Right. What science issue shall we ask parliament to talk about?

February 12th, 2009 by Ben Goldacre in bad science | 93 Comments »

Select committees are almost the only place in parliament where MPs actually do what you’d naively hope they do all the time: sit down, hear a lot of evidence on an important issue, and then have a good hard think about it. The Science and Technology committee in particular have produced some fascinating and readable documents over the years. The report on the abortion act offered transparent, evidence based policy advice, package up in a very good piece of accessible popular science writing. (It also ended with a memorable tantrum from some christians). The House of Lords equivalent, meanwhile, did a very good piece of work on the public understanding of science in 2000, during the aftermath of GM and BSE.

Now SciTech has merged into DIUS, and they are asking us, which means you and me, “the public”, for topics that deserve a good hard think. We have until Friday 27th February to come up with something good, and I thought you might have some interesting ideas?

Off the top of my head, while I wait for the toilet to become free, here are a few quick thoughts:

  • the inappropriateness of teaching quackery badly in university science degrees (far more important than consumers getting “ripped off” for pills, imho);
  • the responsibility for accuracy in the media with regards to science, its impact on health risk behaviour, and most interestingly, the practicalities of regulation;
  • the pharmaceutical industry’s ugly habit of hiding unflattering data;
  • ways of improving the access that doctors and patients have to good quality summaries of clinical evidence;
  • consent and regulatory issues around the use of anonymised health records in clinical research;
  • given that we struggle to engage children with science, while half of all science coverage is health, and people are clearly very engaged in these issues around risk: should evidence based medicine, basic epidemiology and trial design, be taught in schools?

I’m sure you’ll have more, post them below, send them in to the committee directly (maybe copy us in the comments for archive), or just hassle me to write up your half formed ideas into a nice letter for you (and don’t forget to ask your MP to sign this Early Day Motion on MMR and the media, it only takes five minutes).

INNOVATION, UNIVERSITIES, SCIENCE & SKILLS

Select Committee Announcement

Committee Office, House of Commons, 7 Millbank, London SW1P 3JA

Tel. No. 020 7219 2794 Fax. No. 020 7219 0896 Email: iuscomm@parliament.uk

11 February 2009

No. 15 (08-09)

Subjects for scrutiny: have your say

The House of Commons Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee is issuing an open call for topics suitable for an oral evidence hearing in Westminster in April or May this year. The Committee – which includes members from the former Education and Skills Committee and the Science and Technology Committee – has a remit to look at all matters within the responsibility of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills. Topics must be within this remit and should also:

– not already be under examination by the Committee as part of another inquiry (see the Committee’s website for details of current work)

– be capable of being covered in two hours of oral evidence, with two panels of witnesses (the second panel normally being Ministers or officials, no more than four witnesses on any panel)

– be timely

– not relate to individual cases/any matters before the Courts or Tribunals.

Please send us, in a total of 750 words or less:

(1) Your suggested topic

(2) Why it is timely to hold a meeting in April or May

(3) What value you think a hearing would add

(4) Your suggested witnesses.

You should also declare any interests you have in making the suggestion.

Please email your suggestions to iuscomm@parliament.uk by Friday 27 February.


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93 Responses



  1. davecole said,

    February 12, 2009 at 12:45 pm

    I think the third point – hiding data – is the most important. Something along the lines of compelling people to announce when they’re starting a study and then to produce the results.

    I’d be tempted to say that part of the science curriculum should be something about testing and experimentation, but this probably does not fall under this committee’s remit.

    xD.

  2. cat said,

    February 12, 2009 at 1:03 pm

    “■the inappropriateness of teaching quackery badly in university science degrees (far more important than consumers getting “ripped off” for pills, imho);”

    imho, this is far less important than allowing the far greater number of people who may never do a degree in science or possibly anything else to leave school without a basic grounding in the scientific method, and the significance of the randomized double blind trial. Cure that problem, and no-one will be putting their hands up for quackery at university, and you’ll have a population far less susceptible to the rip-offs.

    It’s too damn late when you have an 18-year-old thinking that a degree in homeopathy is the beginning of a fantastic career path, and they’ll probably do well at it because they’re Aries.

  3. russ3llr said,

    February 12, 2009 at 1:09 pm

    How about the national register of all trials (which you’ve referred to before), where everybody has to submit what they’re doing in advance and return a brief summary on completion, so they can’t conveniently forget about negative results?

    That would go some way towards combatting publication bias.

  4. Ben Goldacre said,

    February 12, 2009 at 1:09 pm

    absolutely, i agree, already a great suggestion: “should evidence based medicine, basic epidemiology and trial design, be taught in schools?” so important, given that half of all science coverage in the media is health, and people worry about how to make science engaging, epi is clearly the answer, it’s what people are plainly already interested in. fits in with issues around how to manage irresponsible reporting without inappropriate repressive legislation too. great stuff. i’ll pop it on the list above.

  5. ethel said,

    February 12, 2009 at 1:19 pm

    I agree with Cat. Non-scientists need to be equipped with an understanding of scientific method while at school

  6. Matt Hudson said,

    February 12, 2009 at 1:27 pm

    I believe clinicaltrials.gov in the US gives a pretty good look at what trials are running

  7. uksceptic said,

    February 12, 2009 at 1:27 pm

    Completely agree with Cat. Giving children a grounding in the scientific method and the tools with which to think critically is invaluble.

    Maybe Demon-Haunted World should be required reading!

  8. kerledan said,

    February 12, 2009 at 1:33 pm

    ‘Education, education, education’ without a doubt, a significant boost to not just science but the teaching of subjects with the evidence as the starting point. Including understanding statistics better (something I really wish I’d had more of at school nowadays).

    Education beyond school too..

    In history, for example, there’s plenty of evidence, or absence of evidence (room for different interpretations of course) but people like Gavin Menzies ‘1434: The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance’ (NOT recommended!) can get away with writing books like that and posing as history because people don’t have the basic approach from their schooling to ask ‘where’s the evidence, the hard evidence.’ Or ‘there isn’t a shred of evidence’……

  9. blog.anothergeek.biz said,

    February 12, 2009 at 1:36 pm

    Could not agree more. A huge amount of problems would disappear if the general public had an understanding of what science is as distinct from what it has discovered.

