I dont think science/medicine journalism will ever catch up with ‘clergy/ministry/missionary’ for the title of ‘most useless profession’, but man, some days theyre certainly giving the Godbots a run for their money.

I opened up Google News this morning and checked out my ‘HIV’ category, and found this wonderful, educational article:

Global AIDS epidemic is a myth admit world experts

Starting with the title, there are so many erroneous conclusions in this article, I dont know what to call it. Its not ‘news’– Its like a chimera of ‘news’, white noise, and a Denyse O’Leary word salad.

… I guess another name for that is ‘garbage’…

I mean, the success of HIV/AIDS education campaigns means HIV/AIDS educational campaigns are a waste of money? Kinda like how its stupid to vaccinate against measles because no one gets measles? *facepalm*

And the fact there are more HIV-1 cases in Washington D.C. then there are in South Dakota is some great ‘admission’ that there isnt an HIV-1 epidemic?

Decreasing HIV/AIDS estimates from 40 million to 33 million is a ‘slash’? Gosh 33 million instead of 40 million, I might as well take the summer off.


Okay, well, this woman is obviously a sensationalist hack. Her other articles include “Drinking or even showering in tap water can double the risk of having deformed children, says study” and “Snake venom, snail slime and bee sting: Do you know what REALLY goes into your face creams?”. But other ‘journalists’ covering this topic didnt fare much better:

Threat of world Aids pandemic among heterosexuals is over, report admits

uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuugh *rubs temples* Seriously? Seriously? ‘Dont have wear condoms, children, ‘The threat of world ‘Aids’ pandemic among heterosexuals is over’! HURRAY!!!


How does this crap get published? How does it have a market in ‘journalism’? Its not just non-information. And its not just stupid. Its harmful.

So whats my point? Hmm. I guess that more scientists should open blogs and take a moment to write about cutting edge research, and the profession of pop-science/newspaper/magazine ‘science’ writer should either shape up, cut the fat from their ranks, or disappear.

Jesus Christ.


  1. #1 Blake Stacey
    June 8, 2008

    A little while ago, an article crossed my screen which contained a systematic survey of medical journalism.

    In our evaluation of 500 US health news stories over 22 months, between 62%77% of stories failed to adequately address costs, harms, benefits, the quality of the evidence, and the existence of other options when covering health care products and procedures. This high rate of inadequate reporting raises important questions about the quality of the information US consumers receive from the news media on these health news topics.

    The whole shebang is in PLoS Medicine.

  2. #2 alison
    June 8, 2008

    But ‘sensationalist’ is what sells the papers, isn’t it? I haven’t quite got my head around whether that’s what ‘the media’ think folks want to read, or that really is what folks want to read, but all too often that’s what we get.

    Add to that the fact that – in NZ anyway – you can probably count the number of science journalists with a science background on the fingers of one hand, meaning that the writer often has a poor understanding of how science operates, which both limits the questions they ask & may shape their attitude to the quoted experts. (I hasten to add that I work with a couple of absolutely wonderful science journalists, but they really are exceptional.) Plus they’re often under deadline pressure, so there isn’t the time to do a decent bit of investigative journalism when someone waves a nice juicy story under their nose.

    I agree with you that having more scientists blog about their research would be great – but then of course you get the contra-arguments there too: haven’t got time/too much pressure to apply for grants or complete projects/who’d wanna read my stuff anyway…. You’ve probably heard it all before. Don’t really know what the answer is – it may need institutions (many of our scientists here are in universities or crown-funded research organisations) – to recognise the value of this form of communication & support those of their staff who want to use it. (I write one for senior school students & my outfit sees that as part of my job ie it’s part of our official site – only they are sooo paranoid about getting spammed or crap comments that it’s taken up till now to get the OK for comments to actually be allowed on my blog… from next week, yay. Which is a pity as the comments thread is such a big part of most of the blogs I read. Like yours.) OK, you will probably argue that people are perfectly free to set up their own blogs, but that just doesn’t seem to be what people do over here.

