How To Read A Paper – For Journalists

October 5th, 2006 by Ben Goldacre in bad science | 52 Comments »

I know a fair few of you are journalists, and I thought I would mention something that I’m in the process of planning to see if you had any thoughts.

Along with a couple of friends I am setting up a short course for journalists on how to interpret scienific research data, especially health data, focusing on clinical trials, claims for efficacy, and claims of harm. This will open covering simple issues like “what is a trial”, “what is a placebo”, “what does statistical significance mean”, and so on, but it will go on to cover much more interesting and important areas, like how to spot the classic flaws in research data, the different ways of expressing risk, and what questions to ask to get the most useful information out of researchers/press officers/companies/cranks.

We’re quite happy to do this for our own amusement, and if nobody shows up at all then all well and good (I guess that’s a story…) but what I wanted to know is, and this is for everyone and anyone:

* is there anything it would be particularly useful to cover?

*what times would be best (all day, or a few evenings)?

* do newspapers etc have a training budget for that kind of thing, and can we stiff you for enough cash to cover the costs?

Feel free to respond privately or on the blog. I ought to say we’re all quite entertaining, and it’ll be a pretty amusing course anyway.

One thing I thought might be funny would be to have a brief test at the end, to show that you definitely understood, and a kind of jokey diploma you can hang in the loo. You will not be able to get this certificate for your dead cat. I think this would be a really interesting extra exercise but it might also be a bit threatening, we could offer it as a kind of optional extra to the course I guess.

Do let me know what you think.

If you like what I do, and you want me to do more, you can: buy my books Bad Science and Bad Pharma, give them to your friends, put them on your reading list, employ me to do a talk, or tweet this article to your friends. Thanks! ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

52 Responses

  1. nohassel said,

    October 5, 2006 at 5:34 pm

    Nice idea.

    Have you thought about approaching any scientific academies or societies to be involved with sponsorship or endorsement of the course?

  2. HarryR said,

    October 5, 2006 at 8:34 pm

    I’m intrigued by the idea (but I’m not a journalist). If i was a journalist, I’d wonder what you meant by ‘short’.

  3. Henry said,

    October 5, 2006 at 8:39 pm

    great idea. i’m not a journalist but i deal with them a lot day-to-day and this would make my life a lot easier.

    hope it flies.

  4. Frank said,

    October 5, 2006 at 8:46 pm

    God, I want your babies.

    Try those sense about science cats or the RS, perhaps they’ll front the sponsorship cash.

    Particularly useful to cover would be the classic symptoms of bad science – science by press release, working alone, lack of scientific record in that area, etc. This would give them a 30-second bulletpoint list for detecting bad science when scanning a story..

    great idea, you’re a true soldier of science.

  5. Dorothy King said,

    October 5, 2006 at 9:13 pm

    Brilliant idea.

    I am neither a journalist (failed to get anyone to like my columns at the Guardian) nor a real scientist (unless you really push the Maureen Lipman -ology theory), but …. have been spending more and more time explaining medical research to women’s groups, Christian groups, etc (mostly HPV and DDT – can explain to US Christians in under five minutes why HPV is not an STD).

    There is a HUGE need for more people to do this, so best of luck to you.

    If I can be of any help, drop me a line.

  6. AitchJay said,

    October 5, 2006 at 9:32 pm

    “* is there anything it would be particularly useful to cover?”

    How about a brief history of the biggest mistaken / misinterpreted / blown out of proportion trial results in recent history?
    Along the lines of – Do you remeber this story? Here’s why it wasn’t really a story, etc.
    I know you cover this in your column, but a condensed summary of what happens when they get it wrong may be useful.

    Good luck Ben, sounds like a great idea.

  7. dolfinack said,

    October 5, 2006 at 9:35 pm

    Listen, as a scientist, I thinks its a good idea. No, its a great idea. But….. as much as I hate seeing scientific data being abused for the sake of a nice story, I just can’t see any editor accepting the improved reporting of a story over the much used scare mongering hype/tripe we see today. It simply wouldn’t read as well. Write it again, they would say. Write it more exciting. Pillocks.

    In theory, I love what you’re suggesting, but the public like something they can get their teeth into, and I’m afraid that will forever inhibit the truth from hitting the front pages.

