I owe (or is it blame?) the motivation to write a column about science issues to the Terri Schiavo debacle. For weeks I followed the coverage, in spite of my great disdain for the entire situation and a deep conviction that it was largely unnewsworthy. The fiasco had all the makings of a spectacular TV mini-series – drama, politics, death, cameos by famous people – and that’s probably how it managed to simultaneously irritate me and completely hypnotize the national media.

Angela Cesere

For better or worse, I’ve never been much of a miniseries man. But beneath all the drama of the Schiavo ordeal was a flicker that held my interest, though I had to squint pretty hard to make it out. Caught up in all the evening news drama, spun around and confused like a tourist in a very foreign land, was science.

The science was tough to pick out for a fairly simple reason: The Schiavo drama was, at its core, nothing close to a science issue. It was a legal issue drenched in family conflict, and as such was destined for the legal and political sections of magazines, newscasts and blogs. But this particular issue, though not overtly scientific, did have a significant amount of science baggage, particularly medicine and neuroscience. What’s more, the way this science was presented had a significant impact on how the general public evaluated the entire issue.

This is where everything took a turn for the worse. I don’t think anyone, including myself, was surprised at the surplus of different and often conflicting perspectives that emerged in the media coverage. What struck me, though, was that opposing sides in matters of opinion (e.g. whether Schiavo had clearly expressed her end-of-life wishes) were presented in much the same manner as opposing sides in matters of science (e.g. whether Schiavo could feel pain, whether or to what extent she was conscious, and whether or not we should even have considered her “alive” at all). “Experts” were summoned, views were exchanged, and in the end viewers were left to make up their own minds.

Fine. I am the last person who will ever question the importance of the open exchange of ideas. But it is equally important – especially in matters involving substantial amounts of science – to ensure that the existence of an open discussion does not obscure the balance of objective evidence for and against a particular topic or position. Unfortunately, that happens with great regularity.

Picture a standard consumer of cable news, not particularly versed in medicine or neuroscience, watching CNN during a moderated discussion of Terri Schiavo’s mental condition. Schiavo’s aunt (or brother, or whoever) talks about how Terri seems to perk up, and even smile, in the company of her family, and has a short video clip to support her assertions. A neurologist or clinical neuroscientist counters by discussing how certain brain areas can continue to function and even generate behavior, such as that in the video clip, in the absence of any conscious input, and makes reference to research data. The moderator asks questions, and appears equally critical of both sides.

What is the viewer left to conclude? The doctor has professional credentials, but the relative has personal experience. And why would CNN bother with the relative if they were sure that the doctor was right? Plus that video clip was pretty convincing.

I have set this entire column up to make the viewer seem foolish for failing to see the imbalance of objective evidence, but I am not so sure that I can really blame him. The way the information is presented, in an open discussion, equal-time format, it’s easy (and usually correct) to assume that both sides are equally valid to begin with.

And therein lies the quagmire. How should the media go about providing “balanced” coverage to issues where the scientific evidence is strongly in the favor of one position?

For starters, news providers, both cable and print, should be reluctant to provide open discussions of issues that have a dramatic imbalance of scientific support. This is NOT the same as suggesting that positions with strong scientific support should never be challenged – of course they should. But if you are going to claim that 2 + 2 no longer equals 4, or that someone who has been reliably diagnosed as fundamentally brain dead is actually somewhat conscious, then you had better have some strong evidence in your corner and not simply a gut feeling.

In the end, however, cable and print news providers are, at least partially, yoked to the desires of the consumer. And in our society, this consumer has a very strong desire to make up his own damn mind about more or less everything, even matters with strong ties to science. In principle, I have no problem with this desire, largely because I share it.

We should realize, however, that by requesting that the media allow us to make our own decisions about complex issues, we assume a pair of burdens. The first is the responsibility for weighing the evidence presented by the media. The second, and less recognized, is the task of considering whatever evidence the media does not mention.

The latter is a greater burden than most realize. Media coverage of any issue is necessarily limited (“tip of the iceberg” comes to mind), and leaves the chore of evaluating the remaining evidence to the consumer. Asking for this burden is easy; bearing it responsibly, which requires effort and no small amount of analytical savvy, is much more difficult.

 

Jackson can be reached at edjacks@umich.edu.

 

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