    Anyway, I shall go back to lurking. Love your blog; don’t comment much but thoroughly enjoy reading it & learn heaps 🙂

  3. #3 ERV
    June 8, 2008

    Ah, thanks, Blake! I thought I remembered Bora saying something about that paper!

    Alison– Ive heard the ‘I have to write grants!’ excuse, but posts normally take me, eh, 30 minutes to write? The really sciency-sciency ones take me longer, but Im just a student (so I count it as studying too!).

    Im not really having any pity for the ‘no time’ excuse 😛

    But my major beef is with the journalists/media outlets. If their journalists were doing their job, scientists wouldnt have to work overtime on this issue. And the quality of these two articles, in particular, is so low… Its not like a starving science Masters student wouldnt jump at the opportunity to write something better— better science and better journalism– for the same price?

  4. #4 PalMD
    June 8, 2008

    That’s why ScienceBlogs must TAKE OVER THE WROLD!!!!11!

  5. #5 NickG
    June 8, 2008

    The problem is that quality science/medicine journalism is a good thing. In fact your blog postings could be classed as a form of science journalism. However uninformed and sensationalist science/medicine journalism is a profound negative. Its like what Billy Joel said about sex: “There’s nothing better than good sex. But bad sex? A peanut butter and jelly sandwich is better than bad sex.”

    The solution however is not to take a babies and bathwater stance, but to improve the quality of what we have.

  6. #6 Dustin
    June 9, 2008

    Well there’s your problem… you’re reading the Daily Mail.

  7. #7 nanoAl
    June 9, 2008

    #6 – thats quite possibly the best rebuttal I’ve ever heard.
    That paper reminds me of the Sun here in Edmonton, its jsut a little too expensive to be a tabloid, but its chock full of garbage nonetheless. The sort of newspaper where telling the populace to spy on Brangelina while they’re in town can displace real news for the front page. Theres always an article, editorial or letter misconstruing AIDS, Global Warming (Albertans HATE Global Warming)or nanotech. Astounding.
    I’ve got a feelign this is in the same vein as that string of articles awhile back claiming that the population boom in the third world isn’t really a problem. It went something like this: The US saw a huge population boom just like the rest of the world, but it has been shown that this was just an echo of the baby boom in the states, therefore population explosion is not a problem anywhere. Someone did a bad study or said something stupid and it wound up all over the media.
    Out of curiosity, does AIDS really not affect the heterosexual population or is that just some conservative (ie divorced from reality) bullshit?

  8. #8 alison
    June 9, 2008

    Abby, I couldn’t agree more, it really doesn’t take that long to write something on whatever takes one’s fancy. But very many of my colleagues don’t seem to see that, so I do hear the ‘no time’ reason quite a bit. Also the ‘who’d want to read it anyway’ gambit. (Well, I don’t know that all that many people actually read mine, but I’ve discovered that I write for fun, not just to inform/entertain/edify, & because from time to time I read something that really excites me & I want to share that.)

    But back to the journos – I don’t know what the story is in the US, but according to some of my journalistic colleagues over here, news outlets require their reporters to have done a journalism training course at one of the tertiary institutions. And that training course has little or no science in it, so the only way you’d get a reporter with a science background is for someone to have done a science degree (or at least some science papers) & then followed it with the journalism course. Which doesn’t happen very often. The suggestion I’ve heard is that ‘someone’ (eg our Ministry of Science & Technology) set up a science module as part of that course, which would certainly be a step in the right direction.

