Tag Archives: science journalism

Science journalism … ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

Not much has changed (!) since Christmas when this December 19, 2023 article by Rae Hodge for Salon about changes where science journalism is concerned was published, Note; Links have been removed,

Advance Publications is owned by a couple of billionaire families. Condé Nast is owned by Advance Publications. Wired magazine is owned by Condé Nast. And this week — as the world reaches the hottest temperatures on record, as another deadly COVID-19 variant steals into the public’s lungs, as owners of unregulated artificial intelligence threaten to unleash mass unemployment with their article-generating internet toys and the whole world needs increasingly complex topics explained — the science desk at Wired got gutted.

It’s not just Wired, of course. Recurrent Ventures axed 151-year-old Popular Science magazine this year, and presumably the last 13 staffers to steward its cultural legacy, leaving only five editorial staffers to crew the online-only ship. There are no full-time staff writers left at National Geographic after this year, and The Washington Post took a tough hit too. Climate desks at CNBC and Gizmodo got cut down. As did the climate team remaining at CNN, the select beat preserved in 2008 after the outlet axed the general science desk. 

Only a couple of years after buying it, billionaire-owned Red Ventures pummeled CNET with layoffs before making it one of the first major outlets to get caught pushing AI-generated articles. Short-sighted layoffs also hit the science desks at Inverse and FiveThirtyEight. Buzzfeed News, with its powerhouse science desk, was brought down. Fortress Investment Group laid off “under 100” Vice News staffers. And 74 journalists at the L.A. Times got the ax. Great Hill Partners owns G/O Media which burned Jezebel and its editorial staffers right when women’s health is facing greater attack in this country than it has since Roe v. Wade. 

“We stand in solidarity with you. You are valued. Your work matters,” wrote Cassandra Willyard, president of the National Association of Science Writers, in a May release. “​​Only five months in, 2023 has proven to be a year of layoffs and shrinking budgets, threatening science journalists and editors whose expertise is crucially important.”

Private equity catastrophes, faceless hedges and trusts, unchecked conglomerates and the ongoing shell game of parent companies — the wealthy gutted US science journalism in 2023 through a number of opaque and convoluted financial vehicles. And there’s no evidence to suggest that trend will stop. Rather, ad-reliant revenue models of wealthy digital proprietors are now failing so hard that their slash-and-burn newsroom tactics are likely to get more aggressive as short-selling the news ramps up to a fire-sale finale. One recent report holds that news outlets saw 2,681 job cuts this year. That’s more than the totals in 2021 or 2022. 

While it isn’t science-specific, the Canadian government has acted to funnel more money to traditional news organizations from digital platforms. The Canadian government passed the highly criticized Bill C-18, “Bill C-18: An Act respecting online communications platforms that make news content available to persons in Canada,” also known as, the “Online News Act” in June 2023.

I have two explanations of the act, (a) the Canadian federal government’s Explanatory Note (updated November 27, 2023) and (b) CTV news online’s Rachel Aiello and Alexandra Mae Jones wrote this July 20, 2023 article, “Understanding Bill C-18: Canada’s Online News Act and its proposed rules, explained” (updated [coincidentally] December 19, 2023).

Hopefully, some of this money will find its way to science writing/journalism and the legislation will provide a way forward for legislation in other countries.

Apply for six month internship at Nature (journal) sponsored by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC)

The deadline is Feb. 26, 2014, Canadians and people resident in Canada are eligible, and this does involve some travel. Here are the details (from a Feb. 12, 2014 posting on the Nature blogs),

Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC) is offering a six-month, full-time science journalism award worth up to CAD$60,000 to an English-speaking Canadian citizen or permanent resident of Canada. The successful applicant will receive training and work as an intern in the London news room of the leading international science journal Nature before spending up to four months reporting science stories from developing countries. He or she will be at an early stage of his or her career, but with at least three years’ experience as a journalist.

