to the ovaries of mice and therefore fight ovarian cancer. This article was correct but also contained a quote from Dr. Watson declaring that it could cure cancer in two years and this was validated by the major newspapers although clinical trials were years ago. Shares of the company jumped but the final cure is distant even after ten years.

Another example can be found in space exploration. We have the 40th anniversary of the Moon Walk now – journalists became supporters of it and nobody questioned what it is good for. After the shuttle disaster NASA shut down every press center and journalists could not inform the public. This event was a career ender for those who believed NASA PR people. Unfortunately, the same techniques were used by other organizations like ESA and CERN. LHC is designed to find the Higgs boson, aka the God particle. The tobacco industry was also clever to establish its own body of “experts”. Their objective was to create doubt. Industry knew that journalists have to give a voice to both parties whether it makes sense or not. Journalists have to be cleverer – even peer pressure is a tremendous force to change things.

George Claassen, founding director of Skeptic South Africa (SSA), named his talk “Prometheus in Africa – expectations about science and real world of superstitions” and started with a citation of T.H. Huxley. Its paraphrase meaning: even though science is strong and religion is weak, men should not mistake medicine for magic. Science should not be an ivory tower and scientists should not be believed without providing evidence or proof.

He gave an example. “Scientists” from the University of Pretoria announced in 1997 they had found an antiretroviral drug against HIV and wanted money to continue research. Their drug Virodene P058 was in reality just a toxic solvent. The Star (Johannesburg) claimed the breakthrough and reported uncritically. No reporter asked any questions in the first two days.

Another example: Psychic “found” missing children using his “device”. Even broadsheets reported and gave lots of publicity to this person. George collected ten points of misinterpretations in African newspapers. 1. No distinction between textbook science and frontier science, 2. Question of tolerance, 3. Understanding risks and benefits (poison – dose), 4. Accentuating the positive, ignoring the negative, 5. Generalizing from anecdotes, 6. Ignoring the holistic picture, failing to recognize conclusions, 7. Wrong and insufficient interpretations of numbers, 8. Ignoring conflicts of interest, 9. Offering misleading harmful tips, 10. Not asking for evidence.

Question from auditorium (person from Tokyo): Appreciated the war experience.

Question from auditorium: There are new TBC studies, clinical trials, rumors and skepticism, what is the promise for Africa? Panel: Message has to be given through radio, many people are illiterate and believe any nonsense.

Question from auditorium (person from USA): We cannot be unabashedly pro-science. Traditional media are not capable of dealing with the long time studies. We do not know what is going to happen in the future. Panel: We do not know about the future but we know a lot about the past – such things happened before! For example solar energy machine to pump water from the Nile was built in 1913 already. Give the stories in context, you can see the meaning.

Question from auditorium (person from Japan): What to think about fusion research? We do not have evidence whether continuing fusion is better than stopping. Panel: We have to dig out the facts and put into relation. Who are the people working on it? What is the situation? Who gets the money? Find the background and put it into the context.

Sarka Spevakova

Ready or not: let’s wait a while!

Do we need to be reminded that genetics has undergone an amazing revolution for the last decade? Since the first human genomes were decoded in 2002 - after 10 years of research and a staggering bill of more than 1 billion dollars - the sequecing technology, which allows for a full genome to unfold, has followed Moore’s law: becoming faster and cheaper by a factor of 10 each year. 

Cancer: a moving target- too fast for cancer journalism

The financial downturn may have knocked health off the top spot of the news agenda, but cancer is still considered the number one health concern by the British public. In the minds of the general reader, cancer remains a killer at large and science is far from finding a cure. Fear drives the relentless coverage which bounces between cures, failures, hope and despair.

Advising government

WCSJ 2009 wound up with a final plenary discussion led by Pallab Ghosh, BBC science correspondent and president of the World Federation of Science Journalists, and three prominent figures in science policy development. John Beddington, Chief Scientific Advisor (CSA) to the UK government, Patrick Cunningham, CSA to the Irish government and Tidu Maini, Executive Chairman of Qatar Science & Technology Park, who each gave an overview of their roles in science policy and advice to government in their respective countries.