randombio.com | commentary
Thursday, June 04, 2020

Science journalists need to acknowledge alternative opinions

Some science websites are trying to turn science into a political football. Bad move

U ntil quite recently, it was a slow month for news. The major news sites were back to scouring Twitter for dumb celebrity tweets to fill the void. It got so boring that we at randombio.com were planning to write about the interesting properties of water. It got so bad that for a whole week Greta Thunberg actually calmed down and started talking about the weather.

Feh, never mind, it didn't last. We're not going to talk about the possibly virus-induced insanity that's sweeping the population, not just in the USA but around the world. I warned about that once already. Instead we're going to do a bit of navel-gazing and discuss the state of science journalism.

We expect misreporting from the mainstream press, but now science journalists are starting to get into the act. It seems the search for truth about nature isn't exciting enough, so some of them turn everything into a controversy while assuring readers that they, not those other bad people, will be reporting only the True Facts™ about coronaviruses and chloroquine.

Here's a clue: just because you don't understand something, or disagree with it, doesn't mean it's incorrect. Just because it's in the scientific literature or on the WHO website, it doesn't mean it's true. And just because it's in a blog, it doesn't mean the blogger doesn't know what he's talking about.

On this site we do not mindlessly parrot whatever is claimed in the press releases or publications. We explain the result and help the reader to understand what's important and what was missed. Our goal is to encourage the readers to exercise their critical judgment of scientific discoveries.

Our secondary goal is to practice writing. Who knows, maybe one of these days we'll get those darned commas figured out.

I have thirty years of experience in protein structural chemistry, drug design, neuroscience, and clinical and lab research. So trust me when I say that scientific papers are not passive recitations of facts and observations. They are hypotheses—proposed explanations—backed up by an argument, which consists of three parts: a discussion of previous work, an explanation of why the problem is important, and a few experiments that the authors think support the hypothesis.

Yes they're peer-reviewed, but the literature is not a graveyard of established facts. Its sole purpose is to facilitate research. Just because it's published in a big scientific journal doesn't mean it's true, and expecting it always to be unassailably correct would be to misrepresent its function.

More and more of the sites that used to post slick press releases from big pharma and big universities treat what the WHO and CDC say as if it's gospel. They characterize those whose opinions differ from the standard dogma with disparaging terms like denier, quack, crank, conspiracy theorist, amateur scientist, armchair virologist, pseudoscience, and fringe. This is politicization, it's opposed to the spirit of science, and it's more harmful than you can imagine.

It's the mainstream hysteria machine's job to cycle among the four horsepersons of the Apocalypse: War, Famine, Pestilence, and Twitter. (Okay, technically that's only three: Twitter is a pest­ilence.) Science is supposed to be about unexciting things: equations, subatomic particles, molecules, and cells. We reserve pestilence for special occasions and we avoid Twitter like the plague.

Those who criticize science by saying that the results aren't reproducible enough are also missing the point. An irreproducible experiment, while certainly not good, is trivial compared to the problem of entire branches of science going down a garden path because alternative ideas are repressed.

That's where those so-called fringe websites that cause so much anxiety come in. They are rich sources of alternative and offbeat ideas. And we need them.

Some of them criticize vaccines or propose unorthodox treatments for various diseases. Some are obsessed with some uninteresting point that they think is being ignored. Some are deliberately obtuse or annoying. And some bring information that the mainstream science press won't touch.

An example of the latter is a post describing a report titled KM4 Analyse des Krisenmanagements (Kurzfassung) that was leaked from the German Interior Ministry. It's a devastating critique of their coronavirus lockdown policy, and it was reported not by science journalists or by mainstream news, but on LewRockwell.com, typical of sites that big internet companies demonetize, block, and demote in their rankings because they disagree with the content and hope they go away.

Mainstream sites don't trust in the intelligence of their readers. They think if someone claims that drinking used 10W40 motor oil will cure acne somebody will believe them and try it. Their argument is: if it's dangerous, we shouldn't let people say it. But people aren't as stupid as the media want you to think. There was a lot more to that story about people drinking aquarium cleaner, for example, than was covered in the press.

Those small websites don't always have sterling prose. They're often political, humor-challenged, and fact-challenged. They put apostrophes in the wrong place, their keyboards get stuck on CapsLock after years of accumulated fingernail clippings and Dorito crumbs, and their font color changes randomly to #ff0000, but they provide something the corporate science journalists and mainstream science magazines cannot: a genuine alternative voice that challenges the orthodoxy.

We need that voice. I'm convinced that for every disease for which the etiology is unknown there's someone out there who knows what causes it. Maybe a relative of theirs died from it or was exposed to some unusual toxin or ate a lot of some particular kind of food. Or maybe a friend of theirs had some particular experience or caught a virus as a baby that re-surfaced years later to trigger the disease.

And for every uncured disease there's someone sitting in a lab somewhere who needs that one bit of information in order to cure it. If those two people could get in touch, we might save thousands or millions of lives. But I know from experience that, no matter how much I encourage them on this site, it's fiendishly difficult to get laymen to speak up because they're afraid we won't listen or we'll ridicule their idea or make them feel stupid. That's why this is such an important issue.

Censor those people because you think they're wrong, drive them off the Internet because their thinking is naive, or bully them into silence because you know more than they do, and it might never happen; and maybe someday you or your loved one will die from that disease wondering why no one ever found a cure.

jun 04 2020, 4:29 am. edited jun 06 2020, 2:49 pm

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