Candidates must have a keen interest in science and technology, particularly relating to development, as well as outstanding reporting and writing skills, and strong ideas for news and features suitable for publication in Nature. The internship is expected to begin in April or May 2014.

To apply, please e-mail the following to david.reay@nature.com:

  • A covering letter explaining your suitability for the award
  • A resume
  • Three recent story clips, ideally a mix of news and feature pieces
  • Three brief pitches for stories you think would appeal to Nature’s audience.

Deadline: Wednesday 26 February 2014

About the IDRC

The IDRC is a Canadian Crown corporation that works closely with researchers from the developing world in their search to build healthier, more equitable and more prosperous societies (see www.idrc.ca).

About Nature

Nature is a weekly international journal publishing the finest peer-reviewed research in all fields of science and technology, and is the world’s most highly cited interdisciplinary science journal. It also has an international news team covering the latest science, policy and funding news in both online and print formats (see www.nature.com/nature).

About the award

Nature will manage the selection process and the IDRC will award up to CAD$60,000 to the successful applicant. This will cover travel costs, living expenses, research expenses, visa or other related costs, in London and in other countries visited during the six-month period. The award will also cover the cost of participating in a conference relevant to the award winner’s professional development as a journalist. For more information click here.

Good luck!

Science writing? Science journalism? Does it MATTER?

I’m not a big fan of the ‘science journalism is vital/better than blogging, etc.’ discussion. I tend to think that science communication is important whether it’s written or spoken or found in a newspaper/magazine or in a blog or in a video on YouTube. As far I’m concerned the most important thing is the source of the information, i.e., the individual who’s supplying it must have integrity and that’s something that can be observed over time. I don’t expect perfection but I do expect that mistakes are quickly acknowledged and corrected.

A recent (at the AAAS 2012 annual meeting in Vancouver in mid-February) encounter with a science journalist who proudly proclaimed that he never read science blogs because they are filled with inaccuracies and other forms of ‘poor’ reporting left me with more than usually mixed feelings about science journalism. We exchanged words he and I, in a civil fashion, where he explained that I ‘had the problem’ despite my comment that there are myriad examples of lousy science journalism and I was reminded of a debate that as far as I’m concerned is over but continues vigourously elsewhere.

One area of discussion does interest me and that’s long form vs. short form writing. In the area of science and technology, I like to read longer form pieces. Unfortunately, long form for a lot of magazines and newspapers and blogs means 500 words, not nearly enough for complex topics. There is a movement afoot, according to David Bruggeman at his Pasco Phronesis blog in a Feb. 26, 2012 posting, to address this issue,

Friday [Feb. 24, 2012] I mentioned MATTER, a longform journalism project focusing on science and technology (H/T Jack Stilgoe).  It’s currently four days into a 30-day Kickstarter push [crowdfunding campaign], and has already raised over $76,000 (U.S.).  The two minds behind the project are Bobbie Johnson and Jim Giles, two reporters with a fair amount of ink spilled on issues involved with science and technology.

Unfortunately, I’m not familiar with either of the journalists or their work but I do like their ideas. From the MATTER Kickstarter page,

We’ve developed a way to support independent, global, in-depth reporting about science and technology, two subjects that are close to our hearts. We’re going to use it to build MATTER, the new home for the best journalism about the future. And we need you to help us make it happen.

MATTER will focus on doing one thing, and doing it exceptionally well. Every week, we will publish a single piece of top-tier long-form journalism about big issues in technology and science. That means no cheap reviews, no snarky opinion pieces, no top ten lists. Just one unmissable story.

MATTER is about brilliant ideas from all around the world, whether they come from professors at MIT or the minds of mad people. But most of all, it’s about getting amazing investigative reporters to tell compelling stories.

We’re building MATTER for readers, not advertisers. So however you access our stories — whether it’s on our website, via the Kindle store, or on your Apple and Android devices — you will get a beautifully designed experience that puts you first.

