07 April 2009
Scientist proposes ethics committees for journalists
|In the 28 March issue of New Scientist, Cambridge University autism researcher Simon Baron-Cohen notes that scientists are regulated by ethics committees because they can do harm. Since the media also have the potential to cause harm, he asks whether they too should be regulated by ethics committees.
Journalists in the conventional media are already regulated by ethical codes and both Britain and New Zealand have Press Councils where complainants can take their grievances if they are misreported. But to require journalists to have their stories reviewed by ethics committees before publication would be a very big step indeed. For constitutional and practical reasons alone, the idea is clearly a no-goer.
But it's hard not to have sympathy for Baron-Cohen. In 1998, intense and on-going media coverage of a research paper that linked autism with the MMR vaccine led to the number of British children being vaccinated to fall below the level needed for ‘herd immunity'. Even though the research findings have not been substantiated by later studies, the original paper is still regularly regurgitated by the media and is latched onto by some parents as an explanation for their children having autism. Researchers who don't support the findings in the original paper are seen as being part of a conspiracy to cover up the alleged MMR/autism link.
In January this year things got worse for Baron-Cohen. A paper he published showed a positive correlation between levels of foetal testosterone and the number of ‘autistic traits' shown in children post-natally. The children did not have autism and were developing normally. But they were measured for autistic traits such as sociability, how communicative they were and so on.
This led to a splurge of misreporting and alarmist headlines, linking the research with foetal autism screening and the ethics of terminating pregnancies involving potentially autistic children. In fact, the research paper did not show any links between foetal testosterone and autism; nor is there any pre-natal test for autism. So Baron-Cohen found himself in the media defending himself from allegations that his research had a sinister eugenics agenda and that his team had abused the trust given by the women who had allowed their amniotic fluid to be tested and for their children to be assessed.
What could he have done differently that might have resulted in more balanced media coverage?
In the case of autism and MMR, the issue has been kept alive by the researcher who produced the original paper claiming a link between the two. His defence of the link paints him as a lone hero fighting the establishment in a battle for the truth ... a compelling story that goes on and on.
Rogue researchers or doctors are not easy to counteract. They can make claims in the media that cannot be proved wrong - scientifically you can never prove the absence of risk - and they invariably pitch them to prey on the fears of the vulnerable.
Classic examples in the NZ context include Milan Brych, the quack cancer specialist who duped hundreds of Kiwi cancer patients in the 1970s into his bogus treatments and Mat Tizard, the physician that used a special voltmeter to diagnose his patients in the 1980s for alleged Roundup poisoning. Both were disciplined or ruled against in official enquiries but they still attracted the gullible and desperate and would no doubt still do so using the web, were they in business today.
How to deal with such people? If a doctor is the problem, regulatory and professional bodies must take them seriously. Drown their claims with facts. Then, after allowing a reasonable time for the offender to see the error of their ways and for the public to see there are two sides to the issue, get official disciplinary procedures under way. Even then, there will be those who see them as heroes, but at least they will operate under a cloud.
If the rogue is a scientist, especially if they have tenure at a university, it's much harder. Once again, their claims need to be drowned in facts but, unless they step outside the ill-defined bounds of what is considered fair comment, they may just have to be tolerated. Indeed, too much direct criticism from the authorities can backfire - creating another underdog hero.
As for the frienzy over research findings showing a link between prenatal testosterone and ‘autistic traits' shown in children post-natally, this was both predictable and preventable. The term ‘autistic traits' may have a special meaning in science, but in everyday English it means an indicator of autism; especially since the author is an autism specialist. Sub-editors would have drawn the obvious (but incorrect) conclusions.
Since anything about a subject as emotive as autism will get full media scrutiny once it enters the public arena, Baron-Cohen would be well advised next time he completes a paper for publication, to first run it past the public relations manager at Cambridge. Pin-pricking peer reviews are a frustrating fact of life in science. But a media frienzy resulting from a failure to take PR advice on sensitive research can cause much greater damage.
The two issues cited by Baron-Cohen as being indicators of flaws in media ethics were in fact caused by scientists themselves: the first by a scientist who won't let his flawed research die a natural death and the second by Baron-Cohen himself when he ventured into the public arena presumably without taking advice.
Ethics committees have their place, but they can never be used to stop people voicing their opinions, no matter how unbalanced. Nor can they be used to stop a good scientist putting his feet in his mouth.
- Trevor Walton