Scientific controversies and the media, part 1

Mass media are often blamed for playing a role in the construction of scientific controversies. For instance, the last couple of years multiple voices have been accusing the media of greatly contributing in creating the controversy around climate change. The May issue of the journal Public Understanding of Science carries two articles on the role of the media in scientific controversies. The first shows that creating such a controversy is not necessarily a simple, linear process in which media misinterpret or bend scientific publications.

One of the biggest scientific controversies of the last few decades is without a doubt the case of ‘water with memory’. In her article, media scholar Dominique Brossard analyses how this controversy was created. To refresh your memory: the case dates back to 1988. Jaqcues Benveniste, a French immunologist with a more than decent reputation, claimed that his laboratory had showed white blood cells still react when a solution that contained antibodies is diluted to such an extent that no antibodies can possibly be present anymore. Thus, the water must have some kind of ’memory’ of the antibodies, to which the cells reacted. This finding could mean that the controversial theory of homeopathy is actually true.

Benvenistes findings were published in the highly esteemed journal Nature. Which has been under fire for it ever since. But Brossard’s analysis shows this is not the full story. Not only did the issue of Nature with Benvenistes paper contain an editorial that showed the editors were critical of the research. Natures editor-in-chief, John Maddox, also admitted in an interview that Nature felt urged to publish the paper because of an article in the French newspaper Le Monde. In France, a buzz had already been created around Benvenistes work. Not just because of presentations on congresses, but also fuelled by Le Monde, the most respected French newspaper which is read by most of the French elite. And since on top of that no-one could discover any flaws in Benvenistes methodology, and five other labs had repeated his experiments with the same outcome, the staff of Nature felt they couldn’t miss out on what was most certainly going to be a big issue in the scientific world.

Numerous important newspapers all over the world, for instance the New York Times, reacted skeptically on both Benvenistes research and Nature for publishing it. But Le Monde hailed it. It even blamed the rising controversy on the fact that Benveniste was not much liked amongst fellow scientists. Nature reacted to the controversy by composing a team which redid Benvenistes experiments in his own laboratory under highly controlled circumstances. In this test, the water memory effect was not found. According to the theory of the scientific method this was enough to prove Benveniste wrong; one black swan is enough to prove not all swans are white.

But Le Monde didn’t agree and published articles to keep the controversy alive. It accused Nature of putting together a flawed research team, since there wasn’t a single immunologist in it, and also put to question the idea that a single negative result is enough to disprove a theory. Le Monde managed to keep the controversy alive for years. Their last article about the case dates from 1997, in which the respected newspaper blamed the scientific community for never giving Benveniste a fair chance. Homeopathic practitioners still refer to the controversy to claim that homeopathy is a scientifically proven remedy.

Why did Le Monde act this way? Brossard thinks it probably has to do with feelings of nationalism, Benveniste being a French scientist. Also, in France homeopathy isn’t as controversial as it is in many other Western countries. Around the time Benvenistes work was published, almost half of the medical consultations in France involved homeopathic practitioners. Was Le Monde wrong? Should the editors at Nature have acted differently? Of course, in being an objective scholar, Brossard doesn’t raise or answer these questions. But they are interesting questions for a science writer to think about.

What this case does show is that mass media can be very influential in creating scientific controversies. And not just in a linear way: they can be in the middle of the controversy, functioning as a catalyst and influencing the scientific community and even top-end scientific journals.