Azara Blog: Science and the Media

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Date published: 2010/01/23

The 2010 Darwin College Lectures are about Risk. The second lecture occurred on 22 January and was by Ben Goldacre, a columnist for the Guardian and author of Bad Science. The title of his talk was "Risk: Science and the Media". Well, the subject of Risk was pretty much missing from his talk but it didn't really matter since he had a lot to say about Science and the Media.

Goldacre is evidently fairly well known because all three halls used for the lectures were full already ten minutes before the lecture was due to start (it started a quarter of an hour late because he got stuck in the Cambridge traffic).

Goldacre is full of energy and confidence, so much so that he doesn't really seem British, although he is. He's a (junior) doctor working for the NHS but evidently his gift of the gab has introduced him to opportunities in the media. In this lecture, at least, he jumped around from topic to topic with barely time for a breath in between.

His main point (which is not news) was that the media do a terrible job at reporting science (with some exceptions), and that all they are interested in is fantasy and sensationalism. And this is not only true of the usual tabloid suspects, but also of the allegedly serious newspapers and the BBC. And this particularly happens on matters of health, which, not surprisingly, given his background, is what he discussed. The media has an obsession with miracle cures and scare stories and alleged breakthroughs.

The media is also corrupt. So PR companies will plant stories with the media on behalf of their corporate clients. So stories about the alleged saddest day of the year appearing at the beginning of January are down to some holiday company or other wanting people to start buying their summer holidays, and stories about the alleged happiest day of the year appearing in the summer are down to some ice cream company wanting people to buy more ice cream.

Before he got down to his many examples, he looked briefly at the history behind disease and lifestyle risk factors. So once upon a time medical researchers figured out that not only was there a high correlation between smoking and lung cancer, but that smoking was pretty much the main cause of lung cancer. So if you changed your lifestyle you could prolong your life.

Goldacre claimed this was pretty much the one and only example that demonstrated such a clear causal relationship between lifestyle and disease, and unfortunately the medical profession promised there were going to be many, many more such examples. Goldacre claimed that instead the real main factor affecting disease prevalence in most cases is not lifestyle but instead social depravation.

Then he got onto his examples. He mentioned that there had recently been an important article in the BMJ (British Medical Journal) looking at whether the government's Sure Start program (aimed at helping children in deprived areas of Britain) was effective, the conclusion being yes. And another article in the same journal showed that it was also allegedly cost effective. But apparently there was no coverage of this at all in the media.

Instead what we got was some crap about the alleged benefits for kids of taking some fish oil supplement. Goldacre claimed that the trial which allegedly showed this was fatally flawed. So it involved 3000 kids taking 6 pills a day for a year, and it looked at their GCSE results after a year and compared these with what had been predicted.

But there was no control group and so not even an understanding of any possible placebo effects or whether it was the extra attention being given and extra effort being made (by both students and teachers) that was the real cause of the improvement. But the media didn't care about that, they just claimed that fish oil pills were the way to go.

Goldacre claimed the pills cost around 85p per pupil per day and that the local authority where the trial was done was meanwhile spending 65p per pupil per day on school meals. It doesn't take a genius to deduce from this that some corporation selling pills was probably behind the whole effort.

Then he went after the Independent for claiming in 2007 that "Cannabis is now 25 times stronger" (than when the Independent was claiming ten years before that it was a relatively harmless drug). He showed a graph where if you were being lenient you might claim that it had doubled.

The Daily Express (and no doubt others) reported that some "expert" had claimed that suicides were linked to mobile phone masts. Apparently this "expert" looked at the distance of suicide victims in some town (Bridgend) and found they lived closer than "average" to a phone mast. Only Goldacre claims he talked to the "expert" and found out that what this "expert" meant by "average" was the average geographic distance of the UK land area from the nearest phone mast, so not weighted by the population distribution. Well, if so, that is obviously nonsensical.

The Observer (which the Guardian owns, so Goldacre's newspaper) reported that some Cambridge University researcher had allegedly claimed that the recent "surge" in autism was down to the MMR vaccine. Well, not only was the "surge" claim bogus (confusing differing ways of measuring the incidence of autism) but Goldacre talked to the researcher and she said straight out she did not believe there was any connection between autism and MMR. The Observer ran some kind of feeble retraction about the "surge" but still claimed the bit about MMR was true, and the only way the researcher was given space to deny it was to write a comment for the online version of the story.

A few years ago the British media went hysterical about the alleged plague of MRSA in NHS hospitals. Goldacre had some friend who went undercover into a hospital and took lots of swabs and sent them off to be tested and they all came back negative. Well, this was a bit discouraging since all the media was reporting how easy it was to find MRSA anywhere and everywhere.

This friend talked to a journalist who told him he should send his samples "to the lab that always gives positive results". Well, that phrase is obviously rather damning. And it turned out the lab was run by someone by the name of Christopher Malyszewicz, who the media trumpeted as an "expert" and a hero of British health care.

Goldacre talked to him and it turns out his undergraduate degree was in engineering (and it wasn't clear if he had even finished it) and his alleged PhD was bought from some firm in America. And when some microbiology inspector finally managed to inspect Malyszewicz's lab, it turned out to be in his garden shed, and not of suitable lab standard. Apparently various medics wrote to the media but were ignored.

Goldacre had an amusing turn of phrase. So there are people who are "too incompetent to assay their own incompetence".

Next he went back to the MMR issue. So in 1998 a doctor by the name of Andrew Wakefield published a case study in the Lancet saying that he had had 12 child patients who were autistic and had the MMR vaccine. Well, given that supposedly around 1 in 100 or 1 in 200 (depending how you measure it) children are autistic and given that most children were getting the MMR vaccine, you are bound to have lots of cases where both are observed in the same child. Of course these kind of observations might be relevant, so the Lancet was correct to publish it, and let scientists do more work on the issue.

Of course the media went hysterical and the rest is history. The take-up of MMR declined a lot in spite of there never being any real evidence that there was even a link, never mind a causal link.

Goldacre claimed that although some media people realised the story was likely bogus, they still had to run with it because their competitors did and because Wakefield was an "expert". Goldacre pointed out that with a hundred thousand doctors in the UK you could probably find one who would back any claim you wanted.

Although the controversy started in 1998, Goldacre showed a graph which indicated that the real interest in the controversy spiked in 2002 because of poor little Leo Blair, the youngest child of Tony and Cherie Blair. So the Blairs refused to say whether or not he had had the MMR vaccine. The general feeling was that he had not (although it was government policy that children should), because Cherie Blair was rather against conventional medicine and instead was into the usual New Age crackpot alternatives. Goldacre claimed that at the time, 32% of all MMR stories mentioned Leo Blair, and only 25% mentioned Wakefield. A bit ridiculous.

Some American by the name of Krigsman kept pushing the MMR and autism story, with claims in 2002 and 2006 that he had found a link. But this research has never been published, so should not be considered worthy of anything. At the same time in 2006 there were two peer-reviewed papers that found no link between MMR and autism. Needless to say, almost all the media pushed the Krigsman story rather than the other one. Goldacre claimed that only he and some blogger (the boyfriend of one of the authors of one of the papers) mentioned it.

Wakefield was found out to have various conflicts of interest, and so the media ended up blaming him for the fuss, rather than face up to their contribution to the sorry saga.

And apparently these vaccine scares are country specific. So MMR and autism ran in the UK, Hepatitis B and Multiple sclerosis ran in France, thiomersal and autism ran in the US, etc. Because of the bogus thiomersal scare, the US government asked drug makers to stop using it in vaccines. The alternatives are more expensive, which is not a problem in America but is a problem in Africa.

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