World Federation of
Science Journalists

Reporters get tips on exposing pseudoscience

July 5, 2011 posted in Conferences
by Ola Al-Ghazawy

Working in science journalism three years ago pushed me into the World Conference of Science Journalists session on pseudoscience – what is its effect on society and what is the role of science communicators in fighting it.

I wasn’t alone. A room filled with more than 60 people, most of them shivering from very cold air conditioning, was listening to Tatiana Pichugina of Russia, the session producer. She was at the podium introducing the speakers and asking them what they think about pseudoscience.

She had her own thoughts too.

In an interview after the session, she said, “I brought this topic to the program as it is one of the main topics in Russia. We have a lot of pseudoscience in recent years, After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s all these frauds and pseudoscientists came on the scene and began to compete with real scientists with governmental financial support.

(left to right) Kendrick Frazier, Istvan Vago, Alejandro Agostinelli, Fredreco, Karina Nazaretyan and Alexander Sergeev

 “So the science journalism community in Russia was alarmed, and we started campaigns against frauds and pseudoscientists.

“The main reason that encouraged the spread of pseudoscience was freedom of speech, allowing people to say whatever they wanted during this period, which gave the space for people to talk about miracles and pseudoscience, even in big national newspapers and big national TV channels. Another reason was the emigration of many scientists left a great opportunity for pseudoscientists to show up.

Another speaker was Istvan Vago, the host of “Legyen ön is Milliomos,” the Hungarian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? who said it is not the duty of scientists to spread the word about what they are doing, and they will never write articles for the public anyway.

“It is the task of the journalist to make these achievements known,” he said.

Kendrick Frazier, the editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, said, “Pseudosciences have very deep ancient roots, because they have been present since there was science itself. It always lives in the shadow of science and that is why it is difficult for science to move it out of its way,” he added.

Frazier said when pseudoscience first appears, the best thing is to ignore it – because reporting it gives it unmerited publicity. But if it becomes a public debate, that is when you should report on it, using insights from real scientists. That is when it can be productive.

He also sees a good, available angle in covering pseudoscience as a means of understanding how the human mind works and how it evolved through time. Reporting it also has the practical value of educating people more about real science.

Frazier said reporters can identify pseudo-scientists because they do not communicate with other scientists, and never cite scientific references. They have no proof for their claims. They rely instead on attracting public attention by claiming, for example, to have a medical solution based on so-called testimonies and personal stories.

Real scientists never sit down with pseudo-scientists to discuss an issue – astronomers with astrologists for example – because they do not use the same language and they think in different ways.

It is the science journalist who can compare their two ways of thinking, who can point out whether a statement is not justified by facts, or that it has no relevance to the question at hand, for example whether the position of stars has an effect upon human lives.

Frazier distinguished between anti-science and pseudoscience, defining anti-science as an attack upon a scientific approach to serious problems with anti-campaigns, likely well-funded, like in climate change or vaccination. He said to watch out for “dirty tricks … like what occurred in COP15 [the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen in 2009] from leaked documents and agreements.”

Vago reported that, “We launched a worldwide program along with many skeptical organizations against homeopathy,” the slogan “homeopathy, there is nothing in it” Vago said, ”You have to do something unusual to draw attention to the problem,” he added.

Alexander Sergeev, a writer at Vorkrug Sveta, Russia’s oldest, continually published magazine, shared his concept of what he called a mind virus.

“It’s a virus which penetrates the common sense of the human brain,” he said, and pseudoscience was one of them. “To fight it we need an anti-virus which will be a strong idea to draw people’s attention towards real science,” he added.


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