Good journalism isn’t cheap: it takes time and money for great reporters to do their best work. That means we’re going to have to charge. But not much: we’re aiming for around 99 cents per story. It’s an experiment to see if independent journalism, done right, can fill the gap left by mainstream media.

They put together a video pitch,

 They must be doing something right because they met their funding goal within days of opening the campaign. They then doubled their funding goal and they’ve raised that money too. Here’s how they’re dealing with the ‘problem’ of getting more than they expected,

The way we designed the project is simple: the higher our total goes, the better we can make everything. Every dollar gives us more room to run, allows us to commission more stories straight off the bat, lets us deliver to more platforms and helps make MATTER nicer to use.

If you wish to contribute, there are still several days left in the campaign.

ETA: A March 8, 2012 posting by Leigh Bedon on the MATTER project for Techdirt emphasizes some of the issues with the business model. How do you get people to pay $.99 per article and will they keep doing it?

SFU scientists set their phasers on stun; quantum biology and University of Toronto Chemists; P.R. and science journalism

Neil Branda and his colleagues from Simon Fraser University’s (SFU) 4D Labs have demonstrated that animals can be ‘switched off ‘ with exposure to ultra violet light then ‘switched on’ when exposed to standard light. From the news item on Nanowerk,

In an advance with overtones of Star Trek phasers and other sci-fi ray guns, scientists in Canada are reporting development of an internal on-off “switch” that paralyzes animals when exposed to a beam of ultraviolet light. The animals stay paralyzed even when the light is turned off. When exposed to ordinary light, the animals become unparalyzed and wake up.

In more Canadian news, chemists at the University of Toronto have observed quantum mechanics at work with marine algae.  From the news item on Nanowerk,

“There’s been a lot of excitement and speculation that nature may be using quantum mechanical practices,” says chemistry professor Greg Scholes, lead author of a new study published this week in Nature. “Our latest experiments show that normally functioning biological systems have the capacity to use quantum mechanics in order to optimize a process as essential to their survival as photosynthesis.”

Special proteins called light-harvesting complexes are used in photosynthesis to capture sunlight and funnel its energy to nature’s solar cells – other proteins known as reaction centres. Scholes and his colleagues isolated light-harvesting complexes from two different species of marine algae and studied their function under natural temperature conditions using a sophisticated laser experiment known as two-dimensional electronic spectroscopy.

… It also raises some other potentially fascinating questions, such as, have these organisms developed quantum-mechanical strategies for light-harvesting to gain an evolutionary advantage? It suggests that algae knew about quantum mechanics nearly two billion years before humans,” says Scholes.

Is Scholes suggesting the algae are more advanced with science than humans? I find that thought intriguing and perhaps useful if one believes that human beings are remarkably arrogant creatures who can benefit from a little humility.

On a completely different front, I’ve been doing some more thinking about science journalism and science public relations (I did refer to some of it in my series on science communication in Canada on this blog in Sept/Oct 2009 ) after last week’s posting about a science journalism study in the UK. In fact, my thinking on these matters was reignited by a posting Ruth Seeley made on her No Spin PR blog about why she calls her business ‘no spin’ and why she prefers the term ‘framing’,

Implicit in the word spin is the idea that deception is involved, facts are being turned on their heads, and/or there’s so much fast talking going on the truth would be unrecognizable even if it were part of the mix. The ‘truth’ is, it’s as much of an insult to call a public relations practitioner a ’spin doctor’ as it is to call a woman a ‘chick.’ And it is a female-dominated profession, although not yet at the most senior levels.

Despite the cross-fertilization that occurs between journalists and PR practitioners (since writing well is the foundation skill for both professions), there is also the perception that journalists are those who ferret out the truth and present it objectively, while PR folks do their best to deflect, disguise, and distract from the truth. The notion of the muck-racking journalist being free of bias is laughable in the 21st Century. We wouldn’t have populist, right-wing, and left-wing media outlets if bias weren’t inherent in every medium, whether it’s the way the headline is written, the fact that the story is covered at all, or the selective presentation of facts. The notion that objectivity is in disrepute is, thankfully, permeating the zeitgeist – and not a moment too soon.