    Continue the good work

  8. Ben Goldacre said,

    October 6, 2006 at 12:17 am

    i think that bad science stories are very instructive, of course, and in fact really the column is a bit of an EBM course critiquing misinterpretations of data, it’s a great teaching resource because the examples of bad science in a nutritionist article are much more simple than the subtle flaws in a published systematic review.

    getting in with someone like RS, Wellcome, etc, always feels like a great idea, but i don’t know, as the self styled dangerous outsider bad boy of punk science commentary i always find the public engagement people a tiny bit dreary, i know it’s wrong, and based on fairly minimal contact (mostly being a tiny bit uninspired by their publications and festivals). it’s a trade off between straight-forward independence charging corporate training course rates, or getting some cash from someone well meaning, and giving away £10 places to freelancers, but feeling somehow restricted re content.

    incidentally, i don’t think this would change how editors think, and i don’t think it’s about stopping an mmr fraud happening again, but i do think it could help make, for example, summaries of research reported on clearer and more informative, or indeed “present”. at the moment, journalistsstill often only report the “conclusions” part of a paper, they often don’t say what was done, what the results were, etc, they just say “scientists said today that x” without saying why they said that.

    it woul also of course help people know when they are breaking major rules or misrepresenting research, even if they are going to do it anyway. it might even help them ask tricky questions to catch researchers off guard if they are slightly over-claiming.

  9. Melissa Barton said,

    October 6, 2006 at 2:46 am

    I think the seminar is a great and useful idea, but I wouldn’t sell editors too short. Some editors are all about the sensationalism, but quite a lot aren’t. Such a seminar aimed at editors might not be a bad idea, either.

  10. Dean Pentcheff said,

    October 6, 2006 at 6:45 am

    Excellent idea, and doing it well will (as you know) take a fair bit of work. Good on you!

    Maybe more for some of the commenters than for you, Ben: be aware that you’re likely going to get an audience of science journalists who already are doing a fairly good job. As in any profession, the good people will strive to learn how to do better, while the crap hacks don’t care and won’t come.

    So with that as a given, I’d be more inclined to focus the seminar on enhancing the good journalists’ work, rather than trying to help hopeless cases with basic information. The hopeless ones won’t be there.

    The suggestion of targeting something else towards editors is interesting. It would be more difficult for a scientist to put together, though. I suspect that the core of an editor-oriented seminar would be to make a convincing case that science journalism of integrity is actually more interesting to the public, and hence the public will prefer it to sensationalism. That’s an argument that would need other publishers or editors involved, I think, to make an argument that would convince an editor.

    Oh, and a final trivial suggestion. I’d love it if you could convince journalists that science journalism is far more useful if it contains the basic information that allows the reader to find out more about the work in question. I’m not asking for a journal citation, but the name(s) of the researchers and maybe even a journal name would be tremendously helpful. I grind my teeth every time I catch an intriguing snippet of science news that lacks any information of that sort. But it’s common. Sigh.

  11. JunkkMale said,

    October 6, 2006 at 7:55 am

    A great Idea.

    I know your primary area of interest is health, but I’d like to pop in a request for environmental issues, because I think the public are particularly poorly served by objective analysis with these in making informed decisions. All to often it’s just a straight serve of a press release or a deliberate use of the latest ‘research’ as an excuse for a dramatic headline.

    You’ll find me screaming at the TV when a vanilla or a bouffant with a microphone standing next to an electric car cheerfully announces that it ‘has no emissions’. No, they simply come out of another pipe, and actually I’d like to know what the losses are getting from the generator to the motor, environmentally speaking.

    As to climate change/global warming, well, it’s been said over and over again, but to most ordinary folk it’s just a load of contradictory hot air: artillery exchanges over our heads in no person’s land, leaving us none the wiser on what to do for the best.

    Me, I simply think it’s a shame to waste. And to a lot of editors I’d say it’s also a waste to shame: get positive and proactive! It’s not as easy writing an upbeat headline, but there’s enough out there that will capture folks’ attentions, as I truly believe they are dying for solutions and things to ‘do’, and not be fed constantly on a diet of things you can’t.

  12. crichmond said,

    October 6, 2006 at 8:19 am

    I’m afraid I think it would be preaching to the converted.
    The turnover in journalism is too fast, especially in women’s magazines, where most of the silly stories emanate. And I don’t suppose many of the hacks and hackettes would come.
    I have subbed on women’s magazines (many years ago), and whenever I tried to intruduce a note of caution (verbally, in the office) I was regarded as a knowall spoilsport and meanie who was trying to kill a good story.
    There is also the concept of balance, which is interpreted as meaning that every medical story must be ‘balanced’ with an alternative medicine story.
    Finally, most journalists are young (whatever happens to old journos ‘- do they all go into PR?) and lack much idea of what serious and life-threatening illness entails.

