Blogs vs mainstream media

May 31st, 2008 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, dore | 39 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
The Guardian,
Saturday May 31 2008

You will remember last week we were talking about the £2,000 Dore “miracle cure” for dyslexia, invented by paint entrepreneur Wynford Dore. It had been pushed unrelentingly in the media, despite multiple Ofcom and ITC judgements, and through personal endorsement by Kenny Logan, who, it turned out, was paid for at least some of his promotional work. This was despite the fact that the evidence base for the programme was spectacularly poor, although the relentlessly positive media coverage might be explicable, since Dore has been known to be heavy-handed with those who speak out.

This week the UK arm of Dore went into administration, and US branches are closing too. Parents are out of pocket, and employees are out of work, although Phil Hall PR is still representing Dore very effectively.

Could anyone have seen this coming? I make no sweeping claims about blogs and mainstream media – both have their roles – but in this case it seems the bloggers win on timeliness, accuracy, relevance, effort, ethics, and stupid names. Gimpyblog broke the news internationally of Dore going bust, following up a comment from a Dore employee. Back in January, he published a detailed analysis of the Dore accounts, flagging up serious concerns about their viability even then. The mainstream media continued to encourage parents to put their money into the “miracle cure”. He has also doggedly covered the scientific evidence, and is now blogging on other dyslexia “cures” that have started to circle like vultures, buying the word “Dore” on Google adwords.

Podblack covered the news of Dore going bust in Australia first and was offering practical rights advice to ex-employees and parents from the start.

Brainduck has been covering Dore’s research for a year now, and explaining the methodological flaws. She also dismantled the evidence when it was reported “the Dore Clinic has achieved massive successes while working with 1,000 patients suffering from the symptoms of high-functioning autism”. This claim was made, not in an academic journal, but in the Leamington Courier.

Jon from the blog Holfordwatch performed an amusing experiment in 2007 when Dorothy Bishop, professor of developmental neuropsychology in Oxford, published a paper compiling the concerns about Dore’s “research base” in the Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health. He contacted newspapers who had carried flattering coverage of Dore, including the Daily Mail, Manchester Evening News, Guardian, Times and Telegraph. “I really thought – by putting so much time into this – I would persuade at least some of the papers I spoke to to run the story. [But] the only response I’ve had is an ‘out of office’ autoreply.

“Of course, people talked to me when I phoned them, but they often seemed keen to get me off the phone asap; I could almost hear the boredom in some voices.” I’m not surprised. “Apparently,” says Jon, “‘miracle cure for children’ stories are news; ‘miracle cure lacks evidence of efficacy’ stories are not.”

He even rang Radio 4’s investigative consumer programme You and Yours. You will remember from last week’s column that they were puffing the Dore programme after it went bust in Australia. Before the puff was broadcast Jon got through to the You and Yours office to inform them of the problems. They did not find time to mention his tip, but they did manage to read out emails received during the programme. How very interactive.

Why do they bother? People often paint a black picture of life with specific learning difficulties. These bloggers are themselves living anecdotal evidence that SpLDs need not hold you back.

Jon from Holfordwatch has dyspraxia, and Gimpy has SpLDs and can barely write his own name, but both have (accredited) PhDs and academic research positions.

Brainduck meanwhile is a psychology undergraduate at York with dyspraxia. She’s going for postgraduate positions in psychology at the moment, and if she applies to you (her blog is on her CV) then I suggest you give her a job, because she has repeatedly demonstrated an ability to interpret published academic research of poor quality – and then communicate it in lay terms – better than almost any journalist in the international news media so far.

· Please send your bad science to bad.science@guardian.co.uk

[Lots of refs to come, sorry I’m in Hay lit fest tonight on slow internet, talking on Saturday (hello if you’re coming). According to my girlfriend this means I am now one of Britain’s leading C-list public intellectuals.]


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39 Responses



  1. stever said,

    May 31, 2008 at 8:19 am

    *buys beer for the bad science bloggers*

  2. brainduck said,

    May 31, 2008 at 8:28 am

    *regrets that she doesn’t drink beer, but enjoys chocolate*

    Ben, I am SO going to stick that quote on my CV! Finished my dissertation yesterday, get a mention like that in the national papers today – I am a Very Happy Duck, thank you!

