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Last Updated: Thursday, 11 May 2006, 11:15 GMT 12:15 UK
Should science always be publicised?
By Pallab Ghosh
BBC News health correspondent

Guy Fawkes (BBC)
Guy Fawkes taking some "scientific licence"
The Royal Society has called for scientists to consider the public interest when deciding whether to talk about their research results.

In a report published on Thursday, Britain's national academy of science has said slip-ups in the past have led to distorted reporting of issues - for example, MMR and GM crops.

Scientists often blame the media for this distortion, but does the misreporting have its origins in the research community?

A couple of years ago, scientists organising a major European fertility meeting invited a researcher to present evidence that a group of women seeking fertility treatment were more likely conceive if they were hypnotised.

A problem arises though when controversial research designed to provoke a debate within the scientific community is reported as gospel
It was a fantastic story and prominently reported across the world. The problem was that the research was dubious.

The hypnotised group were much younger and so more likely to be fertile than the un-hypnotised group.

Journalists love a good story; but what was the excuse of the organising committee which added credibility to the research by having it presented at the meeting?

The problem is that this is not a one off or even a rare event.

Concerns over the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine began after a study was published in the Lancet - a respected medical journal.

The GM crop scare started after a professor at a respected institute said his experiments showed that genetically modified potatoes had stunted the growth of lab rats.

'Reported as gospel'

The Institute of Physics produced a study which suggested that Guy Fawkes' gunpowder plot would have caused much greater devastation than previously thought had it been successful.

Most media organisations carried illustrations of the extent of the damage by circling a large area around Parliament.

Unfortunately, the calculation was based on the assumption that gunpowder has the same explosive force as dynamite - which it does not.

Late last year, there were front page stories suggesting that the Gulf Stream might be weakening - possibly taking northern Europe into much harsher winters.

The source of this - an article published in the highly respected journal Nature.

The study was properly carried out but the drop in strength was based on just two measurements taken since 1992 and was at odds with other available evidence.

Nature published the article precisely because the research was anomalous and so of interest to the scientific community. The Lancet published the MMR study for the same reason.

A problem arises though when controversial research designed to provoke a debate within the scientific community is reported as gospel by the general media.

At best, it reduces trust in scientists and the media; at worst, it can lead to people making poor choices and harming their health - as in the case of MMR.

That is why the Royal Society has asked researchers to take more care.

The worry, though, is that this might lead to a form of self-censorship and ultimately stifle scientific debate.

Media 'sensationalising science'
03 Mar 06 |  Science/Nature
Guy Fawkes plot 'was devastating'
05 Nov 03 |  Science/Nature
Row over medical research claim
30 Oct 03 |  Health

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