‘Beyond The Hype’ review: A dispassionate look at medical science controversies

Author Fiona Fox plays the third umpire in the book with astute care

Science knows the truth, but cannot tell it convincingly. The media knows half a truth, although it would like to pretend it knows it all. Along come the activists. They may not know the truth, but they speak persuasively and scarily, and for them that’s half the battle won.

Although we can sense where Fox’s sympathies lie, she is a self-appointed third umpire and plays that role with forensic care.

Where amid all this do the patients and the public stand―fearful, suspicious and wondering who to ask? Well, Beyond The Hype: Inside Science’s Biggest Media Scandals From Climategate to Covid tries to provide some of the answers. Author Fiona Fox comes with impressive credentials. She has reported extensively on science for the international media, has been honoured with an Order of the British Empire, and most relevantly, has founded the Science Media Centre in the UK―a unique Y-shaped bridge between scientists and journalists, with members of the public standing at the end of the vertical.

Beyond the Hype lifts the lid on cases where overheated rhetoric alarms the uninformed. The cases range from the scare induced by genetically modified food, the ethical controversies kicked off by research on animals, and by extremists on both sides of the climate change debate. Although we can sense where Fox’s sympathies lie, she is a self-appointed third umpire and plays that role with forensic care. All claims come backed by evidence and quotes are duly acknowledged.

No book about science and communications would be complete without a mention of Covid-19―as fertile a field as any for controversies to flourish. The author had finished the manuscript before Covid struck and subsequently made amends before publication. Unfortunately, the virus and its vaccine move faster than the publishing world. Recent press reports said that manufacturers have admitted that their vaccines could cause blood clots in rare cases. This does not find mention in the book, of course (the reports came in just a month ago), but there is plenty else that is covered, and much of it is riveting stuff.

The book should be of interest to many. We may not all belong to the medical profession, but we all want to know what is coming to us under the label of medicine. Also, since many of us cannot help pronounce big pharma guilty until proven otherwise, the book provides evidence to offset bias. It is in cases where Fox tackles social issues (rather than purely medical matters) that it turns a tad parochial. She devotes 20 pages to the catastrophic consequences of a sexist joke cracked by a scientist (and Nobel Prize winner to boot). But few in India have heard of the controversy or the original joke that got the good doctor into hot water.

There is many a slip between ivory tower research and the sick bed. And more slips between research and what appears in the newspapers. Fox’s comments about them are balanced and spoken in a mature tone. Best of all, she stops short of making up our mind for us. I vote that we do that for ourselves.

Eons ago, a wise man had asked what is truth, and did not wait for an answer. We cannot walk away, unfortunately. It is our lives and the lives of our families that are on the line. If we must wait longer to find the truth, we gladly will. And while we are at it, Beyond the Hype should help.


Author: Fiona Fox

Publisher: Elliott & Thompson

Price Rs399; pages 309