  13. Mark Frank said,

    October 6, 2006 at 8:21 am

    A nice idea. Being a journalist yourself and something of a household name gives you a great start.

    As one who wears the scars of hundreds of courses for various types of busy professional – a few comments:

    Many of the posts above start from “it would be great for us scientists or readers if journalists knew this”. But it is not the scientists or readers who need to give up a day of their time. I am trying to imagine I am a busy journalist. Is it great for me? Do I have a problem this course can help me solve? It will be really interesting to see how many journalist respond, who they are, and what they want. As Dean says, I suspect it will only appeal to specialist science journalists who are probably doing quite a good job already and want to do even better (I doubt Melanie will be among your students).

    Given that, what skills are you going to assume among your audience? If they specialist science journalists they may well have some science background.

    Valid and reliable end of course tests are really hard to write. But anything else is a glorified attendance certificate. Is there some kind of institution that journalists respect that might recognise the certificate?

    Also you MUST charge. Otherwise you will get 100 enrolments and two people will turn up and one of those will have their mobile on all day.

    Best of luck.

  14. apothecary said,

    October 6, 2006 at 9:12 am

    Love the idea, but share some of the concerns above. BTW, have you seen

    My only connection with Tim Albert is that I once went to one of his day courses, then persuaded bods to get him back to do something in the hospital I was working in (this was about 10 yrs ago) for the staff newsletter writers. The courses were excellent. He used to edit BMA news review, and worked on the Mirror, I think.

  15. kim said,

    October 6, 2006 at 10:25 am

    As a journalist, I think it’s an excellent idea. Yes, of course there are good science writers who know all this stuff, and yes, there are those who are interested only in writing sensationalist stories, but there’s a big group in the middle: journos who write about health, food or technology issues, who aren’t trained scientists, who don’t know this stuff but would like to.

    I think a one-day course would probably be about right – I think you could easily persuade the quality newspapers to pay for this kind of training. Obviously there are plenty of freelancers out there too who’d be interested, but probably couldn’t afford more than a day out of their work routine.

    You could even extend it to PRs – there are plenty out there who would benefit.

  16. Casper said,

    October 6, 2006 at 10:26 am

    Good luck with this. The trouble is, ‘the readership’ perceives Science as boring, and most journalists are lazy.

    There are real, relevant and important stories around for those that do the legwork and have some facility for independent, critical thought, and if you help just a handful of such journalists on their way, it will be a worthwhile venture.

  17. Gerbrand said,

    October 6, 2006 at 10:48 am

    On laymen and experts:

    kind regards,

  18. andybowles66 said,

    October 6, 2006 at 10:58 am

    I think that some of these responses overestimate the scientific understanding of either journalists or editors. For example, earlier this year The Times published a comment article (amusingly enough, by someone called Cavendish) which suggested that if we all had cars powered by fuel cells, when we weren’t driving them we could be using them to top up the National Grid.
    I know that there isn’t necessarily any correlation between aptitude and existing knowledge, and also that in theory you could understand a medical research paper without being able to remember any GCSE physics. Still, I suspect that Ben is going to find himself looking at a lot of glazed-over eyes.

  19. kim said,

    October 6, 2006 at 11:42 am

    I think you’re wrong, Andy. A good communicator can make difficult stuff interesting and accessible – indeed, Ben does this all the time in his columns.

    I also think you’re wrong about journalists’ attitude to science. It’s easy to say, as some people have done, that journalists are lazy, but ‘m pretty sure that a lot of journalists feel embarrassed about their lack of scientific knowledge and would welcome the opportunity to report scientific findings more accurately.

    Or perhaps I’m just an optimist.

  20. Ben Goldacre said,

    October 6, 2006 at 12:04 pm

    “For example, earlier this year The Times published a comment article (amusingly enough, by someone called Cavendish) which suggested that if we all had cars powered by fuel cells, when we weren’t driving them we could be using them to top up the National Grid.”

    jesus dude, don’t post that on the blog six months later, tell me at the time so i can write about it!

