Complaints upheld against BBC over Alternative Medicine “The Evidence”

July 16th, 2007 by Ben Goldacre in bad science | 17 Comments »

I always felt it would have been fine if they’d called it “Alternative Medicine: what Kathy Sykes would like to say about it”. The subtitle was definitely the problem, gotta do what you say on the tin.

This from Simon Singh, i’m bunging it up with his permission so that anyone can see it on the grounds that it is “important” and he spent ages sorting it out.

More on the same program from Colquhoun here, including his admirable tracking down of all those so-called “signatories” the BBC claimed they had, but who actually didnt sign the letter. Stylish…

Hello Everyone,

This is an email to the dozen or so people involved in the complaint that I submitted to the BBC regarding the 3-part series on Alternative Medicine that was transmitted in February 2006.

www.open2.net/alternativemedicine/

As you may remember, I wrote a couple of articles for the Guardian and Telegraph pointing out major inaccuracies in the series. The BBC’s response was to deny everything. So I lodged a complaint to the BBC, which was rejected. I appealed, and the complaint was again rejected. I appealed to the highest level (Board of Trustees) and at last the complaint was upheld.

I made ten criticisms of the series, of which seven were subjective and not serious, and three were more obvious and serious. Of the three serious criticisms, two were upheld.

First, the BBC agreed that the acupuncture open heart surgery sequence “could have misled the audience”. Second, the BBC agreed that their attempts to discredit my criticism of the series “was a breach of trust with the audience” because the BBC had not disclosed its role in organising critical letters Third, unfortunately the BBC did NOT agree that the brain imaging acupuncture experiment was portrayed in a misleading manner, as the BBC felt that “the statements made by the scientists were a true reflection of their views and an accurate presentation of the experiment”.

It was hard work submitting and following up the complaint, so thanks to those who offered me support and advice along the way. I think it has been worth the time and effort, because I know that the articles and complaints were discussed by several people within the BBC, from programme-makers to senior managers. In general, I think BBC standards are high, but when there are examples of highly misleading programmes then these need to be highlighted, otherwise mistakes are repeated and the balance shifts towards inaccuracy and sensationalism.

You can read the full complaint and findings at:

www.bbc.co.uk/bbctrust/assets/files/pdf/appeals/esc_bulletins/apr2007.pdf

The original articles are at:

www.telegraph.co.uk/connected/main.jhtml?xml=/connected/2006/02/14/ecnaccupunct.xml

www.guardian.co.uk/frontpage/story/0,,1739393,00.html

If you come across any similar examples of bad science on TV then I would encourage you to complain to the BBC website or OFCOM (if it is not a BBC programme):

www.bbc.co.uk/complaints/

www.ofcom.org.uk/complain/

And if you would like to forward this email to anybody else or post it on your website, then please go ahead.

Thanks again to everyone for your invaluable support.

Simon Singh.

www.simonsingh.net


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17 Responses



  1. Teek said,

    July 16, 2007 at 4:54 pm

    hu flipping rah, well done simon – cheers for sharing that tasty morsel Ben.

  2. used to be jdc said,

    July 16, 2007 at 4:58 pm

    Well done Simon et al. After reading the initial response from the production team in the linked pdf, I’m glad you kept at it and made the complaint stick.

  3. Gimpy said,

    July 16, 2007 at 5:05 pm

    This is really quite depressing. It seems if the BBC misrepresent out elected or unelected representatives, in the Queens ‘tantrum’ and Newsnight editing fuckups, they have to kiss the royal rump and grovel until forgiven. When they misrepresent science and reality they see nothing wrong with denying and covering up.
    This attitude is not restricted to the BBC of course, look at the Observer’s response to its MMR story or Channel 4’s to TGGWS.

  4. woodchopper said,

    July 16, 2007 at 5:17 pm

    “There is always an inevitable tension when producing a television programme between the need to engage an audience in the core subject and the need to reflect the scientific research appropriately.”

    First bullet point in the BBC response. (p.23)

    Why is there such a tension? Why can’t they just tell the truth?

    Well done for seeing this to the end. And for getting a result.

  5. Kimpatsu said,

    July 16, 2007 at 6:04 pm

    So why isn’t there a retraction or acknowledgement of this groundbreaking news on the BBC news website…?

  6. coracle said,

    July 16, 2007 at 6:29 pm

    Goodness, I’d forgotten about that one, well done Singh for sorting it.

  7. Deano said,

    July 16, 2007 at 7:06 pm

    They weren’t exactly quick in coming to a decision were they? A year and a half?

    In the meantime the damage has been done and their audience misled – which of rather more consequence than whether someone flounced out of a fashion shoot or not…

  8. stever said,

    July 16, 2007 at 11:26 pm

    brilliant. someone should forward this to the BBC news desk.

    Far more significant and important than that crap with Blue Peter, or that UTTER crap with the queen ‘not having a tantrum’, both of which were headline news for days.

  9. raygirvan said,

    July 17, 2007 at 2:54 am

    It’s a very nice outcome. Not so nice that it should have taken so long and had to go to multiple levels of appeal. Also – without diminishing the serious work that Simon must have put into this – I do wonder how it would have gone if he were not a celebrity.

    Many of us here have had the experience of complaining to the BBC and getting no action or even a reply – like the f***ing three-head ed frog story. After over three years of trying, on and off, I have never, ever, had even an acknowledgement reply from the BBC.