  9. #9 baley
    June 9, 2008

    Dohh what bad example of journalism.
    You can digg it here:

    I remember some time ago coming across a printed issue of the independent in a coffee bar and had an article claiming that the reason why the fuel price is high in UK is because there are not enough refineries! ( he apparently forgot that there is not enough production capacity! or enough Oil sources! )

    Basically it appeared as if that journalist wanted to criticize everything this or any previous government does on just about anything and gain readers by saying what the readers want to be said to them.
    Basically something like: ” you don’t have to change your lifestyle, everything is okai your doin it fine”

  10. #10 Der Bruno Stroszek
    June 9, 2008

    I was going to write a response to this, but I’ve recently started reading Nick Davies’s terrific book Flat Earth News and I urge everyone to read it if you’ve ever wondered why drivel like the article Abbie linked to gets published.

    It’s a British book for a British audience, but it does an excellent job of explaining the commercial pressures and toxic working methods that have led to most newspapers now being little more than a source of recycled press releases.

  11. #11 CH
    June 9, 2008

    There is nothing inherently wrong with the idea of science journalism. In fact, the situation would probably be a lot better if there were more specialist science journalists working in the mainstream press. A large part of the problem lies with the way science is regarded by the news outlets themselves – it is treated as just another story and given to someone with no technical knowledge at all. These people are so ignorant that they are not even aware of their own ignorance. They don’t recognise technical language, so they play around with the wording of the source without even realising that they are changing the meaning. (I wrote my Masters dissertation on sort of this subject. The Daily Mail is one of the world’s most abundant sources of crappy science writing.)

  12. #12 Confuseddave
    June 9, 2008

    Not that I think you’re wrong about science journalism, but reading the Independent article makes me think that it’s at least a fairly accurate report of what the guy said, which is that the risk of epidemic AIDS in the developed world is receding. Whether or not he’s right is one question (I wouldn’t dismiss him out of hand though, given who he works for), and the wisdom of announcing it in such a way that it could potentially undo his claim (re: a million people saying “yay! no more condoms! lets get laid!”) is certainly up for debate, but I can’t really fault the journalist. Reporting a claim that you happen to disagree with isn’t bad reporting.

    That said, I didn’t even read the Daily Mail piece. There are better ways to kill brain cells. Like sniffing formaldehyde.

  13. #13 Stacy S.
    June 9, 2008

    The really sciency-sciency ones take me longer, but Im just a student (so I count it as studying too!).

    Personally, I consider you a teacher. 🙂

  14. #14 alloy
    June 9, 2008

    “Threat of world Aids pandemic among heterosexuals is over, report admits”

    Glad to see that the folks at the Thabo Mbeki school of Denialism are still keeping up the sterling work.

    I’m just wondering, in Sub-Saharian Africa, how all these woman got infected? And their children?

    Because we all know it’s God’s punishment for those unholy gay folks….. maybe the woman are gay too (I’m sure some dimwit must have used this argument at some point), but see, then how do you explain the existance of the children……

  15. #15 PhysioProf
    June 9, 2008

    They’re only useless because they suck so bad at it. If they weren’t fucking total dipshits, they might be useful.

  16. #16 Alyce
    June 9, 2008

    “Its like a chimera of ‘news’, white noise, and a Denyse O’Leary word salad.”


    So accurate!

  17. #17 clear as mud
    June 9, 2008

    I certainly agree with the articles you’re citing here – they suck. But I kinda hope you don’t extend that to science journalists like Zimmer.

  18. #18 Peter Mc
    June 9, 2008

    CH, yep. There are too few scientists in the media. Compare the acres of arts reviews – for which you need only an opinion and keyboard – with the science coverage. There is little pure science reported, no matter how profopund or important. To merit a MSM report it needs to be about human health (preferably a putative miracle cure), or about climate change, something big going into space or to do with cute megafauna.

    While agreeing 100% with your last sentence, it could have been shorter:

    ‘The Daily Mail is one of the world’s most abundant sources of crap.’

    or even shorter still:

    ‘The Daily Mail is crap.’