Whether you view the world through rose-coloured glasses or not, whether you think all politicians are dishonest or revere those who occupy the corridors of delegated power, whether you’re a MacHead or a PC fan, we all have filters we apply to information, and these filters affect our decision-making processes.

There is nothing illegal, immoral, or unethical about choosing a frame. You need to be aware that there’s more than one framing choice. You need to consider the fact that others won’t choose the same frame as you. Ultimately, though, you will have to either pick one or leave the picture unframed. Choosing a frame and developing a strategy for its presentation is the heart of public relations. As a practitioner, aligning yourself with clients whose framing aligns with your beliefs and values is the soul of a successful PR consultancy.

Perception has never been reality. It just appears to be. That, I suspect, is a natural consequence of the human condition.

I mention Ruth in particular because her consultancy seems to be largely focused on science public relations (she does projects for Andrew Maynard [2020 Science] and, as you can see in her post, she is involved with the twitter science community).  Her comments reminded me of a rather provocative posting on Techdirt in May 2009,

One of the most common complaints about the trouble facing newspapers today is the woeful cry “but who will do investigative journalism?” Of course, that’s silly. There are plenty of new entities springing up everyday online that do investigative journalism — and do it well.

Romenesko points us to a column by Tim Cavanaugh taking this concept one step further: suggesting that a subset of PR people may end up taking on the role of investigative journalists . Now, I’m sure plenty of journalists are cringing at the concept — and certainly, as someone who gets bombarded daily with idiotic story pitches that are spun to such ridiculous levels I can only laugh at them (as I hit delete), it makes me cringe a bit. But some of his points are worth thinking about.

I went on to check Tim Cavanaugh’s article and after a brief description of the current publishing crisis and its effect on investigative journalism,

Here’s one hypothesis. Numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics suggest that in the decade from 1998 through 2007, another field was outgrowing, and perhaps growing at the expense of, traditional journalism. The number of people working as “reporters and correspondents” declined slightly in that period, from 52,380 in 1998 to 51,620 in 2007. But the number of public relations specialists more than doubled, from 98,240 to 225,880. (Because job types and nomenclature change substantially, I have used only directly comparable jobs. The U.S. economy was still supporting 7,360 paste-up workers in 1998, for example, while in 2007 some 29,320 Americans were working under the already antique title “desktop publishers.”)

So are flacks the future, or even the present, of investigative journalism? This interpretation makes intuitive sense. Important data points by which we continue to live our lives— the number of jobs that were created or destroyed by NAFTA, the villainy of the Serbs in the Yugoslav breakup, all sorts of projected benefits or disasters in President Obama’s budget plans— are largely the inventions of P.R. workers.

And though it’s considered wise to believe the contrary, these communications types are not constructing all these news items entirely (or even mostly) by lying. Flackery requires putting together credible narratives from pools of verifiable data. This activity is not categorically different from journalism. Nor is the teaching value that flackery provides entirely different from that of journalism: Most of the content you hear senators and congressmen reading on C-SPAN is stuff flacks provided to staffers.

The debate itself is not all that new as the relationship between public relations and journalism is at least one century old. One of the earliest PR practitioners was a former journalist, Ivy Lee. As for borrowing from the social sciences (the term framing as used in Ruth’s posting is from the social sciences), that too can be traced backwards, in this case, to the 1920s and Edward Bernays who viewed public relations as having huge potential for social engineering.Towards the end of his life (1891 – 1995) he was quite disappointed, (according Stuart Ewen’s book, PR! A Social History of Spin) in how the field of public relations had evolved. Ewen (wikipedia entry) is highly critical of the profession as per this May 2000 interview with David Barsamian,

Part of why the history of PR is so interesting is because you see that it’s a history of a battle for what is reality and how people will see and understand reality. PR isn’t functioning in a vacuum. PR is usually functioning to try to protect itself against other ideas that are percolating within a society. So under no circumstances should what I’m saying about Bernays in terms of the use of social psychology indicate that these are automatic processes that always work. They don’t always work. They don’t always work because to some extent, despite what [Walter] Lippman said, people don’t just function by pictures in their heads. They also experience things from their own lives. Often their experiences are at odds with the propaganda that’s being pumped out there.