    We need a compulsory educational qualification in Science that covers Falsifiability, Null Hypothesises, Degrees of Certainty and Peer Review.

    The modern world is saturated with information. But anybody without a grasp of these concepts is at a sever disadvantage in our society whenever they need to use this information.

  10. kinginsan said,

    February 12, 2009 at 1:39 pm

    Teach in schools that science is a self-correcting process rather than a collection of facts. Evidence is critical, but I think that teaching that there are standards of evidence is also extremely important. This will help people to understand the difference between a personal anecdote and a large-scale randomized controlled trial.

  11. vertigo93 said,

    February 12, 2009 at 1:40 pm

    “How about the national register of all trials (which you’ve referred to before), where everybody has to submit what they’re doing in advance and return a brief summary on completion, so they can’t conveniently forget about negative results?

    That would go some way towards combatting publication bias.”

    I think that’s absolutely a fair point Russ3llr, but deep down all I can see is negative results being buried under the criteria of ‘commercial sensitivity’.

    For me it’s about the teaching of science at school and in Further/higher education. I wish I’d been taught better science at school. I don’t think it would have changed my career path (I’m a damnable humanities graduate. Worse still I work in the media) but I’d have liked a better understanding of all the principles of evidence based study before I picked up bad Science. Although long before tha, even I recognized the benefits (and need) of giving my daughter the MMR jab.

    Part of me would love to see Parliament debate the results of poor and uninformed media coverage of science in general and MMR in particular, but I don’t know if there’s anything actionable beyond a stern finger-wagging at the Barnets of this world.

  12. Teek said,

    February 12, 2009 at 1:40 pm

    I like the addition of EBM in schools – the nat curriculum is full of (pardon the French) wanky ‘how science works’ stuff, but very little of how, err, science actually works – basically Ben’s book and the Ernst/Singh tome should be set texts!

    btw democracy works – I emailed my MP Eleanor Laign yesterday to sign the EDM, she has done…!

  13. chatsubo said,

    February 12, 2009 at 1:41 pm

    totally agree with the issue about hiding unflattering data.

    Researchers should not have to resort to using Freedom of Information legislation to carry out meta-analysis.

    Also agree with how EBM should be taught at an early age – the best thing about it is how it is cross-curriculum – covering biology, mathematics, and to a certain extent, philosophy.

    As a hack on the NHS Choices website, one topic I am interested in, is the great paradox of preventative medicine – that is, people most in need of health advice are the people most likely not to seek it – how can we reach these people and make effective interventions in their lives.

    And this is probably outside the scope of the committee, but a discussion about why the f*** homeopathy is available on the NHS when there is no clinical evidence for its effectiveness, would be nice.

  14. jonnyroberts said,

    February 12, 2009 at 1:42 pm

    “should evidence based medicine, basic epidemiology and trial design, be taught in schools?” would be a great question for the select committee to consider but are you sure it is part of their remit?

    I’m not certain, but from the website it looks as if they are only responsible for further/higher education as opposed to secondary education.

    It would however come under the remit of the ‘Children, Schools and Families Committee’.

    Links:

    Innovation….: www.parliament.uk/parliamentary_committees/ius.cfm

    Children….:
    www.parliament.uk/csf/

  15. vertigo93 said,

    February 12, 2009 at 1:44 pm

    “btw democracy works – I emailed my MP Eleanor Laign yesterday to sign the EDM, she has done…!”

    My MP, Paul Burstall, hasn’t. V disappointing, though I guess there’s still time. A second email might come across as badgering though!

  16. Lave said,

    February 12, 2009 at 1:46 pm

    Public access to all public funded science, not get stuck behind journal paywalls to be filtered (badly) by journalists.

  17. porcospino said,

    February 12, 2009 at 1:55 pm

    It’s probably a bit churlish of me to say that teaching epidemiology in schools gives too much weight to the health sciences, considering a) you’re a medic, and b) that “half of all science coverage … is health”. But I’ll do it anyway.

    Truism: the scientific method is not widely undertsood because our schools ask kids to specialise too early, and the kids overwhemingly prefer the Humanities.

    David Miliband took a close look at the International Bac when he was at DfES, and everyone started thinking “he’s going to do it!” Then he got moved to DEFRA and that was the end of that.

    I’ve always liked the look of UCL’s BSc in Human Sciences, a kind of PPE for science. Can we persuade the government to introduce a Tertiary-level equivalent?

  18. JohnK said,

    February 12, 2009 at 1:55 pm

    #14 you beat me to it.

    Ethics Committees seem to be getting a bit too influential – their forms take weeks to fill in and they sometimes prevent important work from taking place, raising an ironic reversal of their intended function, pointed out before on this blog.

    Related to this, the growing power of centralised administration in universities (entertainingly laid bare by DC) has scientists being sent on 2 weeks a year of “skills training” courses at my place of work. To paraphrase DC, perhaps they can help me out with this residual gains analysis I’m getting my head round. Or pehaps they could be persuaded to clear off back to whatever corporate hellhole they came from and leave us to get on with it.

  19. JohnK said,

    February 12, 2009 at 1:58 pm

    Also, how about all publicly funded research required to be published with a one page open-access summary in plain english written by the authors explaining the work to a lay audience. All media reports required to carry a url to this material.

  20. La G said,

    February 12, 2009 at 1:59 pm

    It wouldn’t be difficult in GCSE Science to make explicit that often what you are doing is an experiment, and to develop from there a basic understanding of the scientific method. Young people leave school with a certain fluency in academic essay writing in the arts and social science, but without the first clue how to weigh up scientific evidence or write or read a report. I’m not advocating all 15 year olds trying to learn statistics, but a grounding in placebos, bias, regression to the mean etc. – all simple concepts when explained with practical examples – would at the very least protect people from the practitioners of woo.

  21. twaza said,

    February 12, 2009 at 2:00 pm

    Here is a suggestion for you Ben:

    The select committee should look at the relationship between NICE and the MHRA. NICE seems to be constrained by the marketing licence for drugs. Because the details of the license are drafted by drug companies, Big Pharma can exploit this to create market segments for essentially similar drugs and increase their markup on costs.

