Drayson bests ‘Bad Science’ Goldacre

For anyone interested in science communications, there was only one place to be in London last night: the Royal Institution for the eagerly anticipated debate between Lord Paul Drayson, the science minister, and Dr Ben Goldacre, the medical writer and scourge of ‘Bad Science’.

The build-up started at the World Conference of Science Journalists in July, where Drayson praised science journalism and Goldacre condemned it, and continued with a heated Twitter discussion between them. All 400 tickets in the RI’s historic lecture theatre were booked within 90 minutes of the debate being announced.

The adversaries – and the way Simon Mayo, BBC radio presenter and the evening ‘s chairman treated them – made a contrasting pair. The science minister in his sharp suit and tie, referred to with surprising respect by Mayo as “Lord Drayson” until late in the debated when he slipped into “Paul”. And Goldacre in scruffy shoes, trousers and open-necked shirt, called “Ben” throughout.

The debate itself was lively, fun and well balanced. In the end I thought Drayson had the better of the argument.

I had worried beforehand that Goldacre, a free spirit, might run rings round Drayson, constrained by his ministerial position. In the event that only happened once, when someone asked about the use of libel laws to stifle science writing (in the context of the British Chiropractic Association’s legal action against Simon Singh); after Drayson gave a waffly ministerial reply, Goldacre pounced with “I hope I can speak like that when I’m grown up.”

Drayson maintained that the quality of science journalism has improved over the past few years – comparing the reporting of BSE, the MMR vaccine scare and GM crops with the better recent coverage of the Large Hadron Collider, hybrid embryos and swine flu.

The debate focused mainly on the tabloids’ coverage of medical science. Drayson unashamedly advocated “sensationalism” as a way of grabbing readers’ attention and drawing them into the story. He praised The Sun, for example, for condensing a study of a sexually transmitted cancer-causing virus into a front page splash under the headline “Sex Kills”.

When Mayo produced yesterday’s Daily Express, with a front page story headed “Two-a-Day Pill Stops Cancer”, Drayson’s endorsement of its accuracy was supported by someone in the audience from Breakthrough Breast Cancer, one of the charities funding the research.

Goldacre refused to concede any improvement in the mass media’s science treatment, and sounded elitist when he called on several occasions for more coverage to stimulate “nerds”.

Both men said things that made me cringe. Drayson went far too far when he welcomed the publicity given to absurd claims a year ago that CERN’s LHC might trigger the end of the world (on the grounds that it stimulated interest in high energy physics). And Goldacre was plain wrong with his statement that “Science journalists are very marginal figures in the coverage of science in British newspapers.”

But on the whole it was a civilised and interesting evening. You can form your own opinion by listening to a recording on the Times Higher Education website.

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Clive Cookson, the FT's science editor, picks out the research that everyone should know about, in fields from astronomy to zoology. He also discusses key policy issues, from R&D funding to science education. He'll cover the weird and wonderful, as well as the serious side of science.