As you can see, for Ewen PR is synonymous with propaganda which, by the way, was the title for a book by Edward Bernays.

I’ve worked in public relations and in marketing and find that the monolithic claims made by folks such as Ewen have elements of truth but that much of the analysis is simplistic. That said, I think the criticism is important and quite well placed as there have been some egregious and deeply false claims made by PR practitioners on behalf of their clients. Still, it bothers me that everyone is contaminated by the same brush.  Getting back to Ruth’s post: In a sense, we are all PR professionals. All of us choose our frames and we constantly communicate them to each other.

Happy weekend.

Self-cleaning windows almost here?; SAFENANO consortium and two new contracts; high school students in Albany, NY compete with nano projects; the state of science journalism in the UK

According to a news item on Nanowerk, the Nanophase Technologies Corporation introduced a new nanotechnology-enabled window cleaning product at the International Window Cleaning Association Convention in Reno (Jan. 27 – 30, 2010). From the news item,

NanoUltra™ Super Hydrophilic Window Technology keeps windows cleaner longer than traditional window washing by providing an invisible protection to the surface of glass. The NanoUltra™ products impart a protection to the glass surface that is hydrophilic, allowing water to create a sheeting action that washes away dirt and grime. These revolutionary products also accelerate drying time, resulting in virtually spot and streak free windows.
This high-performance product works using a two-step application method. First, NanoUltra™ Super Hydrophilic Window Pretreatment, a nano cerium oxide based product, is applied to provide both a chemical and mechanical polishing mechanism that restores glass to ‘like new’ condition. Then the NanoUltra™ Super Hydrophilic Treatment product is applied to maintain the super hydrophilic surface property and give windows the ultimate shine.
The results can provide significant benefits to building owners and managers, professional window cleaners and window restoration specialists. In addition to potentially reducing liability and cleaning costs for the building owners, the NanoUltra™ technology offers up-sell and new business development opportunities for those servicing these patrons.

There’s more about the windows on Nanowerk here.

I’m happy to hear that I’m a step closer to self-cleaning windows although I wasn’t thinking of getting two new cleaning products. I want windows that are perpetually self-cleaning and not reliant on coatings that I have to reapply and which will likely leave streaks. This my problem with cleaning windows, i.e., streaks. Plus, I’m concerned about the birds. Won’t birds hurt themselves flying into shiny (“… ultimate shine …” ), clear windows?

SAFENANO, mentioned earlier this week (Jan. 27, 2010) has just announced two contracts which will provide information for the regulation of nanomaterials. From the news item on Nanowerk,

A consortium led by SAFENANO from the Institute of Occupational Medicine has been awarded two contracts by the Institute for Health and Consumer Protection of the European Commission’s Directorate General Joint Research Centre (JRC) concerning the development of specific advice on the assessment of nanomaterials under REACH. The first project, REACH-NanoInfo (also known as RIP-oN2), addresses the REACH information requirements on intrinsic properties of nanomaterials. The second project, REACH-NanoHazEx (RIP-oN3), addresses undertaking exposure assessments and conducting hazard and risk characterisation for nanomaterials within the REACH context.

If you want more information about the projects, go here.

I’ve been lazily following the nanotechnology scene in NY state since 2008 when IBM awarded $1.5B to the state for nanotechnology. From the announcement on Nanowerk,

The investment will go toward three separate and complementary components of a comprehensive project, supporting the nanotechnology chip computer activities of IBM: the expansion of IBM’s operations at the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering at the University at Albany (Albany NanoTech), the creation of a new, advanced semiconductor packaging research and development center at a to be determined in Upstate New York, and the upgrading of IBM’s East Fishkill facility in Dutchess County.