  21. Kells said,

    October 6, 2006 at 12:44 pm

    * is there anything it would be particularly useful to cover?
    Two points-
    1. – because you have mentioned percentages at the start of the article you don’t have to then move on to fractions and decimals later on to keep things interesting – please compare like with like.

    2. Give the Journo’s some credit – look who they are trying to get the information from. Part of your course should be ‘how to get information from a dysfunctional slightly autistic prof/scientist who tends to find the world outside his lab a foreign land.

  22. spingle said,

    October 6, 2006 at 12:44 pm

    This sounds like a really good idea. Is there any potential for expanding/providing teaching materials for journalism courses – catch them early, and all that?

  23. Dorothy King said,

    October 6, 2006 at 12:57 pm

    I’m going to defend Wellcome on this one. They can be *******s, but whenever I’ve asked for studies or introductions to people whoses studies they funded, then they have been good straight off the bat.

  24. jackpt said,

    October 6, 2006 at 12:58 pm

    This isn’t an original comment, but I think the problem is that the course will not attract the people most in need of help. To avoid this you could have themes “Do the farts of asylum seekers cause global warming?”, “Will Boris Johnson disappear up his own arse?”, “Diana physics”, and “Statistical significance is the new black”. The course needs a hook that is attractive to editors, something that appeals to their wallets.

    However, in the Jesuit way, get them while they’re young. Students of journalism and those entering the field would be a good target audience. It would be somewhat speculative because some people may see sense in their life and become dustman or IT administrators, but some will go on to be national journalists. There are a few journalism schools in-and-around London that do seem to have a higher number of alumni entering the mainstream press.

  25. Teek said,

    October 6, 2006 at 1:00 pm

    a cracking idea Ben, one word of warning tho…

    i know a highly-influential member of staff at the Daily Wail (no names mentioned for sake of saving the poor beggar being lynched by Bad Science folks when actually he knows his onions as it were…), who is convinced that even if journalists themselves were trained scientists, it’s the editors that not only set the agenda but practically write the story…

    i like the idea of first doing a course for scribes, then for editors – perhaps the one for editors could include a module on how to spot crappy reporting by having the paper being written about in front of you whilst going over the story being edited?

    alas methinks the cause may well be lost, but it’s still a great thing you’re trying!!

  26. Ben Goldacre said,

    October 6, 2006 at 1:39 pm

    hey, just to be clear, i utterly love the wellcome in all its guises.

    the recurring theme here is that journalists who are good are already good, and ones that are bad will stay bad forever. i think there’s room for movement though, and the possibility of attracting and informing both, although i agree that the problems are more systemic (in fact i have a worthy essay on that very topic coming out in a great new think tank essay collection, more in a week or so).


  27. MJ Simpson said,

    October 6, 2006 at 2:03 pm

    This sounds laudable but I think you’re misunderstanding the role of the popular media. (I speak as a journalist, albeit a film journalist whose scientific reporting extends to two short pieces in New Scientist.)

    The principal job of any newspaper or magazines is to provide a big enough audience to their advertisers. That’s not cynicism, that’s how the industry works. Mags and papers don’t make money from their cover price, they make money from selling advertising space. To satisfy those advertisers (and to justify charging them as much as possible) the publication must demonstrate as large a readership as possible.

    You attract a large readership by giving them what they want. And in terms of the popular press, readers are very, very conservative. People choose their newspaper because it broadly agrees with their views of the world, whatever those may be.

    You know all this, Ben, I imagine.

    Newspapers and magazines are not journals. They are not there for the purpose of diseminating information. They are not there to serve the people who provide that information. They are there to reassure enough people so that those people will buy the paper regularly and thereby be exposed to the adverts therein.

    I really don’t think that there are many journalists and editors out there thinking, “Oh, I wish we could be more accurate when reporting science stories.” Who cares about accuracy when you’re writing tomorrow’s paper, because the day after tomorrow it will be a chip wrapper?

  28. Dr Aust said,

    October 6, 2006 at 2:14 pm

    Ben wrote: ” at the moment, journalistsstill often only report the “conclusions” part of a paper, they often don’t say what was done, what the results were, etc, they just say “scientists said today that x” without saying why they said that.”

    This , of course, is “enabled” rather by the way that Universities and scientific journals “sell” their stories to the media via press releases. As I said on another thread, Univ PR people – often ex-journalists – tell scientists like me bluntly that “journalists will only read the first line of the press release, and if that doesn’t grab you can forget the rest”.