  3. Ambrielle said,

    May 31, 2008 at 8:55 am

    Add my thanks to all the bloggers out there. Newspaper reporting of this kind of thing doesn’t seem to be as disgraceful in Australia as it is in the UK, but a keyword search of our main paper reveals not a single mention of the Dore programme (besides a sponsored advertising link!). I guess at least there’s not bad reporting!

  4. coracle said,

    May 31, 2008 at 9:43 am

    Great work guys. I’m feeling quite jealous now. What can I do to get a mention in the column? I think I’ve missed the Dore train.

  5. tregenza said,

    May 31, 2008 at 10:14 am

    Before Bad Science goes off the road of good science and into the land of anecdotal evidence in saying the SpLD need not hold people back, it is worth mentioning studies that show significant numbers of the homeless, people with mental health problems and the prison population have SpLDs.

    This is not to belittle Gimpy, Brainduck et al amazing academic success. As someone who left school at 16 because of my SpLDs I can only admire them. But the Brainduck’s of this world are the exception, not the rule.

    Inspiring kids with stories of successful dyslexics has to be balanced with the risk of playing down the problem. For every Brainduck there are many more for whom the educational system fails.

    Studies on illiteracy in prisons:
    www.myomancy.com/2005/07/the_curse_of_il

  6. manigen said,

    May 31, 2008 at 10:23 am

    Reading the blogs this last fortnight has been spectacular; about once a day one of the badscienceblogs crowd or podblack have produced another thoughtful, thorough post. Yes both blogs and mainstream media have their place, but the bloggers have won this one.

  7. brainduck said,

    May 31, 2008 at 10:38 am

    Tregenza, I completely agree. My younger brother is perhaps a case in point.

    What’s really annoyed me about the Dore publicity though is the implication that without Dore, people with SpLDs are doomed to fail. We aren’t, & increasingly with the availability of computers & other assistive technology, a lot of the things people struggle with can be worked around.

    As you’ll be aware, the power of expectation in EdPsych is tremendous – just telling teachers that a child is about to ‘bloom’ has massive impacts on their development. One of the things that scares me most about the Dore debacle is the way in which some parents have reacted by believing that their child’s ‘only hope’ is gone. There’s a lot of hope.

    FWIW, my dissertation happened to be carried out mostly on undergraduate dyslexics. There really wasn’t much difference in measures which actually looked at reading, writing and spelling, although on more abstruse measures of factors thought to underlie dyslexia there was a massive difference between the groups – people were still ‘dyslexic’, just that they were able to read, write & spell on a par with peers.

  8. JQH said,

    May 31, 2008 at 5:17 pm

    So now exposure of dodgy research is an attempt to destabilise Dore? A pity mainstream media never ran with the bloggers, especially Gimpy’s exposure of the dodgy finances. Not only is Dodgy Finances Behind “Miracle” Cure” a headline made in tabloid heaven but if it had been written back in January, a number of parents would have seen it and refrained from writing cheques to Dore.

    Dore has behaved like a CAM fantasy Big Pharma megacorp; hardselling badly tested products, paying for endorsements and intimidating critics.

  9. mjrobbins said,

    May 31, 2008 at 5:23 pm

    You guys get far too carried away with this “OMG Blogs are amazing” business.

    Main stream media gets, what, 20,000,000 visitors a day online in the U.K., the best blogs are lucky to get 2,000. Until blogs get a big audience together, then I’m sorry but *pfft* irrelevent.

    And I say that as a blogger myself :(

  10. evidencebasedeating said,

    May 31, 2008 at 8:41 pm

    Bravo Brainduck

  11. JQH said,

    May 31, 2008 at 10:21 pm

    You guys get far to carried away with this “OMG blogs are amazing” business

    What I’m amazed by is the fact that amateur bloggers beat professional journalist to the scoop by several months.

    I think we’re all aware about how many more hits mainstream media gets. Which is why its a great pity they never took a close look at Dore and just regurgitated Dore’s paid-for testimonials.

  12. le canard noir said,

    May 31, 2008 at 11:07 pm

    mjrobbins – yes, newspapers may sell many times more copies than a blog receives visitors in a day, but many of the blogs mentioned here feature much higher up google rankings in searches than the newspaper articles. Blogs’ influence can be high for those who research the subject.