Since then, I’ve noticed, with much interest, the University of Albany’s nanotechnology outreach efforts (latest posting about it here).  It seems they have also reached into high schools. According to the news item on Nanowerk,

A trio of high school seniors conducting hands-on nanotechnology research through internships at the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering (“CNSE”) of the University at Albany have been selected as semifinalists in the 2010 Intel Science Talent Search (“Intel STS”), the nation’s most prestigious pre-college science competition. The three are among just 300 students chosen nationwide to compete for $1.25 million in awards, with 40 finalists scheduled to be announced on January 27.

I did track down the Jan.27.10 announcement of the 40 finalists but have not found a list of names. From the announcement,

New York again has the highest number [emphasis mine] of young innovators in this competition (11 this year). Following New York is California with eight finalists; Texas with three; Illinois, New Jersey and Oregon with two each; and Alabama, Connecticut, Indiana, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina, North Dakota, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Virginia and Wisconsin with one finalist each.

Unfortunately I don’t have a neat segue for my next bit which is about science journalism in the UK. According to the news item on physorg.com,

The study ‘Mapping the Field: Specialist science news journalism in the UK national media’ was led by Dr Andy Williams of the School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies. It was based on a survey of UK science, health, and environment news journalists, and 52 in-depth interviews with specialist reporters and senior editors in the national news media.

According to the research there has been an increase in the number of specialist science journalists in the UK national news media and there is a growing appetite for science news within newsrooms.

Also noted are the problems that all journalists are currently facing as newspapers and magazines struggle for survival.

If you want to read more about the study, you can also go here, where more information such as this is featured,

Whilst the extent of the influence of public relations varies widely between different news outlets, there is a general sense that PR has become an increasingly important and unavoidable presence over the last decade. A significant minority, 23%, believe science specialists rely on PR too much, and 25% of respondents said they now use more PR than previously. Many interviewees complain that a lot of their time is spent trying to convince news desks not to run poor-quality “bad science” stories they have seen on the news wires and/or in eye-catching press releases.

The struggle between journalists and PR practitioners is longstanding and worth discussing in a posting next week. Meanwhile, happy weekend.

Science communication in Canada (part 3)

We have  a lot of science communication programmes and activities in Canada but a huge percentage of them are aimed at children. Once you leave high school you don’t learn much about science any more. Yes, you can read an article in a newspaper or catch a science programme on tv but as I noted in my Friday (Sept. 18, 2009) posting, the media don’t cover  the sciences very often. (I’ll see if I can dig up some data on science coverage in the media.)

There is another issue with science coverage which has an impact on  the media’s willingness to run science stories, legal suits for defamation.  There’s an article on Techdirt, UK Libel Laws, Scientific Criticism, Chilling Effects, Bloggers and The Streisand Effect, which presents the interesting case of Simon Singh (physicist and author of books such as Fermat’s Last Theorem, aka Fermat’s Enigma: The Epic Quest to Solve the Word’s Greatest Mathematical Problem, Big Bang and others) who’s being sued for criticising the evidence for claims by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) about diseases that chiropractors can cure. The BCA filed a defamation suit against Singh, which is having a chilling effect on science journalism not only in the UK but also in the US (I haven’t found any Canadian commentary). You can find links to other articles on the topic including one from the New York Times in the Techdirt article. Meanwhile, I think this comment from the British Humanist Association (BHA) summarises the issues best,

BHA Chief Executive Hanne Stinson said today, “We’re proud to re-publish Simon’s article here on our website. This is not just an issue about freedom of speech, although that is important in itself. But if legitimate scientific criticism ever leads to a successful libel action, that will not only prevent people speaking out about false claims, it actually threatens scientific progress. Scientific advances almost always involve disagreement and criticism, and scientists have to able to express their views robustly without fear of prosecution. If our courts interpret one ambiguous phrase in a piece labelled ‘Comment’ as defamation, with the result that the writer loses a huge sum of money, then there is something very wrong in the balance between libel and freedom of speech.”

