Tag Archives: political correctness

Once the media create a myth can it ever be ‘uncreated’ ?

9 Jan


I regularly use the MMR vaccination fiasco as an example of the way in which media misinterpretation of scientific material can lead to ‘myths’ being established in the public consciousness. In particular I find it intriguing that even long after evidence has been produced to conclusively refute media created ‘myths’ (and the media have moved on to a new story) the myth remains firmly established in the public consciousness. Every time I teach this session I wonder about simpler examples of the phenomena that I could use as an introductory example.  Over the Christmas break I was reminded of a story that I will begin next year’s lecture with.

Back in the winter of 1997 Birmingham city council in the UK were looking at ways of producing a coherent marketing strategy for the wide range of events that took place in the city centre over the mid-winter period. The Head of events was looking for a ‘generic banner’ that could encompass all of the events and thus allow him to do things like seeks a single corporate sponsor. Eventually he came up with the seemingly inoffensive term ‘Winterval’, a simple contraction of ‘Winter’ and ‘Festival’.

The media reaction to ‘Winterval’, when it first appeared in November 1998 was extraordinary. The media reported ‘Winterval’ as a ‘rebranding’ of Christmas to avoid offending ethic and religious minorities. Even the Bishop of Birmingham bought into the media interpretation of the story  and condemned ‘Winterval’ as political correctness. What is unusual about this case is that ‘Winterval’ very rapidly became a synonym for ‘political correctness’, even though the council pointed out immediately that the promotional material for ‘Winterval’ included images of Angels ans Carol singers, and thus was hardly ‘politically correct.

What’s intriguing is that the ‘Winterval’ myth lasted for over a decade, and it was only in 2011 that the Daily Mail printed a tiny retraction confirming that the whole thing had been a myth. In the intervening decade hundreds of newspaper articles appeared citing ‘Winterval’ as the height of political correctness. I’m going to start trying to compile a list of these types of media myth. The obvious starting point would be the various EU scare-stories that regularly appear in the UK press i.e. Bananas are going to have to be straight, hedgehog crisps will be band etcetera. but is would be nice to come up with a list of less obviously comic stories.

This seems like a really good way of introducing students to many of the tenets of rational thinking, particularly that they should question material they believe to be fact because it has been repeated so often ! (The academic in me is also conscious that I really need to go and read something about meme theory !)

NHS seems to think homeopathy isn’t too bad !

21 Feb


This is a really disappointing story that I came across via the excellent blog of David Colquhoun, Professor of Pharmacology at UCL.

For a number of years I’ve been encouraging my students to the National Health Service’s web site NHS Choices as a reliable source of about the range of health-related news stories that populate the British press on a daily basis. Sadly, if you look at the NHS Choices page on Homeopathy something very odd appears. Unlike the equivalent American website, NHS Choices fails to point out the there is no scientific evidence supporting homeopathy and it would be perfectly possible to read the page as an endorsement of homeopathy as a treatment for a range of ailments.

All of this is depressing enough, but it becomes worse when you look at what Professor David Colquhoun discovered, that the changes to the NHS Choices page seem to have been driven by an organisation supported by Prince Charles !! ~It seems like the NHS may have fallen pray to a rather odd combination of political correctness and the desire for ‘balance’ that undermines a lot of TV news science coverage.

What I find really intriguing is that what seems like a serious backward step in getting rationality to a wider audience might actual benefit my teaching. When I get around to teaching about homeopathy in the autumn it will be interesting to see the impact on the students when they realise that they understand something that the NHS appears not too. I suspect that this might actually reinforce the value of learning to think rationally. So every cloud may well have a silver lining.

UPDATE 22nd FEB 2013

In an even more bizarre turn of events I’ve just read a Daily Mail article that very nicely summarises what David Colquhoun has uncovered. We now seem to be in the very odd situation of the Daily Mail being a more reliable source of information than the National Health Service !

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