    That newspapers ignore such sources and just spew out verbatim press releases from suspect companies is the thing that grates. Lazy journalism is what we have to expect these days.

    Declaration of Interests:
    I am a blogger who everyone ignores.

  13. pv said,

    May 31, 2008 at 11:39 pm

    Irrespective of how many hits the blogs get each day and how many “readers” mainstream press get (do oglers of tits and bums count as readers?), the badscience blogs have done a more than passably good job on exposing the Dore delusion while the mainstream press have done a spectacularly sychophantic, uncritical job.
    Never mind what Wynford Dore has to say to his now former employees, or the people who have recently signed up and received nothing. What do the British press have to say to them?
    I have little doubt some of them will say that Dore deceived them, and they will complain about it. I also know that some of the easiest people to deceive are those who make it their business to deceive, because they are basically lazy and arrogant.

    Well done badscience bloggers.

  14. mjrobbins said,

    May 31, 2008 at 11:59 pm

    @PV:

    It’s precisely your attitude I have a problem with though. Apparently you think the job is done and we should all be happy because we all knew it was bollocks before the media did. Well whoopy-doo with a cherry on top for us and our intellects, but shouldn’t we be trying to club together to figure out ways of getting these facts out to a significant audience?

  15. mjrobbins said,

    June 1, 2008 at 12:03 am

    Just to clarify the above, I don’t deny that the science editors are ridiculously inept when it comes to these matters, but it’s one thing to bitch, quite another to achieve some kind of result. The whole attitude of Ben’s post implies that somehow the blogging community has achieved some great thing – it hasn’t, we all blog about bogus treatments on a regular basis. A real achievement would be to get a wider audience to listen…

  16. stever said,

    June 1, 2008 at 12:49 am

    mr jobbins. This blog gets 30,000 hits a day.

    Increasingly blog analysis makes its way into the ‘mainstream media’ anyway – as this weeks column demonstrates. Media is changing. Watch and learn.

  17. Dudley said,

    June 1, 2008 at 8:47 am

    Full kudos to some brave campaigners, and it certainly validates their concerns. But what effect have the bloggers had?

    It seems to me that the score is mainstream media 1 (for effectively advertising Dore), bloggers 0. Dore closed because it couldn’t secure governmental financial backing, and its business model was not robust. Is there any evidence that the bloggers’ revelations affected that process in any way?

    I do think it’s important to add the necessary caveat to the very strong pro-blogger message that this column gives out quite frequently. Similarly dedicated (and in many cases both relentless and highly intelligent) bloggers are out there doing work on “9/11 Truth”, alien conspiracies and the like. Without the filter of a mainstream media outlet, there is no way of telling the good honest researcher and blogger from the liar and fantasist like Mike Ruppert who asserts theories and then cherry-picks the evidence to support them.

  18. coracle said,

    June 1, 2008 at 9:23 am

    I think perhaps some people may be missing the point a little. I don’t think that anyone is claiming to have had an effect in the collapse of Dore, but that bloggers were accurate whereas the MSM provided fluff pieces in a promotional manner.

    Here’s what Ben claimed for blogs:
    but in this case it seems the bloggers win on timeliness, accuracy, relevance, effort, ethics, and stupid names.

    Separately, Dudley says: “Without the filter of a mainstream media outlet, there is no way of telling the good honest researcher and blogger from the liar and fantasist

    Unfortunately, I don’t think that the msm has acted as an effective filter for removing dishonesty. The Denis Campbell/MMR rot demonstrated that. I will grant that not all bloggers are honest or truthful, but I don’t think the msm is an effective means of determining between the honest and dishonest.

  19. mrmuz said,

    June 1, 2008 at 10:14 am

    Surely the point is that big media would happily devote column inches to loosely paraphrased PR press releases about the claims but not go further than that, even when the emperor was, it is alledged, at least an occasional naturist right from the start.
    Yes they got there in the end and provided good summaries of the situation (sometimes). But when the story broke they were falling all over themselves to be first to bring the good news (a la the pixie dust story). A torrent of rushing fools, and provided there’s enough space between said rushing and the reveal of said foolishness no repercussions whatever.
    Where’s the effective filtration there?