I found Singh’s edited (of allegedly libellous comments, apparently Singh used the word ‘bogus’ to describe some of the claims) article on the BHA site and even though I’m late to the party (there was a July 29, 2009 worldwide posting of the article, organized by Sense about Science, I’m going to post it now.

Beware the spinal trap

Some practitioners claim it is a cure-all, but the research suggests chiropractic therapy has mixed results – and can even be lethal, says Simon Singh.

You might be surprised to know that the founder of chiropractic therapy, Daniel David Palmer, wrote that “99% of all diseases are caused by displaced vertebrae”. In the 1860s, Palmer began to develop his theory that the spine was involved in almost every illness because the spinal cord connects the brain to the rest of the body. Therefore any misalignment could cause a problem in distant parts of the body.

In fact, Palmer’s first chiropractic intervention supposedly cured a man who had been profoundly deaf for 17 years. His second treatment was equally strange, because he claimed that he treated a patient with heart trouble by correcting a displaced vertebra.

You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact some still possess quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything, including helping treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying – even though there is not a jot of evidence.

I can confidently label these assertions as utter nonsense because I have co-authored a book about alternative medicine with the world’s first professor of complementary medicine, Edzard Ernst. He learned chiropractic techniques himself and used them as a doctor. This is when he began to see the need for some critical evaluation. Among other projects, he examined the evidence from 70 trials exploring the benefits of chiropractic therapy in conditions unrelated to the back. He found no evidence to suggest that chiropractors could treat any such conditions.

But what about chiropractic in the context of treating back problems? Manipulating the spine can cure some problems, but results are mixed. To be fair, conventional approaches, such as physiotherapy, also struggle to treat back problems with any consistency. Nevertheless, conventional therapy is still preferable because of the serious dangers associated with chiropractic.

In 2001, a systematic review of five studies revealed that roughly half of all chiropractic patients experience temporary adverse effects, such as pain, numbness, stiffness, dizziness and headaches. These are relatively minor effects, but the frequency is very high, and this has to be weighed against the limited benefit offered by chiropractors.

More worryingly, the hallmark technique of the chiropractor, known as high-velocity, low-amplitude thrust, carries much more significant risks. This involves pushing joints beyond their natural range of motion by applying a short, sharp force. Although this is a safe procedure for most patients, others can suffer dislocations and fractures.

Worse still, manipulation of the neck can damage the vertebral arteries, which supply blood to the brain. So-called vertebral dissection can ultimately cut off the blood supply, which in turn can lead to a stroke and even death. Because there is usually a delay between the vertebral dissection and the blockage of blood to the brain, the link between chiropractic and strokes went unnoticed for many years. Recently, however, it has been possible to identify cases where spinal manipulation has certainly been the cause of vertebral dissection.

Laurie Mathiason was a 20-year-old Canadian waitress who visited a chiropractor 21 times between 1997 and 1998 to relieve her low-back pain. On her penultimate visit she complained of stiffness in her neck. That evening she began dropping plates at the restaurant, so she returned to the chiropractor. As the chiropractor manipulated her neck, Mathiason began to cry, her eyes started to roll, she foamed at the mouth and her body began to convulse. She was rushed to hospital, slipped into a coma and died three days later. At the inquest, the coroner declared: “Laurie died of a ruptured vertebral artery, which occurred in association with a chiropractic manipulation of the neck.”

This case is not unique. In Canada alone there have been several other women who have died after receiving chiropractic therapy, and Edzard Ernst has identified about 700 cases of serious complications among the medical literature. This should be a major concern for health officials, particularly as under-reporting will mean that the actual number of cases is much higher.
If spinal manipulation were a drug with such serious adverse effects and so little demonstrable benefit, then it would almost certainly have been taken off the market.