    This means the frst line will always be “scientists said today that x”, as eye-catching as possible. “Scientists from xx Univ today announced that – contrary to what has been believed for 50 yrs – being breast-fed doesn’t make you smarter”.

    Agree, though, that it is usually prefectly possible for the journalists to find out the rest. But if they are being expected to produce a story a day (or more than one) the time for understanding / checking is going to be pretty limited. IMHO this is where journalists having scientific B/G comes in – the more of it they have, the better and faster they are likely to be able to fill in the gaps, read between the lines, find an expert to comment etc etc.

  29. andybowles66 said,

    October 6, 2006 at 2:32 pm

    “jesus dude, don’t post that on the blog six months later, tell me at the time so i can write about it!”

    I did. I sent an email about it to on 25th February 2006.

  30. kingcnut said,

    October 6, 2006 at 3:12 pm

    When would this course take place? It sounds unbelievably handy for the PhD I’ve just started on the ethical responsibilities of the media in reporting medical stories. Would non-journalists be welcome? I’m going to need to be able to understand scientific papers for myself if I’m going to discuss how they’re being reported on, plus the contact with actual, living, breathing journalists would be very handy. No worries if not, obviously.

  31. Dr Aust said,

    October 6, 2006 at 4:00 pm


    If you need “case histories”, then apart from FishOil and the obvious MMR/Wakefield one I would recommend the Herceptin farrago. Most of the media coverage was utterly lame and just consisted of people who were suing Health Authorities to get the stuff being interviewed talking about how they “felt they had been given a death sentence” (by not getting the drug). Like MMR a classic instance of the meejah “reporting the controversy” (what they see as the story) and never reporting the underlying issues (too complicated / boring).

    I would say the media see their main obligation as “to inform”, but this increasingly means “to get you to look”, and nowadays never means “to enlighten / explain”.

  32. Nenya said,

    October 6, 2006 at 4:13 pm

    Where would it be held? If I could get there I would enjoy such a thing but it would probably be privately financed :o( But then again I’m not a journo, it would just be for my own benefit…

  33. kayman1uk said,

    October 6, 2006 at 4:17 pm

    Friend of mine has done stacks of journo work attending supposedly scientific press-conferences held by the government, NHS etc.
    I forwarded the web page to him and his response was:

    “Yeah, work would probably pay for that. And I’d be able to tell my desk buddy exactly why homeopathy is bollocks.”

    I think you can take that to mean:

    a) He would like the course to cover a bit on the scientific method and why it’s important, plus maybe something on publication bias
    b) His company would stump up a meagre amount of cash to support the event
    c) He would prefer the course to be held during the day, with some drinkies at the end

    He is a humanities graduate, so if you can teach him something useful I, and all his other friends, would be eternally in your debt.

  34. Ben Goldacre said,

    October 6, 2006 at 5:44 pm

    herceptin could be characterised as a very interesting astroturf promotional operation, in some respects. however, i wouldnt want to run a course that was too badscience preachy, to be honest (i get enough of that elsewhere) but i think what was missing from a lot of those stories was a general question that is often applicable: how good is the evidence for herceptin’s efficacy?

    as for all the other people who want to learn about EBM, well now…

    it’s funny, i think EBM is the most important and relevant bit of science going. people talk about how evolution is a way to teach about controversy and conflicting theories in science, that’s rubbish. diet and cancer is a relevant data rich way to teach that. the papers are full of evidence based medicine stories, epidemiology is one of the most exciting fields of science, to read the daily mail, with all the stories on what will kill or cure you. it should be taught in schools!

    anyway, there’s a shed load of stuff on EBM in the legendary imaginary now almost finished book, hooked on the obvious examples from recent media. that should satisfy, but if it doesn’t, i don’t know, i’m no great expert, just a bog standard trial-consuming-and-interpreting-academic-journal-reader, but i could still do, like, er, an adult education class in basic epidemiology at the local community centre?

    for the journo course, i’m not a consultancies and committees man myself, but it will take a shed of preparation, and for the first time in our lives me and my nerdy buddies will charge normal corporate rates for a corporate service, maybe some concessions if we get enough bookings to cover room/time.

  35. Dr Aust said,

    October 6, 2006 at 6:20 pm

    Ben wrote:

    “what was missing from a lot of those stories was a general question that is often applicable: how good is the evidence for herceptin’s efficacy?”