  20. jodyaberdein said,

    June 1, 2008 at 1:34 pm

    RE: 19

    You don’t need to delve into thousands of blogs. All that is required is a taste for reasoned argument and the engaging of your brain. The reason that the main stream media fail is because almost uniformly on science issues there is the presumption that the readership is too ignorant to understand a proper scientific argument, and that they should be protected from all that horrible complexity and just fed a nice simple soundbite. Give me a blog any day.

  21. jodyaberdein said,

    June 1, 2008 at 1:35 pm

    oops that should be Re: 18

  22. evidencebasedeating said,

    June 1, 2008 at 9:14 pm

    Dudley says:
    “what’s the effective alternative?”

    well, journo’s who do a quick googlesearch when a juicy piece of promo material plonks itself in their inbox. And when they find some controversy ring an expert in the field for an ‘expert opinion’ that goes beyond their knowledge (and if its medical, there’s absolutely no way that they can’t access the creme de la creme of London hospital consultants to give opinion). Thus resulting in a more even-handed article, rather than a sycophantic MoS approach

  23. pv said,

    June 1, 2008 at 10:27 pm

    Dudley, the point is that Dore’s financial predicament was such that no-one should have been signing up for anything. Dore’s financial status wasn’t flagged in the press, rather they continued to praise it to the skies (in spite of almost no evidence to support it) and thereby encourage people to part with their money. The badscience bloggers who covered Dore did all those things tye mainstream press did not.
    You are right that the majority of people rely on the press (partly out of no idea what else to do, I would suggest), and the press people know it. It’s a valid question therefore to ask why the press chose to mislead the public over Dore – both on the evidence (lack thereof) and the parlous state of the finances. If it was possible for a few bloggers to do it, why not the press with all the resources at their disposal?

  24. Robert Carnegie said,

    June 2, 2008 at 2:59 am

    I’m reminded a bit of [The Daily Show with Jon Stewart] playing tape of a U.S. financial journalist on TV apparently insisting Bear Sterns bank was sound a few days before it kind of went bust or something, at least a lot of money vanished, although I may have missed the [Daily Show] where Jon told the audience to get out while they can. They just mocked the other guy after it happened. But it did happen.

    I take it that is the issue.

    For those in fact reading Bad Science without buying [The Guardian] (I presume that -is- allowed), it appears that SpLDs means “specific learning difficulties” and is not to do with the Mormons after all – is that correct?

  25. Teek said,

    June 2, 2008 at 9:07 am

    bravo and hurrah to all the bloggers that have covered the Dore debacle as it unfolded – and to Ben for highlighting their efforts, albeit primarily through the mainstream media… ;-)

    seriously though folks, despite the best efforts of uncritical, unthinking and sometimes downright irresponsible ‘journalists’ (half of whom should be stripped of the right to call themselves that…), the idiocy of the Dore miracle cure has been exposed enough to send them under – let’s hope this a precedent, a warning to other woo-mongering shysters to realise that t’internet will out them and hit them where it hurts the most – their pockets…

  26. Ben Goldacre said,

    June 2, 2008 at 11:08 am

    bit mystified by some of this discussion. i havent ever suggested and wouldnt ever suggest for one minute (it would be madness) that blogs have a bigger readersip or more influence than mainstream media, i just said that in this case they wrote about dore more accurately and earlier than MSM by a very long margin.

  27. brainduck said,

    June 2, 2008 at 1:55 pm

    igb: ‘How would I distinguish between dyslexia sufferers and non-dyslexia sufferers when constructing a trial of a dyslexia treatment? How would I measure outcomes, avoiding proxies?’

    Unfortunately this sort of thing is one of the biggest problems in the research – that dyslexia etc is hard to define, particularly as your model of dyslexia affects your definition & the diagnostic tests you use. Outcomes are also tricky to measure – performance on real-world tests like GCSEs is affected by lots of things not just your intervention, and are often difficult to interpret & don’t provide much info. More specific testing runs the risk that you are just looking for something that is theoretically important but practically irrelevant, or that only matters if you assume your view of dyslexia is correct.
    That’s what makes the field so much fun.