    NICE should be able to make recommendations on the basis of the evidence whatever the marketing licence says. Or, the MHRA and NICE should cooperate to change the license when this is warranted by the evidence.

  22. cat said,

    February 12, 2009 at 2:05 pm

    12.jonnyroberts said,

    “I’m not certain, but from the website it looks as if they are only responsible for further/higher education as opposed to secondary education.”

    But further education institutions choose their students, do they not? They presumably could be required to demand a certain level of scientific literacy of the students they take on, which would mean a knock-on effect on secondary education?

    On an utterly unrelated subject, I should clearly post more often in the middle of the night, half-pissed and ignoring my guests. To clarify, this is less disgraceful than it sounds; I’m in Australia. Everyone’s always pissed here:)

  23. P.W.Mitchell said,

    February 12, 2009 at 2:19 pm

    I think it would make a big difference if science in schools was centred on an understanding of the scientific method rather than the teaching of facts which have been established by science. Imagine if we lived in a country in which people’s first response on being told a fact was to ask, “How do you know that?”.

  24. AndyD said,

    February 12, 2009 at 2:21 pm

    “the inappropriateness of teaching quackery badly in university science degrees”

    I assume you mean “teaching quackery at all”, unless there is a way it can be taught “non-badly”?

    Do you try and chop the tree down at its base or do you settle for pruning its spreading branches?

    The former has been covered above. For the latter, find ways to restrict the sale of the final product. Eg: Do pharmacies sell CAM in UK? Can that be fixed through licensing or something?

    I realise this is a medical blog but if the question is about science, it may be wise to think outside of the health industry.

    Teaching Critical Thinking might be a start and ensure our long list of pseudo-scientific and metaphysical bug bears are on the curriculum.

  25. blink said,

    February 12, 2009 at 2:21 pm

    Put “Bad Science” or something suitable for GCSE level with similar content on the syllabus!

  26. Cannonball Jones said,

    February 12, 2009 at 2:25 pm

    My request would be to insert a course on critical thinking, rationalism, skepticism and the scientific method on the secondary school curriculum. It doesn’t have to be part of a science class and indeed may benefit from being taught elsewhere. In Scotland the ideal candidate would be in RMPE although I would say that as I plan to teach it some time soon :p

    While we’re at it, let’s make it illegal for journalists to report on any science-related story without possessing some kind of science qualification…

  27. blink said,

    February 12, 2009 at 2:54 pm

    What about making the same laws for press releases as for advertising?

    If you can’t say vitamin E will cure all your ills on the box of pills or on an advert, why can you issue a press release saying this?

  28. EmilyF said,

    February 12, 2009 at 3:12 pm

    Erm…on the general theme of ‘make schools teach…’

    Nat Curric KS1 targets begin with: 1. Pupils should be taught that it is important to collect evidence by making observations and measurements when trying to answer a question.

    and include: ask questions [for example, 'How?', 'Why?', 'What will happen if ... ?'] and decide how they might find answers to them; recognise when a test or comparison is unfair;

    ending with: review their work and explain what they did to others.

    At KS2 these are expanded to specify: that it is important to test ideas using evidence from observation and measurement.; check observations and measurements by repeating them where appropriate; review their work and the work of others and describe its significance and limitations.

    For a C at GCSE (level 6): Pupils identify an appropriate approach in investigatory work, selecting and using sources of information, scientific knowledge and understanding. They select and use methods to collect adequate data for the task, measuring with precision, using instruments with finescale divisions, and identify the need to repeat measurements and observations. They recognise a range of familiar risks and take action to control them. They record data and features effectively, choosing scales for graphs and diagrams. They analyse findings to draw conclusions that are consistent with the evidence and use scientific knowledge and understanding to explain them and account for any inconsistencies in the evidence. They manipulate numerical data to make valid comparisons and draw valid conclusions. They communicate qualitative and quantitative data effectively, using scientific conventions and terminology. They evaluate evidence, making reasoned suggestions about how their working methods could be improved.

    But how many Primary and Secondary teachers understand your subject any better than mine (music – primary teachers seem to be terrified of it for some reason and NO training is provided at teacher school).

    Did you know that only teachers under 30 are legally required to have even a C at ‘Science’ GCSE?

    We complain about the ignorance of journalists, and goodness knows it’s harmful, but the very same humanities graduates are teaching in our schools, preparing new generations of adults too scientifically naive too see through the silliness of our naional press.

    Speaking of which, I have to go collect my (fully immunised) children about now…

    Searching ‘national curriculum science’ will bring up the originals of my quotes above – the whole set of standards are hosted online for accessibility.

  29. damiendixon said,

    February 12, 2009 at 3:36 pm

    As an undergraduate pursuing a final year dissertation project related to the public understanding of science, I am kind of torn between the two.

    My vote would swing more towards the problems related to the way the media portrays science.

    I would prefer this because it works from the ground up – focusing simply on university level material isn’t attacking the root cause. If the public doesn’t support the nonsense, the universities are not going to offer it up for fear of ridicule (or maybe not).

    Thanks
    Damien

  30. blog.anothergeek.biz said,

    February 12, 2009 at 3:55 pm

    I believe that poor education is more of a problem than the media portrayal of science.

    The media would not dismiss evolution as “only a theory” if it knew that ita audience would hear this as “an explanation still supported by the facts even after hundreds of years”.

    Nor would they attept to portray Andrew Wakefield as the victim of a witch hunt if their audience was familliar with the fact ripping research papers to peices is the entirely normal and correct way of dealing with them.

    Nor would they stage debates between exteme opinions if their audience understood the difference between opionions and facts.

  31. drunkenoaf said,

    February 12, 2009 at 4:17 pm

    The robustness of the government’s defence of their public health policy.

    For example, MMR or the gardasil vaccine.

    If certain special interest groups (e.g. homeopaths, journalists that love a conspiracy theory, the roman catholic church) really want to dick about with policies proven to prevent disability and death, then they should be made accountable for the disabilities and deaths caused, in a manner similar to sanctions taken against corporations.

