Appropriately intolerant reporting of quack allergy testing
Last week, the government's Chief Scientific Adviser, John Beddington, caused a bit of a stir when he called for scientists to be more intolerant towards pseudoscience.
Surely intolerance is a bad thing, right? Well, the point Beddington was making was that pseudoscience can be dangerous, and it's not OK to simply accept it as a valid system of alternative beliefs. Pseudoscientific treatments can indeed be dangerous. I read a particularly harrowing account recently of extreme distress and suffering caused by an inappropriate belief in homeopathy. Warning: when I said "particularly harrowing", I meant it, so do not click on this link if you are easily upset. So I think there is a good case to be made to be intolerant towards dangerous quackery.
However, while some have welcomed Beddington's thoughts, others have been more cautious about them. For example, Alice Bell has argued that intolerance is seldom a good thing, and that more efforts to carefully educate people about the issues involved would be more productive. It's hardly surprising that a call for intolerance would prove to be controversial.
Now, I don't know if this is exactly what Beddington meant, but I saw what I thought was a truly excellent example of appropriate intolerance in action on BBC Breakfast this morning. The story was not intolerant in any kind of unpleasant way, but simply presented the story in a fair and balanced manner.
The story in question was about food allergies, and the problems of ineffective alternative allergy testing methods on sale to the public. In case you missed BBC Breakfast this morning, the story is also covered on the BBC website, taking a similar tone, and being an equally good example of excellent journalism.
The facts of this case are simple. Diagnosing food allergies has to be done by scientifically validated methods if the results are to be trustworthy. Some people peddle so-called "alternative" allergy testing methods, no doubt based on "homeopathic quantum crystal resonance" or some other such bollocks. They are, as we were told by the BBC, skilfully marketed, but scientifically worthless.
I was delighted to see that the BBC did not give air time to the charlatans who peddle such dangerous quackery in some sort of misguided attempt to offer "balance". It seems to me that the BBC is learning from past mistakes. There has often been a great temptation among journalists in the past to attempt to offer balance in scientific stories by presenting "both sides of the argument". Presenting both sides of the argument is, of course, entirely appropriate when reporting political stories, when which side of the argument you believe is often determined by personal values and preferences, and there is no "right answer". However, in science, there often is a right answer, and giving both sides of the story equal say when one side is clearly right and the other side is clearly wrong is not the right way to produce a balanced news story. I thought the way the BBC presented the story was a truly excellent example of quality journalism.
Was it intolerant to ignore the people who sell bogus allergy testing cures? Maybe, but as far as I'm concerned, it was exactly the sort of intolerance that we should be aiming for.