    On blogs – yep, there’s not much point to being right if no-one is listening. I *hope* I persuaded a few parents to re-read what they were being told, but I doubt it. AFIAK the point is more that the MSM really, really wouldn’t have had to try hard to find this stuff out. Just reading the abstract of one of the only two papers on Dore to appear in the peer-reviewed literature would have been enough to suggest things were more complicated than a ‘miracle':
    ‘Further research is needed to determine the underlying reasons for the benefits. Possible (and potentially synergistic) explanations include: improved cerebellar function (neural level); improved learning ability and/or attentional ability (cognitive level); improved self-esteem and self-efficacy (affective level); and improved parental/familial support (social level).’
    www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17557685
    I’m an undergrad, I shouldn’t be able to pull research apart this easily, it’s got GCSE-level mistakes about a basic ‘fair test’ right through it. Gimpy AFAIK doesn’t have any specialist accountancy-type skills, but saw the collapse coming from 2005/6 publically available abbreviated accounts. The thing is, none of what we did was that clever or difficult or complicated. It’s just disappointing that none of the MSM bothered to do even a basic check first before praising Dore to the skies.

    Thanks for the encouragement!

    Off-topic ramble: rather than chocolate, please bung these people something: www.friendsofantarauk.org

    We support a psych hospital nr Kolkata, India, & recently raised the funds to build the only children’s inpatient psych ward accessible to most of the 80M people in West Bengal. Next up is a maternal & child health programme for the local villages (& yes, that does include vaccines).
    Mental health overseas is a difficult one to raise funds for, it’s ~14% of the Global Burden of Disease (DALYS), but only ~1% of global health expenditure.
    More of my ranting on the topic here: brainduck.wordpress.com/2008/04/03/mental-health-poverty-in-the-developing-world/
    Thank you!

  28. mjs said,

    June 3, 2008 at 5:25 am

    congrats to Gimpy, Brainduck, and Podblack. :)

    anyone with a journalistic instinct (or appreciation for such) knows that scooping the large news outlets is a big deal, especially when you make them look foolish. the celebration is rightly due for quality of reporting. quantity of readers is rather beside the issue.

    …though i imagine that if anyone sends more eyeballs their way, perhaps by *ahem* a mention in a widely read column on similar topics *cough* these bloggers would not complain.
    ;)

  29. DrSpaceman said,

    June 3, 2008 at 8:29 pm

    And what a super journalist I will be with paragraphing like that.

  30. Ben Goldacre said,

    June 3, 2008 at 8:46 pm

    DrSpaceman/

    the answer is in your own hands: accept that you will spend more time over your copy than some other people, produce less material in a week, and so make less money.

  31. DrSpaceman said,

    June 3, 2008 at 11:06 pm

    Christ, I wish it worked like that. Maybe once I can freelance on a living wage, or even get a staff job as a specialist correspondent that’ll be an option, but at entry level you churn out what you’re told. Nobody should be making excuses for bad journalism, but there’s a reason it exists.

    This is a particularly depressing read:

    www.unet.univie.ac.at/~a9807630/STEP6SS2006/Franklin.pdf

    To be honest, your column is one of a collection of my favourites that has repeatedly kept me from packing it all in. So thanks!

  32. Ben Goldacre said,

    June 3, 2008 at 11:29 pm

    v kind but i’m perfectly likely to cock things up myself too. who are the others? i like johann hari, he does original research for his columns instead of boring on with opinions. i genuinely don’t understand the point of opinion columns. ooh and although i disagree with him hugely, i like oliver kamm for the same reasons. and also because he can call someone a cock-end using posh words better than anyone i know.

  33. DrSpaceman said,

    June 4, 2008 at 12:12 am

    Sorry, you’re an inspiration, you’re just going to have to live with that.

    The first time I read Johann Hari’s column I obsessed over him for about a month. The novelty of someone writing a column that wasn’t vomit-inducingly self indulgent was a little too much for me to handle. So yes, he’s another key favourite. Also keep my spirits up with a bit of Armando Iannucci, Janet Street Porter (I think I’m constantly entertained by how little her writing annoys me despite the fact that I presume it will), Charlie Beckett does a good blog on the media and Anna Pickard makes me laugh. Oh and Charlie Brooker of course – who doesn’t love the grumpbag?

    I’ve got too short an attention span for a regular dose of Oliver Kamm. Ooh that almost rhymed!