    Exactly. Even in broadsheets the basic NUMBERS comparing herceptin with the older cancer drugs only appeared in the first story, and never thereafter. So there was no sensible consideration of cost vs. benefit, which would actually have been an informative debate – sort of :

    “How much EXTRA per yr should the health service be prepared to spend on you to give you a 4 in 5 chance of staying cancer-free, rather than a 3 in 4 chance?

    (not real nos, BTW)

    – and where should the extra money come from?”

    – in the modern UK setting, with health costs spiralling, surely something that needs airing.

    Instead what you got was “This drug will save me, otherwise I will die, they say my life’s not worth £ 20 K / yr, those b*!”ards”.

    Three major lies untruths (if not more) in that sentence, but it was the essential thrust of most of the media coverage of Herceptin, especially on TV.

  36. ceec said,

    October 6, 2006 at 9:09 pm

    And with herceptin wasn’t there also some thing about the “controversial decisions” being brought to the attention of the press by the drug manufacturers themselves?

  37. Ben Goldacre said,

    October 6, 2006 at 9:11 pm

    yes. there’s rather a good back story on that which sarah boseley told me, i hope she’s going to write it up. and if that’s not a contentlessly cryptic and uninformative blog comment i don’t know what is.

  38. Trevor Butterworth said,

    October 6, 2006 at 10:01 pm


    We have something like this already posted on our site:

    How to evaluate health risks

    and a general statistical faq

    We’e tested out a seminar on the above material on journalism students here in the U.S. to good effect (they actually found it fascinating when encouraged to think in a CSI-like manner about data, and to think of numbers as agents in a story) , and we’re hoping to expand this material into a full-blown course.

    Good luck with such a project in Britain – although, what will the tabloids do without bogus health scare stories?

  39. Dr Aust said,

    October 6, 2006 at 10:12 pm

    When Sarah Boseley wrote her piece about “Selling herceptin” in the Guardian she mentioned Lisa Jardine being rung up by a lobbyist or similar linked to Merck, and offered herceptin as an “opinion former”. Lisa Jardine also wrote about this somewhere in a very intelligent piece on how people perceive risk in relation to their own health and treatment .

    I have found that one of the most prevalent views among my medical friends about the herceptin farrago was that the drug company must be subtly egging on the patient advocacy groups and/or the news outlets.

    It would certainly be of a piece with the other well-tried dodge of setting up a “patient information site” for a disease where the only (or a new) drug treatment is sold by the company, or funding a site “promoting” a newly labelled disease ripe for drug intervention (“disease mongering”)…

    Remember “Social phobia” and the SSRIs? In the States social phobia and SSRIs to treat it were promoted with a big direct-to-consumer TV ad campaign fronted by an American football star. The basic pitch was “if you’re shy, get on an SSRI”. In countries with rules against direct promotion of prescription drugs to the consumer (like the UK) the company can still promote “disease awareness”.

    And no doubt there are many other tactics, like the one recently written up in the BMJ about the Pharma companies producing their own pre-packaged “news segments” (typically upbeat human-interest stories prominently featuring treatment with their drugs) to sell on to US local TV stations.

    Must always be borne in mind that the marketing budget (and all it buys) of Phama Companies is absolutely huge, far outstripping their R&D costs. They tend to not shout about this, for obvious reasons.

    Sorry, sounding cynical here, should conclude by saying “Some of my best friends work for the pharmaceutical industry”. Honest.

  40. Jeremy Zeid said,

    October 7, 2006 at 1:44 am

    HALLELUYAH!!!! At last some cool calm common sense. And while we are at it, let’s explode the myth about phone masts frying brains….. It’s the wrong bloody frequency… i am no great fan of the phone companies but years of phones clamped to ear’oles and no “epidemic” of temporal lobe tumours after all. But still the hype goes on and we still have bloody great holes with no signal.

    And yet these same “campaigners” for “the children who are our future” are the first to complain when they can reach their offspring on their mobiles because there isn’t a bloody signal.

    So they have protests and petitions against the evil masts and the cellphone companies and give “the children who are our future (TCWAOF)” a bloody phone “for their safety” that radiates the same frequency as the mast and is clamped against their heads.

    Meanwhile, stupid politicians (and I exclude myself from this lot) cave in to the demands on nothing more than “just in case” and the Councils end up paying a shedload in appeal costs that are passed onto the council taxpayer, ie, TCWAOF’s stupid parents who then moan about signal loss…….. And so it goes around and around……..