    Once an editor…

  19. #19 Felstatsu
    June 9, 2008

    @ nanoAI, #7

    Even if HIV/AIDS were some sort of homosexual disease it would still spread to heterosexual people through bisexuals if they had unsafe sex and then moved on to other partners. HIV/AIDS is not just a homosexual disease though, and can spread in other ways such as by sharing needles, an activity that doesn’t care who, or really even what, you goto bed with.

    In short, the idea that heteros are somehow safe is completely divorced from reality and is just the conservatives getting in some gay bashing and misinformation. Kills 2 birds with one stone for them.

  20. #20 Becca
    June 9, 2008

    I’m with you on the righteous indignation re: those stories… however, you also have to consider the sources. There aren’t many sources I trust for science journalism. To be blunt, there aren’t many sources I trust for *any* journalism. We like to pretend that the problem is that the journalists don’t know enough science… but I think the problem is, in large part, journalistic ethics (or lack thereof). It’s not like misrepresentations about political situations (e.g. “WMD” in certain Middle Eastern nations) are any less damaging.

  21. #21 Sili
    June 9, 2008

    The Indy, too? I seem to recall some of the Bad Science regulars holding that up as a bad example too, actually. Too bad – I usually liked it.

    Perhaps I should get a journo degree and go to work for them. Though, of course the Grauniad (or to be fair, the Absurder) still publishes its fair share of woo.

  22. #22 John Kwok
    June 9, 2008

    The only sources for science journalism which I trust completely are those for Nature, Science, Scientific American, Discover, SEED magazine, and The New York Times. You shouldn’t lump this sensationalist writer from the United Kingdom with superb, quite credible, science journalists such as Chris Mooney, Andy Revkin, Carl Zimmer, Cornelia Dean, and Edward Humes, to name a few Americans whom I regard as our very best.

  23. #23 Murray
    June 10, 2008

    AIDS has been overblown and exaggerated from the start. Now, it has simply degenerated into a money faucet for drug companies, an incompetent government and mediocre scientists with nothing better to do.

    The tests are unreliable, causation is dubious and the drugs will kill you.

    John Kwok says that he absolutely trusts Science and Discover:

    Great! Here’s Science from 1988:

    Here’s Discover from this month:

  24. #24 Confused
    June 10, 2008


    I’m just wondering, in Sub-Saharian Africa, how all these woman got infected? And their children?

    Firstly, he’s specifically saying that threat of an AIDS epidemic IN THE WEST is now unlikely. He doesn’t say hetrosexual transmission doesn’t happen, but that the expected surge in hetrosexual infection IN THE WEST hasn’t happened.

    This is mostly because estimates of it’s spread were based on the explosion among hetrosexuals in sub-Saharan Africa. That explosion has not happened anywhere else, suggesting that there’s something specific about sub-Saharan Africa which has allowed infection to rocket (and he suggests a few possibilities in the article).

    Just so we’re clear, I don’t have a clue about AIDS,I’m not saying this like it’s a conspiracy or anything – I’m just advocating that people read the cocking article rather than slagging it on principle. It’s not some crank, it’s the Director of the World Health Organisation department on HIV/AIDS. He may have hidden biases and secretly be a fundamentalist christian convinced that t3h ev0l gays are being punished by AIDS, but I find that pretty unlikely.

    And really, the Independent article seems to be accurately replaying his statements. Unlike the Daily Mangle, they never use the word “myth” (and neither did he, I bet), and they don’t say that epidemic is impossible; just unlikely.

  25. #25 AmandaM
    June 10, 2008

    When I was in grad school in the early 2000’s, my bioethics class discussed the idea that the AIDS Awareness groups were targeting the wrong populations. As much as I can remember, nobody suggested it was a conspiracy, but a deliberate attempt to educate the US public that AIDS/HIV was not a “gay disease” as a lot of churches argued, but a disease anybody could get if they engaged in certain practices.

    So even though the actual risk group was a limited population, boatloads of money were spent to educate the ENTIRE population against a disease they were largely unlikely to get– which a lot of my classmates thought was an improper use of educational funds.