  34. diohdan said,

    June 4, 2008 at 2:01 am

    The Prevention of Ignorance

    Historically, information sources provided to American citizens were limited due to the few methods available to the public. And also this information was subject to being filtered and, in some cases, delayed. This occurred for a number of reasons, which included political ones.
    Now, and with great elation, there is the internet.
    Soon after the advent of the internet, web logs were created, that are termed ‘blogs’. At that time, about a decade ago, the blogs were referred to as personal journals or diaries visible on line. As time passed, blogs became a media medium, and blog communities evolved on topics that often were not addressed in mainstream media. In addition, blogs provide immediate contributions by others instead of the cumbersomeness of opinion and editorial pieces historically and not always presented in such media forms as newspapers. The authors of blogs vary as far as their backgrounds and intent of what they present are, just as with other media forms. Furthermore, they are not exonerated from the legalities of what is written, such as cases of libel. While we can presume that they like to write, they may not be quality writers.
    Yet presently, blogs have become quite a driving force for those with objectives often opposed by others, and are a threat to big business and politics both who presently monitor the progress and content of blogs that provide instant information on events, which might affect their image and activities not yet exposed.
    This includes information released from whistleblowers
    While one disadvantage of blogs is the potential lack of reliability, blogs however do allow the posting of documents that typically are not created for view of others besides perhaps a select few. For example, blogger Dr. Peter Rost, a whistleblower himself, not long ago posted a newsletter on his blog site given to him by pharmaceutical maker AstraZeneca employees who called themselves the ‘AZ Group of Seven’ to bring to the attention to others the illegal activity of off-label promotion of one of their cancer drugs. Yet this is not what caught the attention of so many with all of the content of this newsletter. It was instead a comment stated by former regional AZ manager Mike Zubalagga, who in this newsletter referred to doctors’ offices as ‘buckets of money’. Again, the statement was authentic and in writing in this newsletter.
    Mr. Zubalagga was fired the next day due to this comment. His manager resigned soon afterwards.
    And there have been other whistleblower blog cases in addition to this one, so blogs have become a very powerful and threatening medium of information release that does not allow others to prevent such releases. This is true freedom of information, free of alteration or omission. One step closer to social utopia.
    Yet again, the information on these blogs should not be taken as absolute truth without proof to verify claims that may be made. Of course, documents that are authentic are in fact proof, as illustrated with the above example. And this, in my opinion, is the blog’s greatest value, combined with the comments on blogs from the growing number of readers who are allowed to contribute to the subject matter so quickly, which fuels the objectives of the blogs.
    Because we, the public, have a right to know what we are entitled to know and what we want to know. This is especially true if the information could potentially be adverse to our well-being.

    “Information is the seed of an idea, and only grows when it’s watered.” — Heinz V. Berger

    Dan Abshear

  35. pv said,

    June 5, 2008 at 5:11 pm

    Dr Aust said,
    June 5, 2008 at 3:53 pm

    The last time we were discussing this sort of thing over on Dr Crippen’s blog (in the context of abortion misinformation, Mad Nad Dorries and Joanna Jepson, as I recall) a real journalist opined that it was also largely to do with the “slant” that the editor(s) told the journalist(s)to put on stories – I guess this also relates to the perception of “what sells”.

    I think this is largely true. There are certain considerations discussed every day at national press editorial meetings – news priority, slant/spin and, if there’s a story about someone rich and famous, can they afford to take legal action.
    It always struck me as particularly ironic when the press and public started to complain about political spin, when the biggest perpetrators were, and always have been, the press. Spin is what they do, and it’s all geared to (undemocratic) influence and sales. The public are regularly taken for fools and suckers by the gentlemen and women of the press.

  36. NelC said,

    June 6, 2008 at 10:59 pm

    OT, but just saw you, Ben, at Cheltenham Science Festival, and it’s been the best talk of the festival so far (of those I’ve seen). V. entertaining and chock full of information, too much for my tiny brain or this margin….

    Is that stuff going to be in your book?

    PS, I was the one shouting “Stats!”

  37. NelC said,

    June 8, 2008 at 12:44 am

    Has Ben done HIGNFY yet? He’d be a natural, if only you could guarantee a science story for that week.

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