    Some numbercrunching should be performed that includes; target audience, media/medium’s influence, number of vaccines missed, current disease prevalence– to calculate the likely numbers of deaths, and disabilities attributable to each group. Perform worst-case, best-case and most-likely scenarios, and publish the number of deaths as natural frequencies and illustrate accordingly.

  32. penglish said,

    February 12, 2009 at 4:21 pm

    It would be great to see EBM etc being taught in schools.

    Unfortunately I have concerns about the quality. One of my children had to answer a question on MMR as part of a General Studies AS (I think that’s what it was). He gave an excellent answer (at least, I think it was, from what he told me); and got very poor marks because he’d valued science too highly as compared to ignorant opinion.

    I have heard other examples of a complete failure to teach proper science in schools; and with many syllabuses being dumbed down terribly (musn’t frighten the younsters with anything tricky), I have little faith that this could be done properly.

  33. tom-p said,

    February 12, 2009 at 4:25 pm

    Maybe looking into the abuse of the degree title BSc.

    Looking into making Dr a protected term, ata least in the field of health, like in Germany (TAPL could be a witness).

    OfQuack. Suggested witnesses: Le Canard Noir, David Colqhun (although if htere’s a time limit then maybe not), gimpy and Goldacre.

    A requirement to publish findings from all EudraCT registered studies (i.e. interventional clinical trials on humans) conducted in the UK. The government could fund PLOS to set up an online journal of negative or not very interesting results, so that everything is guaranteed proper peer-review.
    Actually, that last one shouldn’t be in a hearing, it should just be enacted as government policy. It wouldn’t cost much and would be an invaluable tool to advance our knowledge.

  34. penglish said,

    February 12, 2009 at 4:31 pm

    Responding to 31. drunkenoaf.

    See www.ganfyd.org/index.php?title=Joint_Committee_on_Vaccination_and_Immunisation

    Decision-making about vaccination has improved enormously. Until a few years ago the government’s advisory body on vaccination, the JCVI, met in secret. But since several years now the minutes appear on their website.

    Of course, there may be discussions which aren’t minuted, but this is a big improvement in terms of accountability and transparency.

    The fact that JCVI decisions will have a status similar to those of NICE is also welcome.

    But some decisions are still made very much in a “black box”, with limited information made available about them. The decision about HPV vaccine, for example, was not clear about the detail of the reasons for choosing Cervarix(TM) over Gardasil(TM). It seems that this probably hinged on a comparison between the cost savings from using the cheaper vaccine, and the potential cost-savings from preventing genital warts (a benefit provided by the more expensive vaccine). DH has not been explicit about the cost saving from using the cheaper vaccine; nor has it made public its estimate – or the way it was reached – of the value of preventing GWs. See e.g. www.ganfyd.org/index.php?title=Human_papillomavirus_vaccine#England.27s_decisions_about_HPV_vaccination

  35. Synchronium said,

    February 12, 2009 at 4:37 pm

    DRUGS!

    Check out the graph in this post from the lancet. It shows the relative harm caused by each drug to both the user and to society, then labels them according to their classification (apart from cannabis which is now class B).

    The way drugs are controlled in the UK is ridiculous. Mr Brown has ignored the ACMD about cannabis, ecstasy and (soon) LSD.

    Sam Harris makes the case a lot better than I can in his book “The End Of Faith”. Drug law is based on anything but evidence.

  36. Andrew said,

    February 12, 2009 at 4:38 pm

    I think teaching epidemiology and aspects of trial design in schools is too specific an aim. The problem is more generally that the system prioritises knowledge when it should be more concerned with promoting understanding. Teaching that way may have been useful once, but this is the 21st century. We can look up knowledge at the press of a button, but only if we understand enough about evaluating evidence to do so competently. If we know things but don’t understand the framework in which they sit, we’re screwed.

    Exams should mostly allow, even provide, textbooks and ask more complicated questions. Students should expect to have to use information they haven’t specifically been taught, and should expect when they look it up to occasionally see conflicting claims that need evaluating. If people get into that habit at an early age then I suspect many related problems would all but go away.

  37. DrDCB said,

    February 12, 2009 at 4:47 pm

    Teaching the basics of the scientific method and evidence-based reasoning in schools should, I imagine, be quite straight forward to do.

    And any half-decent teacher should be able to make it interesting, engaging and compelling.

    Got my vote!

  38. penglish said,

    February 12, 2009 at 4:48 pm

    Politicians have no idea what evidence is, anyhow.

    I heard a politician talking about the evidence that school uniform was beneficial educationally. I wrote via my MP to ask what this evidence was, as the only fair trial I was aware of was done in USA (and possibly not generalisable to UK); and it found no benefit.

    I was referred to… a survey of parents opinions on the subject.

    This was hardly the scientific evidence of benefit that you would expect after the statements made earlier.

  39. biggerpills said,

    February 12, 2009 at 4:52 pm

    @blink: there are already laws governing the content of pharmaceutical press releases- a product cannot be described with the word “safe”, for example. The PR doesn’t really have absolute power as journalists are free to write up their own interpretations of press releases (and scientific papers) whether they fully understand them or not. Deal with PRs and you’re only dealing with half of the system. To deal with the journalists we’d have to go back to education again.

    Listen to this if you haven’t already:

    www.journalism.co.uk/5/articles/533461.php

    The points near the end about a science/arts split in the media are spot-on. Improving the quality of health journalism could require a complete overhaul of the national curriculum, to ensure that humanities and arts students leave school with some understanding of the scientific method and trial design.

    Interestingly the laws on press releases don’t apply to alternative health practitioners, what with them not being proper scientists, so they can write what they like. I just tried a search for the term “safe” in the the Response Source press release archive and it brought up no releases for pharmaceutical products, but several for alternative treatments, such as the delightful-sounding Ladycare:

    www.responsesource.com/releases/rel_display.php?relid=LLQzA&hilite=

  40. biggerpills said,

    February 12, 2009 at 5:15 pm

    oh, and check this out this example of a pharmaceutical press release:

    www.responsesource.com/releases/rel_display.php?relid=LLETT&hilite=

    They tend to be very dry indeed: the pharma PR has very little creative freedom, and their copy will have been re-written over ten times before it is deemed fit for release.