  41. EmmaB said,

    October 7, 2006 at 3:02 pm

    Have you seen Petra Boynton’s resources for journalists here:

    Useful resources including how to tell if a study is any good, and what you can and can’t expect from a real expert.

  42. stever said,

    October 7, 2006 at 3:44 pm

    Obviously a great idea. Id be happy to help.

    I agree with some of the comments above that the key would be to get some of the worst offenders along – but that they would be the least likely to turn up.

  43. Dr Aust said,

    October 7, 2006 at 3:45 pm

    Had a quick look at Petra Boynton’s “journalist’s guide to experts”.

    Mostly sensible, but I laughed when I got to:

    “Experts CAN’T:

     Make claims that go beyond their data.
     Talk outside their area of research, practice, and expertise”

    But of course this is exactly what journalists WANT them to do, because it is the over-blown claims, off-the-cuff paraphrasings, and random opinionizing that make the best (splashiest) STORIES.

    Take Andrew Wakefield of MMR infamy and Durham’s Madeleine Portwood – overstatement way beyond what the data justify = news coverage.

  44. kingcnut said,

    October 8, 2006 at 10:53 am

    Dr Aust – thanks. I was looking for further case studies and the Herceptin “farrago” (now there’s a word that’s cruelly underused) sounds ideal; underlying issues of cost and clinical testing getting lost in the roar of the-bastards-wouldn’t-give-me-the-pills. At the moment I’m floundering around trying to work out what doing a PhD actually entails (a lot of staring blankly at computer screens so far) but when the thing’s up and running I’d love to put something on the forums/fora/whatever for people’s suggestions. If that’s not too presumptuous.

  45. Mark Frank said,

    October 8, 2006 at 11:51 am

    I just noticed:

    “This will open covering simple issues like “what is a trial”, “what is a placebo”, “what does statistical significance mean”,”

    Are you sure statistical significance is a simple issue? From the limited number of papers I have read – it seems to me a fair proportion of scientists don’t understand it – much less journalists. I would think this is a minefield in a short course for journalists.

  46. Robma said,

    October 8, 2006 at 10:02 pm

    Dead right Mark – statistical significance is one of those concepts way too many people think is simple; it’s anything but. Come on, Ben – how bout giving us poor, stoopid hacks a definition of a “p-value”. And no cheating now – say, by looking at the site that Trevor in response #38 is so keen on – cos they get it totally wrong too.

    Speaking as a poor, stoopid hack, I’d also agree with tthose who’ve already expressed their doubts about many turning up for a teach-in on stats etc. First, these days we have trouble getting our editors to pay for legit expenses, let alone the fee for some day-long thumb-suck about how to get a story “right”. Second, amazingly enough we’re not paid to report stories based on “good” science. We’re paid to report good stories – and if that means writing up some crappy, non-blinded, non-randomised, confounded and underpowered research study on a sexy topic that we just KNOW the Daily Mail is going to run, then that’s just what we’re going to do. And why ? Because we’re all WAY more scared of the news editor screaming at us for missing a story than we are of some fingerwagging boffin telling us we misinterpreted a 95% confidence interval.

    One approach that might be more successful: persuading say the Roy Soc or Roy Stat Soc to run a course on the scandal of _scientists_ not knowing all this kind of stuff. Might get some coverage, plus those who rock up pick up some stats 101 in the process.

    Either way, good luck.

  47. Dorothy King said,

    October 8, 2006 at 11:01 pm


    a) a PhD entails a lot of work, and a lot of boredom (playing Mah Jong on the computer)

    b) HPV is an ongoing / evolving issue you could cover. Email me and I can help you with all the studies, or go through my blog for stuff for that.

    c) DDT and malaria is a better one. We got rid of it because celebrities were against it, malaria shot up and became resistant to drugs, and now … we are bringing it back in.

  48. Dr Aust said,

    October 9, 2006 at 4:16 pm

    RobMa wrote

    “Second, amazingly enough we’re not paid to report stories based on “good” science. We’re paid to report good stories – and if that means writing up some crappy, non-blinded, non-randomised, confounded and underpowered research study on a sexy topic that we just KNOW the Daily Mail is going to run, then that’s just what we’re going to do. And why ? Because we’re all WAY more scared of the news editor screaming at us for missing a story than we are of some fingerwagging boffin telling us we misinterpreted a 95% confidence interval”

    Bears out what one of my ex-students – now working as a regional BBC news journalist – told me. One “story” per day required by the Regional News Ed , by 10 mins ago, checking – well, who needs it. Q – does it SELL?

