'Use me as a mouthpiece' - Guardian hack pleads

How science journalism really works

Ben Goldacre, The Guardian's Mr "Bad Science" writes witheringly about sloppy science journalists. Many of them are simply "juggling words about on a page, without having the first clue what they mean, pretending they've got a proper job, their pens all lined up neatly on the desk," he writes.

They trade on scare stories, and rely on "rejiggable press releases". Dr Goldacre is a real scientist, you see.

But last week found Ben in a frantic rush, commissioned to write a feature about biometric technology. So he put in an email request to the Open Rights Group, the endearingly hopeless British EFF-clone.

(This isn't surprising - we suspect that at El Graun, hacks are equipped with two office telephones: a normal one, and one with only one button, which dials the ORG directly.)

And as every journalist knows, desperate deadlines call for desperate measures. Here's his request -

hi, my name's ben and i write "badscience" in the guardian (and badscience.net )

i wanted to write something on the shitness of biometrics tomorrow for the col on sat, if anyone's got a nice big bundle of stuff i need (a) people like, say, hang on, gordon brown in PMQ making grand claims about how they will cure all ills and (b) good evidence/arguments/rocksolidundeniablefacts on why these claims are nonsense.

So far, so standard - although eyebrows may be raised at the way that fact/assertion sort of run/into/each/other.

Then comes a bit where he slowly starts to sink into the merde.

incidentally, before you assume that i'm a lazy journo, i dont write like this with anyone else, but in fact i am offering ORG the chance to use me as a mouthpiece for your righteous rightness.

Er, a what? Ben elaborates -

think of it as a "pull" model for lobbying, rather than the usual push.

Ah, perfectly clear.

essentially i have a bag of kittens and will drown one on the hour every hour until you give me a good biometrics story.

The rejiggable material from the ORG presumably arrived on time - for the mouthpiece duly opened on Saturday.

So this is how journalism really works: Don't bother yourself with that any of that cool judgement and independent appraisal of facts business. Find the argument, then some facts to suit. And finally, ring up your favourite lobby group and demand to be used as a mouthpiece.

However, when using the ORG - a sort of Dad's Army in the War on Copyright - it's a perilous approach.

Two years ago, the Group made a submission to the UK Parliament's enquiry into DRM - something close to all our hearts. Only the technical part of the argument based on a ludicrous misunderstanding of the Church-Turing Thesis - one of the fundamentals of computer science, and a mistake so great it would be enough to get a grad paper marked "FAIL". Only, no one at the lobby group seems to have noticed yet - it's still listed as one of the group's finest achievements.

Even the most "righteously righteous" lobby group can get its rocksolidundeniablefacts/arguments wrong. Take note. ®

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