    Unsurprisingly journalists find the more dramatic stories of miracle cures and health scares more intriguing.

  41. gf said,

    February 12, 2009 at 5:15 pm

    I am attending the Voice of the Future 2009, an incredibly pretentiously named event organised by the Royal Society of Chemistry to, as the ad puts it, “ask searching questions to Members of Parliament from the Select Committee.” (www.rsc.org/ScienceAndTechnology/Parliament/Events/VOF2009.asp)

    You can be sure at least some of the issues mentioned here are on my list…

  42. tialaramex said,

    February 12, 2009 at 5:30 pm

    Is it possible that we needn’t set up a new journal or anything like that, but merely create an obligation to publish trial results for open access?

    Obviously unrefereed papers wouldn’t be suitable as support for the safety or efficacy of the drug, but they’d remain informative. Suppose you’re a doctor and you are wondering if recently licensed Drug A might be given off label to treat Condition X, for which the existing gold standard seems unsuitable for your patient. The modern Trials databases mean you can probably already discover that A’s manufacturer has tried using A to treat X, and they haven’t published any results. So that doesn’t look good.

    But if they’d been obliged to publish even without review, you could read the results of the trial and see why they didn’t try for a major journal. Maybe it’s just no better than the gold standard – it could still be an option for your patient. Maybe it worked well but with a side effect the makers thought rendered it unmarketable – which at least puts an option on the table.

    Forcing these “failed” trials to go through a refereeing process seems like an ineffective use of resources. As failures it’s not worth trying to “PR spin” them, so all the reviewers will find is the odd methodological slip up, goofs in presentation or analysis, and so on. It’s a lot to ask for the government to fund that on papers we wouldn’t be relying on to make major decisions anyway. Of course you can make the drug companies pay, in a sense, but they’ll charge it back to us anyway.

  43. paddyfool said,

    February 12, 2009 at 6:11 pm

    I wish I had further good suggestions, but I’m really just posting with regard to the Early Day Motion – has anybody else noticed that so far, of 19 signatures, not one belongs to a Tory MP?

    Let’s do a little analysis of the numbers.

    Tory MP signatories: 0/193
    Non-Tory signatories: 19/453

    Fisher’s exact p-value: 0.002

    So, very strong evidence for an association then. Why, I wonder? It could be just that MPs are signing up for the EDM put forward by their mates, but it could also be that Tory MPs are a tad more aligned to the Daily Mail not only politically but scientifically…

  44. cardassiascot said,

    February 12, 2009 at 7:25 pm

    As a science teacher I think the problem is not so much with the national curriculum which actually addresses the question quite well, but rather with the way it is examined, the way science is taught at universities and the ridiculus rubbish that passes for philosophy.

    There is a hugh conceptual leap from talking about fair tests for simple school experiments to applying that to real world examples like medicine, evolution and the big bang. Part of the reason for this is that by the time most kids have the maths background to discuss some of this they are already on the verge of giving up science.

    But I think the bigger problem is that universities don’t teach the scientific method to science students. At least the way I was taught Physics, the labs and experiments we did were very much removed from the lectures we attended. Or at best seen as applications of the science we were taught. I can think of only one time ever been taught about a theory starting with the experiment that led to it’s formulation (relativity). It was only on leaving my science degrees behind and studying theology and philosophy that I really started to understand the scientific method as I had to defend it against the utter rubbish that philosophy taught.

    It’s no surprise that science is badly understood when it is acceptable to be taught that the scientific method is just one possible way of looking at a problem. No better or worse than any other. Subject to limitations, unlike philosophy. Thinking that science actually describes the real world is just being naive. It’s no wonder most scientists flee the philosophy of science. But if we want science teachers to be able to teach what science is, then we need universities to teach science students what science is first, because at the moment most science teachers don’t know. On a straw poll of my department not one of the science teachers I asked could actually tell me what a scientific theory was. They all knew it didn’t mean what non-scientists mean by theory but none of them could give me a definition, because none of them had been taught. (And this is from people who did their degrees 30 years ago to people who did their degrees 2 years ago from right across the country and now teaching at one of the top comprehensives in the country with a GCSE Science at C grade and above of over 93%.)

  45. drunkenoaf said,

    February 12, 2009 at 7:58 pm

    @penglish

    No, what I meant was the government calculating the human damage caused by antivaxxers; publishing it, and censuring them like they censure corporations that misguidedly end up killing people — cutely called “corporate manslaughter”.

    Or at least *somthing* to stop this nonsense.

  46. drunkenoaf said,

    February 12, 2009 at 8:00 pm

    Damn iPhone.

    “them” = antivaxxers; silly journalists

    “somthing” = “something”

  47. Dr* T said,

    February 12, 2009 at 8:03 pm

    I would like to add a topic of debate, Ben.

    We should ask Parliament what the point of having scientific advisers is, if their opinion is disregarded.
    See “Cannabis downgrade” and “Ecstacy downgrade” in recent days.

  48. flange said,

    February 12, 2009 at 8:23 pm

    How about either access to science journals or setting up free open journals. The current system where you have to pay crap loads for access or be a member of some body which provides you access is shit.

    Pulling together the info and getting to grips with the current state of the art would to support my application for a phd would’ve been practically impossible for me if i hadn’t coincidentally been doing a course at the OU

    www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2009/feb/05/science-journal-access

  49. lavendrmakesmequeasy said,

    February 12, 2009 at 8:46 pm

    Teaching scientific method to children can’t be that hard and it is so important. (Critically evaluting information has to be one of the most important academic, and life skills, surely)

    I managed to have a lively discussion with my 6 year old daughter about a very simple trial design the other day. She had skinned her knee and wanted to know if the antiseptic cream I had put on it, would make it better. Roll on scientific method.

    She’s bright but still….

  50. CDavis said,

    February 12, 2009 at 8:51 pm

    Stepping away from medicine a moment – how about measures to address the appallingly low acceptance of evolution by natural selection among the populace?

    Especially in schools, but also among the population in general.

    Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t recall there being anything like the current level of controversy about when I were a lad. The arguments were decided a century ago, and evolution ‘won’. Now – thanks in no small part to the wretched scum at the Discovery Institute – the Clapham omnibus is full of baby creationists whose mantra is ‘I didn’t come from a monkey’.

    This is not a matter for debate, or for ‘teaching the controversy’. Evolution’s a fact, and anyone who wishes to believe in a deity is just going to have to integrate it into their weltanschauuing somehow.

    It’s shocking that in some cases these matters are still in a pre-Darwin state.

  51. Pro-reason said,

    February 12, 2009 at 9:07 pm

    At the age of twelve, I was taught about my teacher called “a fair test” in school. In fact, he went on about it in every lesson for years, with me thinking it was a waste of time, given that no one in the class would possibly be so silly to do a test without a control. Imagine my horror when I realised that grown-ups do that sort of thing all the time!

    I think that what our lessons were missing was examples of nasty, real-world consequences of sloppy science.

  52. Pro-reason said,

    February 12, 2009 at 9:08 pm

    …about *what* my teacher…

  53. Topov said,

    February 12, 2009 at 9:19 pm

    Within a few seconds of reading the intro to this post I’d got my question – the one I’d ask to be subject to such an examination.

    It’s the one at the top of your list.

    I was horrified not only at this chilling extension of Mickey Mouse degrees into the scientifically unproven and philosophically indefensible but that it takes lavishly publicised place at my local FE bloc is a source of shame. That’s the Uni of Plymouth – just across the Tamar from Chez Topov in the Cornish bog.

    As a poly it had a pretty good reputation. Science and engineering HNDs were in particular demand. It also got kudos for getting scientific method into social studies and developed a correspondingly well-regarded and sought-after CQSW course.

    Now its a flashy, desparate go-get-em-tiger! clearing-grab. Local kids from the rural areas looking for a course to match their interests and ambitions seem to go elsewhere these days (tho I blame the system mightily too – the withdrawal of stuff like HNDs was a major mistake IMO.

    Just goes to show how cleverly and ultimately how cynically marketed this stuff has really been…and its GOT TO GO.

    I really cannot overstate how seriously worrying a development this is.

    Nurse Topov, Thunderbird 5.

  54. biggerpills said,

    February 12, 2009 at 9:19 pm

    @cardassiascot: very interesting post, thanks for sharing your experiences.

    I have a feeling that calls to teach the scientific method would face strong opposition. My parents were appalled to find I wasn’t taught facts “parrot-fashion” at school, and I remember journalists voicing outrage over the ideas of pupils being able to pass GCSE history without memorising any dates, and of allowing calculators in maths exams. Even now coursework is thought of as the reason why exams are (allegedly) getting easier. Any deviation from old teaching methods is viewed with suspicion regardless of whether the change is an improvement or not. Progress could take generations, so for a radical shake-up some unpopular decisions will have to be made.

    I was taught about designing experiments at A level and many of my uni tutors loved to inspire students with examples of beautiful experiments. I had bad teachers too, but fortunately the good ones outnumbered them. Not all students are so lucky and they’re the ones who are put off science.

  55. clobbered said,

    February 12, 2009 at 9:29 pm

    Well since a select committee is a government function, it would be presumably be most effective in matters that can be addressed by government action.

    So I would suggest defining a protocol for spending public money on matters subject to scientific evidence

    For example, many topics covered by Bad Science (the fish oil trials, those ridiculous exercises inflicted on school children to oxygenate their brains, arbitrary interventions for combating obesity like banning crisps from lunchboxes) involve government funding or resources being expended on the basis of nothing more than woo.

    Solution? We should set up a dedicated office to endorse the scientific merit behind such interventions – an Office of Scientific Merit if you like.

    I believe there is some precedent for this in the UK, for example the office of statistics (I forget its proper appellation) that double checks government numbers to make sure they can be validly quoted. I guess NICE performs a related function as well (reviewing medical evidence on drug performance before approving it for the NHS).

    So if I run a public agency (local government, ministry, whatever) and want to spend money on a program (medical, social, infrastructural) that relies on allegedly scientific evidence, I should have to go to this Office and get a seal of approval that the evidence I am basing my intervention upon is valid and solid.

    I think that is a lot safer than trying to regulate what the media can or cannot say. On the other hand, such an office might be able to help by providing a counter-balance to media coverage. For example if the media has a story about fish oil turning babies into Einsteins, but the Office of Scientific Merit or whatever has turned down fish oil supplements to schools on the basis of complete lack of evidence, that would be a public fact that could be reported as “balance” to the story even by the most lazy journalist.

  56. quietstorm said,

    February 12, 2009 at 9:45 pm

    My vote for “questions for the new SciTech committe” definitely encompasses:

    A) Open access for publicly-funded research. I am sorely disappointed by the publishing houses bleating about how difficult it is to make money these days. It would be good if there was an international move to support open access – why can’t the British lead the way on this issue, we’re so keen on “fair play” after all!

    B) Evidence-based reasoning is so important – for all of us, not just politicians, scientists and judges. In fact, why not change the 3 “r”s to reading, (w)riting and reasoning? (since (a)rithmetic is not as important as maths/stats any more since the advent of the electronic counting device)

    C) Give the press regulatory bodies more teeth. In fact, it might be worth discussing the possibility of having a regulatory body whose remit was to ensure that all coverage of health and science in traditional media is responsible*. How much has the MMR scare cost us as a society? How much do alternative treatments that endanger people’s health cost us? It is hard to put an exact figure on it, but I imagine that the NHS uses a large amount of funds and human resources every year to put this stuff right, or mitigate the effects. Irresponsible health and science journalism costs us all, the press regulations need to be enforced.

    *Responsible = well researched and prominently corrected when new evidence comes to light. I know these are vague, but I’m sure that smarter people could come up with better criteria.

  57. Sarah_D said,

    February 12, 2009 at 11:04 pm

    For the National Curriculum to stop teaching group selection as the primary, gospel form of evolution in GCSE Biology. They did this for my GCSE year anyhow!

  58. biggerpills said,

    February 12, 2009 at 11:52 pm

    @clobbered: add science teaching at the Emmanuel Schools Foundation to the list!