    My Q – which I’ve posed before – is this:

    If the ostensibly SERIOUS press (broadcast and paper) in th UK doesn’t feel it has a responsibility to have at least SOME content which tries to offer some proper reporting of science, with exposition and proper background… …why bother reporting science at all?

    After all, celeb stories probably sell better.

    Ans must be that they want to SAY they’re covering “science and technology” in an informed way. Even if they usually don’t.

    But who should be holding them to doing it properly?

    Personally I think the Royal Society (de facto the National Science Academy) should be running a New Labour style “rapid rebuttal unit” trashing every national media ludicrous science story the day it hits the news. Humiliate and call out the news organisations and nationals publically every time they print / broadcast inaccurate pseudo-science bollocks.

  49. Robma said,

    October 9, 2006 at 8:33 pm

    Dr Aust asks “Why bother reporting science at all ? After all, celeb stories probably sell better”. That’s precisely what news editors have been asking themselves for maybe 10 years now, and the answer they’ve reached is all too apparent from what appears in print. Some of us science hack “lifers” are seriously wondering if we’re actually going the same way as labour correspondents did around 15 years ago – our “patch” falling off the agenda to such an extent that the job title will vanish too. Check out what passes for “science” stories these days – it’s basically health, enviro, gizmos, plus the occasional sci-fi “black hole ate my dinosaur” crap. Note that the first three are all covered by dedicated correspondents these days, and the sci-fi crap usually gets five pars, max.

    So you reckon the Roy Soc “should be running a New Labour style “rapid rebuttal unit” trashing every national media ludicrous science story the day it hits the news”. Great idea – but for one small thing: who’s going to print these rebuttals, exactly ?

  50. Dr Aust said,

    October 9, 2006 at 9:29 pm

    Yes, you’ve spotted the flaw in my argument, Rob.


    …there does need to be some attempt at upping the content level of science coverage, and that would be one way to do it. If a National Academy of Sciences is good for anything (apart from lobbying senior civil servants sotto voce and holding convivial dinners) this arguably should be it.

    The Royal Society does retain a sort of semi-mythic status in the UK – think of the fellows’ letter to NHS Trust Chief Execs about CAM and the coverage it got.

    If the National Academy of Sciences whacked out a quick, well-written one page rebuttal every time one of these lame-o stories started getting MAJOR media – multiple press reports, one story covering another, “reporting the controversy” etc – it MIGHT get some play. At least it might serve to embarass the editors of the papers, or of the TV news shows – I think they are still probably a bit sensitive to being publically called “misleading” or “inaccurate” or “sloppy”.

    I don’t just mean the Royal Society, BTW. The British Medical Association should have done something similar for Herceptin. But they were so busy keeping their heads down over Dame Janet Smith and the post-Shipman backlash that they just stuck their collective head in the sand and hoped it would all go away.

    Finally, imagine the effect a more “combative” and immediate response over MMR might have had on public confidence in vaccines. No-one ever actually got up and said “the science in this paper is very iffy, because of (a) and (b) and (c)”-until years later – even though the Lancet editor, and people in the Royal Free, and doubtless many experts who read it, all had major reservations. And no-one from the medical establishment publicily slated the media coverage, at least not where I heard it.

    Anyway, you’re right, you couldn’t force the media to run the rebuttals, but it would at least be better than all (us) scientists sitting on our hands and grumbling, as at present.

    After all, if Ben’s example shows anything it is that if the rebuttal / debunking is sufficiently readable, and clear, and preferably funny, it can find the mark. But arguably we have such an epidemic of misinformation that it can’t be left to a few gifted individuals, like him and the late John Diamond, to combat it.

  51. Robert Carnegie said,

    October 10, 2006 at 5:19 pm

    I am sure there are no bad journalists – either at our national newspapers or viewing this forum – and all of you are excellent drivers, too. Who isn’t?

    As for editors, I sincerely don’t suppose that they are all monsters who would rather have a dodgy MMR or MrSA scare than fact or even blank space, although you have to wonder sometimes. But the press is not irredeemably addicted to fiction, surely?

    And statistics – I think the subject can be understood in simple terms. I just would like to know what they are. But for anyone to make a decision – including a decision in journalism – on statistical evidence, surely they have to understand the evidence!

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