Simon Singh is a science writer in London and the co-author, with Edzard Ernst, of Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial. This is an edited version of an article published in The Guardian for which Singh is being personally sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association.

Personally, I have gone to chiropractors for spinal manipulations and like any other profession (including writing), there’s the good, the bad, the competent, and the mediocre. I also know people who get good results and others for whom chiropractic adjustments do nothing. I think, in common with many others, that the BHA (correction: this should be BCA for British Chiropractic Association) should have responded with evidence and not with a legal suit complaining that they were being criticised.

As for whether or not this legal suit has had any impact on science journalism in Canada, I have no evidence, other than the absence of any discussion in the Canadian media, to back the assertion that follows. Taking into account the federal government’s relatively recent dictum (gag order) that scientists in Environment Canada are not allowed to speak to journalists unless they had received permission from the ministry’s communication department (National Post, Jan. 31, 2008, article by Margaret Munro, other articles can be found via search engines) and our close ties to UK jurisprudence, there is a big chill taking place here that affects both scientists and journalists.

Tomorrow I expect to be looking at public relations/marketing and science.

Science communication in Canada (part 2)

Today I’m going to discuss science journalism. There’s not a lot of science journalism as the Science Day report notes,

In communicating science issues, the media fall far short. Science-focused stories rarely make the news in Canada, and when they do, often fail to adequately explain either the science or its significance. It seems that Canadian news editors and producers assume that the public considers science uninteresting or complicated. The European media, in contrast, appreciating that science can hold readers’ and viewers’ attention, routinely cover science news. Scientists, for their part, too often do not engage the world beyond their labs and institutes. When they do venture out, they sometimes fail to succinctly convey the gist or broader relevance of their research to the public, industry and government.

Contrary to the media’s assumptions, a surprisingly large number of Canadians share a keen interest in science. When conveyed properly, science news can capture the public’s imagination. And scientists are perfectly capable of conveying science to a wide audience.

I also found out recently that science journalism is not science communication; that field was described to me (by a member of the School of Journalism at the University of British Columbia) as public relations and marketing. Interesting, non? I view science communication more broadly but I can understand why it’s viewed that way. First, communication departments are often charged with public relations, media relations, and/or marketing communication initiatives. (Note: I don’t know if it’s still true but 15 years ago people in communication departments viewed their roles as distinct from public relations and/or marketing communication. Personally, I always found the lines to be blurry.) Second, there is a longstanding snobbery about public relations, communication, etc. in the journalism community.

Getting back to science journalism, I think pretty anyone will agree that there’s not much coverage of the science scene in Canada. You’re not going find many science stories in your local papers or on the radio and tv unless you make a special effort. In terms of general science magazines that are not being issued by a government agency, only two spring to mind. SEED and Yes Mag for Children and unfortunately I’ve never seen either magazine on the news stands. As for broadcast programmes,  there’s SPARK and Quirks and Quarks on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) Radio and Daily Planet on the Discovery Channel (a Canadian offshoot station of a US television channel). SPACE: the imagination station (another offshoot of a US television channel [Syfy] which focuses on science fiction and fantasy) does cover the odd science story but they insert the news bits between programming and I’ve never been able to discern a schedule. Please let me know if  I’ve missed anything.

I’d like to note is that the term science story also includes medical stories, health stories, and environment stories which members of the news media believe are of much interest to the general public (and even they don’t get great coverage). The consequence is that other sciences tend to get short shrift in the competition for news coverage when there are so few outlets.

I will have more next week on this. In the meantime, the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) has a new event coming up on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2009 at 12:30 pm EST in Washington, DC. The event is titled, Nanotechnology, Synthetic Biology, and Biofuels: What does the public think? If you’re in Washington, DC and want to attend, you can RSVP here or there will be both a live webcast and a posted webcast after the event, no RSVP required.

Finally, Rob Annan (Don’t leave Canada behind) is digging deeper into the issue of entrepreneurship in Canada and how we can nurture it here. He also provides some resources that you may want to check out or you may want to let him know of your network.