  59. calj said,

    February 13, 2009 at 8:21 am

    “should evidence based medicine, basic epidemiology and trial design, be taught in schools?”

    It would be wonderful if everyone in the country were able to analyse medicine as critically as users of Bad Science. But if a quarter of people leave school unable to read and write properly it’s unrealistic to expect them to understand the intricacies of placebo, RCTs and anecdotal evidence. It’s up to legislation to protect people who haven’t had the education (or got the time) to investigate every health claim for themselves. Simply being allowed to practise gives homeopaths legitimacy. (“Why would we have NHS Homeopathic hospitals if it didn’t work”? – who hasn’t heard that from otherwise intelligent people?)

    If we must have quackery, the only solution is to take it off the uneducated, unqualified conspiracy theorists who practise it now and make it truly and legally complementary to conventional medicine. No doctor’s referral? No sugar tablet.

  60. penglish said,

    February 13, 2009 at 9:05 am

    @drunkenoaf

    Thanks for the clarification – point taken.

    We also need clear and open decision-making by government (which we are largely getting, but it’s still not quite good enough).

  61. -RobW- said,

    February 13, 2009 at 9:53 am

    I like Andrew’s idea; if the education establishment doesn’t catch up soon with the Internet, then too many people will believe that the first Google result == the truth. People need to know how to sift the vast amount of knowledge available; just saying “this is the truth, just ignore the rest” will make any average teenager think “bollocks to that, why should I believe X when Google has Y hits for Z?”

    Also, please fix “You must bee logged in to comment” ;o)

  62. paddyfool said,

    February 13, 2009 at 10:04 am

    I’d like to post an update/correction to my quick earlier analysis of party signatories to this EDM. I managed to miss 1 Tory before, and there have since been 9 further signings for a total of 28. So far, the proportion of each party’s MPs signing this is as follows:

    2/193 Tory MPs (1%)
    15/350 Labour MPs (4%)
    11/63 Lib Dem MPs (17%)
    0/40 Other (0%)

    This includes the 6 sponsors, 5 of whom were Lib Dem, 1 Labour.

    Fisher’s exact p-value for an association with party: <0.001

    As well as being inaccurate, my prior analysis was a tad limited; along with the dearth of support in the Tory party, it seems that this was principally sponsored by the Lib Dems and that they were 4 times as likely to sign up for it as Labour. A pity they’ll never get in, really.

  63. julie oakley said,

    February 13, 2009 at 10:47 am

    They all seem hugely important, but education seems to me the most important, particularly at school level. I would have thought that in addition to teaching ‘evidence based medicine, basic epidemiology and trial design’, some kind of basic education on how to work out which information on the internet comes from a worthwhile source and which doesn’t. Most of the people who read this blog can tell the minute they view a blog/messageboard/website whether it’s quackery but the rest of us are flailing around in this vast library with no librarian.

  64. Michael Grayer said,

    February 13, 2009 at 11:28 am

    I couldn’t agree more about introducing a critical understanding of “epidemiology and trial design” into the school curriculum. I use the inverted commas because I don’t think this need be restricted to the medical field, but expanded to include misuse of statistics in a range of fields (medicine, environmental sciences, technology, economics, etc.)

    With the benefit of hindsight, I’m quite shocked that I had no formal teaching as to what a confounding variable was until my MSc.

    I do some demonstrating work in a quantitative methods (i.e. statistics) class in my department (which is a humanities department). I find that the students are easily turned off statistics as it’s seen as an impenetrable mathematical bore – partly because much of the course involves being slumped in front of SPSS doing glorified data-entry. If students were encouraged to engage more with the analysis and critical understanding of quantitative data (which requires little or no maths skills – just good reasoning and a knowledge of what to look for), then they would be in a much better position to write informed articles when they embark on their journalism careers.

  65. Michael Grayer said,

    February 13, 2009 at 11:53 am

    @jonnyroberts, who said:
    “‘should evidence based medicine, basic epidemiology and trial design, be taught in schools?’ would be a great question for the select committee to consider but are you sure it is part of their remit?

    I’m not certain, but from the website it looks as if they are only responsible for further/higher education as opposed to secondary education.”

    If that’s the case, perhaps the question could be rephrased to focus on the teaching of critical understanding of study design and statistical interpretations in undergraduate humanities degrees?

  66. frazerp said,

    February 13, 2009 at 3:03 pm

    From a University perspective, one thing that would really make a big difference would be to have a single national exam board. Then there would be a unified curriculum for each subject and (say it quietly) the grades wouldn’t keep going up year-on-year.

    Well, ok, might not keep going up, but at least it would be a start.

    So, I’d include “How do we return to a realistic A-level mark distribution”.

    Currently we have this;
    news.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/bsp/hi/education/08/exam_results/a_levels/html/mathematics.stm
    for A-level maths. 66% of the entrants get either an A or a B.

  67. Andy Graham said,

    February 13, 2009 at 3:17 pm

    I got my PhD (from a reputable red brick university in the UK) in an mathematical/engineering discipline. I made it all the way through higher education without so much as a brush with empirical evidence, statistical analysis or experiment design. I accept that my first stop, upon commencing my PhD research, should have been these very disciplines. In retrospect I was lazy because they seemed boring, but then hindsight is 20/20, In the end I learned enough (out of necessity) to avoid publishing anything too embarrassing in my thesis. More recently, I have become an ‘expert’ from reading Ben’s book, “Bad Science” (Ben’s word not mine).

    I think we would do very well just to teach these disciplines to every university student. It would be near impossible to invigorate the interests of every 16 year old in the UK. On the other hand, if you got all of the graduates you have a better chance of interesting and motivating, and you might at least catch all of the future employees of the BBC (and LBC Radio)!

  68. elfy said,

    February 13, 2009 at 3:39 pm

    paddyfool: members of the government don’t sign EDMs, as a matter of convention/collective responsibility/etc. So of the 350 Labour MPs, 100 or so don’t really count. So that boosts their % a bit.

  69. sideshowjim said,

    February 13, 2009 at 3:43 pm

    Teach Empiricism and basic philosophy in schools! Evidence based practice/learning/whatever from aged 5 and upwards! Think of all the problems it would solve!

