This morning I found Ellen Painter Dollar’s blog about the documentary produced by The Center for Bioethics and Culture (CBC), Eggsploitation, whose premise is to present the stories of several young women who feel their health was compromised and they were not made fully aware of the risks of their egg donation.
Ellen’s post emphasized that although the documentary’s focus may be valid, some of the heartfelt assertions made by its subjects were not based in scientific fact.
As a scientist myself, I take this very seriously. I am definitely influenced by emotion, but eventually I begin to ask questions. Whenever I read a scientific journal article, especially one that makes controversial conclusions, the first thing I do is look at who funded the research or where the authors work. When I worked in the field of environmental toxicology, I daily read articles that asserted that a drug or chemical was harmless to humans or the environment. Then I looked at where the article’s authors worked. Often, they worked for the company that manufactured the chemical or drug. While working for the manufacturer does not automatically make their science and conclusions invalid, it does make me question whether bias influenced their scientific conclusions. The peer review system, by which a panel of peer scientists looks at the data and conclusions of the article before it’s published, is supposed to catch faulty or flawed science. But that peer review system can only review what it is presented in the article or tell the authors that they will not publish it without further scientific support. Accepting that the peer review system is not perfect simply made me look for other articles, published by researchers who did not receive financial support from the manufacturer, that supported the same conclusions.
Bias is defined by Webster’s New World College Dictionary as: “a mental leaning or inclination; partiality; bent.”
When I went to the About page of the Web site of Eggsploitation’s producers, among their goals was to “advance morally responsible science that protects human life.” There are many ways to interpret the wording, but no matter how you look at it, an agenda is implied.
Unlike scientific journal articles, there is no peer review system in place for documentary film. Freedom of speech means anyone can make, market, and air a documentary saying anything they want. Politicians do the same thing with public speeches every day. It’s up to us a consumers of this free speech to think critically about the ideas that are being presented as truth.
I love that documentaries have a central assertion, a point they are trying to make, and I love how they often make their point by showing the lives of real people. But it is a true challenge to show both sides of an issue and let the watcher/reader come to their own conclusions. When I was growing up and learning about journalism in school, I was told that the true, altruistic goal of journalism was to present an unbiased, balanced version of an argument, like a true debate team approach, and then let the reader/watcher come to their own conclusion based on the facts presented.
These days, that definition of journalism seems more like a pipe dream. I feel like I must question the conclusion of everything I read and watch. I trust no one to give me the actual truth. There are certain people (journalists and comedians) I tend to agree with more often, but that list is shorter and shorter every day. I must ask who wrote/directed/made/edited/funded/produced this piece? That sleuthing is easier with the internet, but also occasionally cleverly and intentionally hidden. The conglomeration of the news media has made me more untrusting than ever before. I am honestly overwhelmed and frustrated by how little I can rely on the media available to me today. It makes me feel like I can’t truly know any subject now, I can’t truly form my own opinions with enough confidence to share them with others. Is that why our population (myself included) seems to become more cynical with age?