Simon Singh

Posted on Fri 11 December 2009 in geek

As the nights draw in again it's time to hit the lecture circuit. Cambridge is pretty well served with public lectures as well as a number of other organisations that organises talks in return for a small donation on the day or subscription. Last night I went to the IET's "Christmas" lecture by author, producer and journalist Simon Singh. If you haven't heard of him you may be familiar with his Horizon documentary on Fermat's Last Theorem (and a follow-up book) or his excellent book on the history of codes and code breaking.

The talk was nominally titled "Science and the Media - the Good, the Bad and the Ugly". He started with an interesting observation that he used to believe we should get as much science in the media as possible but wonders if now that is a bad thing. There is a tendency now for journalists to jump on the latest random case studies (or worse University issued press releases) and write stories without surrounding context. This is how we get to the confused state that Wine is both good and bad for you, depending on which paper you have read today. The true picture is generally more complex and nuanced than the column inches allow.

Simon Singh presented a couple of examples of editing in science documentaries and discussed the ethics of the choices made. The first was an example from his own film on Fermat's Last Theorem where he made the choice to edit one of his contributors discussing why computers can't prove theorems. The actual edit can bee seen about at about 07:30 into the film where the mathematically significant word "prime" is cut between "1000" and "numbers". The argument being that to get the point across about why it's not a proof it would have been an unnecessary distraction to discuss why primes are significant in this exercise. While standing behind his decision in this case he left it to the audience to come to their own conclusion on where on the ethical spectrum this editorial choice lay.

The next example was the sensationalist introduction to the OU and BBC's documentary Alternative Medicine: The Evidence which showed (warning graphic medical procedure footage) someone having open heart surgery while conscious and undergoing acupressure. Although apparently mentioned later on in the episode the intro made no mention of the 3 strong sedatives and local anaesthetic being used during the procedure (possibly rendering the acupuncture rather superfluous). This led to Singh feeling compelled to make a complaint to the BBC which after several appeals they finally responded too. It's probably fair to say the audience considered this example of editing as being on the darker side of the ethical spectrum.

In the final section of the talk he discussed the Ugly side of science and the media. The main bugbear hear being the increasing use of liable law to silence or suppress criticism of "alternative" medicine. Singh's own case was launched by the British Chiropractic Association after daring to suggest there may not be evidence for efficacy of chiropractic treatments of some medical conditions. It's not the first such case, the main reason being that even if you win, you lose. The current state of liable law means that even though Ben Goldacre won his case against a vitamin pill magnet he and the Guardian ended up £170,000 poorer than they started. That's without getting into the discussion about whether the courts are the best place to decide on scientific facts. There is more information on Simon Singh's website as well as a relaunch of a campaign to reform UK liable laws. I strongly urge UK readers to read the site and perhaps write to your MP to ensure they are on side for reform.