    The article quotes De Cock as saying “you need to go where transmission is occurring.” Maybe I’m ignorant of the facts, but that makes sense to me. ???

  26. #26 ERV
    June 10, 2008

    The reason we didnt get a heterosexual epidemic in the US is because of educational campaigns. In retrospect, ‘it was a waste of money! no one got AIDS!’ because it worked.

    Which is why I made the analogy of ‘Why give anyone measles vaccines! No one gets measles!’ because the second you let up on these useless education campaigns and useless vaccinations, the threat of epidemics rises.

  27. #27 AmandaM
    June 10, 2008

    Thanks for the response! I think the question we had trouble with was this: Do you use the shotgun method and target your advertising/education towards everybody, or should you pinpoint the populations that seem most at risk, concentrating the funding where (presumably) it is needed most. I don’t think we thought any money was actually WASTED, but maybe mistargeted?

    (Of course we were also discussing the social and cultural aspects of AIDS being not just a “gay disease” and the HIV educational campaign as an attempt to help legitimize homosexuality as an actual biological condition, and not a sexual aberration. So we had a problem with the politicizing of it. But that was a diff issue.)

    But I think we were starting from the idea that AIDS was never REALLY all that prevalent in the heterosexual community because more heterosexuals were using condoms. I have no idea if that’s an actual fact — but it was an assumption I think a lot of people made in the 90s. If that was true, (which I don’t know — was it?) then the heterosexual, non-IV-drug-using population was much less at risk for AIDS than the opposite population. Which is why we thought the advertising/educational campaigns might have been misdirected.

    I’m NOT an expert, and I know you (ERV) are, so if the above assumptions are incorrect, I’d like to be corrected. 🙂

    (It still weirds me out that somebody could start circulating an email about how condoms cause autism, and how easily, in a few years time, we could end up with a huge STD epidemic here.)

  28. #28 Felstatsu
    June 10, 2008

    Murray, you’re either a fool or a troll. Assuming it’s lack of knowledge I will attempt to bring you out of the dark cave of ignorance and into the light of knowledge.

    I’ve not read the Science article from 1988, but then again it’s 20 years old, and more likely than not includes plenty of information that’s flat out wrong but was also the best we knew at the time.

    As for Duesberg, are you seriously listening a guy who says an ingredient in cool whip causes Kaposis sarcoma AND messes up his other at risk groups used for comparison? ERV already debunked that article a little while ago. He also mentions that retroviruses never kill the host cell. I might not be a microbiologist, but my understanding of viruses is that they can’t reproduce without killing their host cell, and that retroviruses aren’t different in that regard. I believe some other retroviruses have been mentioned on the blog in comments that are examples of non HIV retrovirii that kill their host cell too.

    As for his claims about a vaccine, why would we have one? Look at any mutating virus, do we have vaccines for those too or at least ones that last more than a year? The flu is caused by virii, and yet the best we can do is offer new vaccines every year for the new strain of it, and HIV has shown a higher mutation rate than the flu in lab situations. does Duesberg have “new and interesting/controversial” ideas about the flu because we don’t have a one time vaccination against it?

    Beyond all this, maybe I missed it, but it looks like he doesn’t give any other possible cause for AIDS to replace HIV (maybe it’s caused by cool whip? is that what he was getting at going on about poppers?). All he has shown so far is an idea that “HIV can’t cause AIDS because retroviruses don’t kill their host cell” with no research to counter the lab work that has shown HIV kills off cells. ERV has even mentioned here about how she’s messed up some experiments by getting too much of the HIV virus on the plate and having all the cells die off. Duesberg MAY have been great before, and he may even have some good ideas still if his thoughts on cancer turn out even partially correct, but in relation to HIV all he’s got is a crazy idea based on no evidence. Given that ERV already dealt with the article you might as well quote a one eyed lifetime lumberjack on the topic for all the good it’ll do.

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