The way the media reports science reflects its failure to question authority.
A week ago, the front page of the country’s largest selling English newspaper, The Times of India, announced ‘IIT-B team shows how homeopathy works.’ The article then rather credulously went on to state, ‘Six months after the British Medical Association rubbished homeopathy as witchcraft with no scientific basis, IIT scientists have said the sweet white pills work on the principle of nanotechnology.’ This was a news report that obviously made it past the best procedure for vetting that exists in the newspaper; after all, it appeared on the front page. And if so, it is a reflection of the kind of material the media is willing to swallow and regurgitate without verification.
The newspaper quotes from a paper by a graduate student from IIT-B chemical engineering department ‘published in the latest issue of Homeopathy, a peer-reviewed journal from reputed medical publishing firm Elsevier’, titled ‘Extreme homeopathic dilutions retain starting materials: A nanoparticulate perspective’. The paper is available online and it claims that even at extreme dilution some nanoparticles of the original starting materials are found in the solution.
But consider what the newspaper has said, and compare what the IIT-B researchers claim in their paper, ‘We have found that the concentrations reach a plateau at the 6c potency and beyond. Further, we have shown that despite large differences in the degree of dilution from 6c to 200c (1012 to 10400), there were no major differences in the nature of the particles (shape and size) of the starting material and their absolute concentrations (in pg/ml).’ In other words, their claimed results show that across the range of ‘potencies’ (the more dilute a homeopathic medicine the stronger it is supposed to be) of homeopathic medicine the concentration of nanoparticles is the same. If so, relatively ‘weak’ homeopathic medicines should have the same effect as more ‘strong’ medicine. This actually invalidates the whole idea of homeopathy.
This was not the only observation the newspaper should have made. The IIT scientists have also said, “Using market samples of metal derived medicines from reputable manufacturers, we have demonstrated for the first time by Transmission Electron Microscopy (TEM), electron diffraction and chemical analysis by Inductively Coupled Plasma-Atomic Emission Spectroscopy (ICP-AES), the presence of physical entities in these extreme dilutions, in the form of nanoparticles of the starting metals and their aggregates.’’
Any reporter with some knowledge of science should have been alert enough to ask why the team was publishing such a paper in a journal called Homeopathy. The whole point of peer review is lost when the people involved are not peers. Techniques of Transmission Electron Microscopy can hardly be evaluated by homeopaths.
In a country where homeopaths already escape rigorous scrutiny, so much so that the Government was actually advocating homeopathic remedies for swine flu without an iota of evidence on their efficacy, this is an abdication of responsibility. We are lucky that the swine flu epidemic this year was mild, otherwise this advice by the Government could have been a disaster.
More importantly, such cases in which we can identify how the media gets taken in by assumed expertise—in this case IIT-B scientists—raises questions about reportage across a host of fields. The media, by its very nature, must exercise a degree of scepticism about every claim it encounters. On a daily basis we have the Government, the police, experts in various fields briefing us on various claims. For us to endorse those claims, or as in this instance go beyond what is claimed, is to evade our journalistic responsibility. When the police give us versions about an encounter, it is our job to verify the facts. When the Government makes claims, it is our job to verify the facts. More often than not, we do not, and it is our institutional failure.
In the case of science, this must be doubly the case. We are a country in which scientific research is faltering, where the Government is not backing research in the way it should. When we in the media back erroneous or deceptive claims by scientists, we only encourage the current climate.
Far too often on the presumed authority of the people briefing us, whether it is a government spokesperson or an IIT-B scientist, we are willing to uncritically report claims and make the kind of mistakes that allow homeopathy to be endorsed on the front page of The Times of India. The fact remains that we have arrogated power to ourselves to call other institutions to account, but fail to apply the same criteria to ourselves.
Hartosh Singh Bal turned from the difficulty of doing mathematics to the ease of writing on politics. Unlike mathematics all this requires is being less wrong than most others who dwell on the subject.