  10. muscleman said,

    July 17, 2007 at 11:47 am

    I thought the comment in Simon Singh’s Guardian piece about the production team not understanding the difference between anecdote and evidence is the crux of this. Teams like this are made up of arts graduates and the like who probably think animals in formaldehyde were groundbreaking instead of ripping off anatomy museums.

    That is why we should be supportive of the Guardian at least trying to do science with people who at least have science degrees. The MMR stuff in the Observer seem to have slipped by because it was a ‘health’ story. We have to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater which is why Ben is being sensible and not throwing the wobbly people think he should be throwing.

    By all means criticise and complain but urging Ben to risk it all by flouncing off to the other papers is counterproductive.

    We do need to keep ramming home the idea to the beeb that misrepresenting science should be bigger than Andrew Gilligan’s opinion was.

  11. SPig said,

    July 17, 2007 at 12:45 pm

    After reading DC’s review of the K221 course, I’m more upset with the OU than the beeb.

    I’m studying towards a BSc with the OU. And like others, I spend considerable time (and money) pushing myself through modules. At the end of all the mathematics and physics I’d hope to be able to walk away with the confidence that I have developed a strong scientific background through a challanging course.

    The OU has always fought hard to assert itself as a viable academic route. Of all institutions, they should know that adding a course like this to the science curriculum, isn’t just controversial. It provides ammunition to their detractors, and tarnishes the hard work of students, graduates and course tutors in solid fields.

    At best, the mainstream science students get miffed. Just think, I could have spent my time floating through some nice comfy woo, rather than working through the nosebleed that understanding quantum screening induced. At worst, I’ll try to use my BSc as a step towards further study or better employment, only to find out it’s worthless.

    For the BBC’s part in all this, I get the impression that there’s just a hint of finger pointing at the OU, “well they said it’s true, and they’re a university”. And even though that’s no excuse, I still wish that the OU would be more protective of it’s reputation rather than embarking on projects like this.

  12. muscleman said,

    July 17, 2007 at 1:01 pm

    SPig the only thing university heads are concerned with in the modern age is making enough money. Physics and Chemistry courses are closing all over the country, they are expensive to run don’t you know.

    It is all part of the commodification of education and in such a system caveat emptor applies just as it does when buying anything else. It also means that unfortunately your degree will be worth less as people who are not up to scratch will have one too as it is not good business practice to fail ‘customers’. I’m afraid you should have signed up for golf course design, now there’s a useful degree.

  13. Phage said,

    July 17, 2007 at 2:37 pm

    If you hear hoofbeats, think horses not zebras. Stupidity not malice.
    The production people are not concerned with ‘science’, and only peripheraly with ‘truth’. they are there to make a sensational program that will gather eyeballs. They are neither trained or interested in the science or principles behind it so long as they have a greybeard to point out as an expert.
    On the bright side, I believe that all those goatee-wearing BA graduates would be truthfully alarmed to discover that they were misleading people or causing genuine harm.
    Offending geeks, nerds, academics and similar ivory tower types they are not worried about.

  14. David Colquhoun said,

    July 17, 2007 at 4:36 pm

    I’m glad Spig noticed the OU side of the programme (and their K221 course). It is the very fact that I think a lot of the OU that makes it so annoying when they start things like K221. On the whole, they have done a great job. But letters to the vice chancellor of the OU about K221 have simply been ignored (as have most of those to other univerities who run worse CAM degrees), They add bad manners to bad science.

    In general, I find the attitudes of vice chancellors, politicians, and others who should know better, much more worrying than those of the High Street homeopath, many of whom are probably sincere in their batty beliefs. In fact I’m starting a whole blog on that, at www.dcscience.net/goodsci/goodscience.htm . And over the summer I’m hoping to get it all in to WordPress, with a little help from friends.

  15. SPig said,

    July 17, 2007 at 8:38 pm

    12
    muscleman, you are quite correct, physics and chemistry are not in fashion, therefore they seem to be falling to the wayside. Ironically, universities will trip over themselves to offer media studies. Perhaps part of the problem with the documentary is that the production staff know how to make a program, but don’t have the specialism to know what they are making it for.

    I know that institutions must look use their entry requirements, to control the numbers entering science courses. (With my background, I’d never get the chance to study science as a mature student). However, to make the whole thing worthwhile, it has to have some exclusivity, which is all down to the strength of material covered.

    Davids’ link (14) incisively shows that it’s even a struggle at the top of the academic ladder. If professors and PhDs are questioning the value of research posts, and undergrads question the value of bachelor degrees, where is there to go?

    (Where’s that golf course architecture prospectus?)

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  17. jtosco said,

    March 13, 2013 at 11:15 am

    How dare Mr Singh even mention the rejection of his complaints?
    A friend of mine wrote to him and Mr Ernst complaining, and showing proof of 1) The complete and absolute lack of evidence for some of their claims in “Trick and Treatment” 2) The obvious bias in THEIR REFERENCES when they just pick the bit in which they are interested. 3)The fact that some of the highlighted dangers are applicable to other modalities (i.e. massage) for which they claim there are no dangers.
    Mr Ernst never replied. Mr Singh omitted any reference to the subjects on points 1 and 4, and expressed clearly how they had done their “research”: googling the word and picking bits from COMMERCIAL websites. When pressed about his methods or claims, he refused to reply.
    Certainly the BBC has shown a better research methodology even if flawed, and much more decency and courtesy in replying.

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