    Dunno if someone has already said that, if so, sorry.

  70. jonnyroberts said,

    February 13, 2009 at 4:17 pm

    Re: 14,22,65.

    My guess would be that the government couldn’t have that kind of influence on the content of undergraduate humanities degrees.

    An alternative option: suggest that an introduction to EBM (/Scientific method in general) be included as part of the General Studies A-Level?

  71. Diversity said,

    February 13, 2009 at 5:05 pm

    Questions such as the media’s role in propagating the dangerous MMR fallacy might be tackled from the point of view of the public service broadcasters having a duty to present scientific conclusions on any matter of public interest, and the evidence behind such conclusions. This is stuff that could and should be presented in ways which attract audiences.

  72. used to be jdc said,

    February 13, 2009 at 5:44 pm

    Well, “the responsibility for accuracy in the media” is certainly topical as well as important.

    Re: “should evidence based medicine, basic epidemiology and trial design, be taught in schools?” I would say yes in answer to that and I think this is the idea that would get my vote.
    I’m only starting to learn about this stuff now – and it seems almost ridiculous to me that we aren’t given the tools to enable us to understand the issues that we find most interesting in science today. Haven’t got the book with me at the mo, but didn’t you write that in the 60s most of the media’s science stories were engineering/technology-type stories, whereas since the 90s it’s pretty much all been about miracle cures or what will kill us?

    If we were all taught about EBM, epidemiology, and trial design in schools then I would think that this might lessen or negate at least some of the negative effects of the media’s systematic misrepresentation of science – and it might also (perhaps) lead to fewer people being interested in signing up to BS BSc courses.

  73. bf said,

    February 13, 2009 at 5:50 pm

    How about they look into tightening up Ofcom and the PCC’s rules on the misreporting of science matters? (Particularly on matters in the public interest.)

  74. calj said,

    February 13, 2009 at 8:10 pm

    I’m not sure if this is a serious discussion or not. The vast majority of people will never EVER understand clinical trials. It’s not appropriate for university-level material to be taught to most school pupils and only a tiny %age of people will ever need practical knowledge.

    It isn’t the responsibility of the individual to understand how or why a drug has been passed as safe and effective. All he needs to know is that it IS safe and effective. With conventional medicine he can be fairly sure that this is the case. However, because quackery is both unregulated and promoted widely, the patient who makes the assumption that “homeopathy wouldn’t be legal if it didn’t work” is at a real disadvantage.

    There will always be people who will fall for quackery and MMR scaremongering. Education can only go so far, and where it stops we need legislation.

  75. Ben Goldacre said,

    February 13, 2009 at 8:43 pm

    calj, if i can speak fondly for a moment – because it’s clear that we have a great many views in common – that’s total cock.

    evidence based medicine, the story of how we know what we know, is interesting and beautiful, and easy to understand, and a crucial life skill. there’s nothing complicated about the stuff on this site, there’s nothing complicated about the stuff in the book, and what’s more, i slightly suspect – although i wouldn’t necessarily recommend trying it, and i’m not using it to big-up the book, but as an illustration of how easy these things are – that the book would get you a pass on most undergraduate medical epidemiology courses.

    you cannot regulate or legislate for foolish utterances by bigots, fantasists and bores, free speech is far too important for that. these are battles that must be won in culture, but more than that, there is pleasure in doing so. let the mainstream media spread nonsense, this is a time of autonomous publishing, where blogs, the NHS Choices website (which is okay, you know, especially Behind the Headlines), and more can act as parallel sources of both information and intellectual nourishment.

    god that got a bit stirring, my mate john’s arrived, better go

    great suggestions btw

  76. calj said,

    February 13, 2009 at 9:43 pm

    Legislating against quacks would reduce their power. Ban homeopathic “remedies” until they are shown to work. Ban alt med practitioners unless they are working under the supervision of medical doctors. Ban children from school unless they are vaccinated. Yes, the Jeni Barnetts of this world will still scaremonger and promote nonsense – I’m not advocating banning free speech – but the damage they could cause would be limited.

    It’s a nice idea, but the majority of the population will simply never have an understanding of the scientific method. Nor will they bother to read science books or blogs. It needn’t and shouldn’t place them at a disadvantage when it comes to their health.

  77. The Biologista said,

    February 13, 2009 at 10:25 pm

    Legislation is a stop-gap. There’ll always be a new kind of snake oil around the corner. The key, as Ben suggests, is education of the public. So very few people understand how science itself works. How evidence is not “weighed”, but supporting or utterly falsifying of some proposition. The way that science is taught often skips these most fundamental concepts.

    I’ll echo Andy Graham here and admit that very little of this was apparent to me during my Science B.Sc. or even in the early years of my Ph.D.

  78. kathrynhobson said,

    February 14, 2009 at 5:25 pm

    I’m an English Literature graduate and find even within this sphere that many people are reluctant to look for evidence to back up their opinions on novels, play, poems etc with evidence from the texts. They want just to have opinions. Similarly with social or political views. And teachers in schools do try and teach about evidence – my husband teaches English at secondary level and is constantly urging students to back up their opinions with evidence. It must be the same in History, Sociology – perhaps even Religious Education? It can’t be that science teachers don’t teach evidence-based topics, surely. Or am I very naive? If the public are to be educated then it’s really going to have to be drummed in, hard.

  79. DrPaul said,

    February 15, 2009 at 8:33 pm

    I’m a science teacher, a Head of Biology, and government has already tried to address public ignorance of how science works by re-working the GCSEs around the theme of How Science Works. The intention may be laudable, even necessary, but the outcome is a disaster, a stultifying course with virtually no scientific content around which the children are expected to form opinions, evaluate data, and so on. It’s like Yasmin said to Jeni, if you don’t know what goes in the MMR vaccine, you’re not qualified to comment on it. So I teach basic immunology, even though it’s not on the specification, and the students think it’s fascinating. Only when armed with that knowledge and understanding, do we take a look at Andrew Wakefield’s study and the ensuring media frenzy…
    Yes, let’s improve public understanding of science, but not at the cost of interesting and worthwhile science courses.

  80. emen said,

    February 16, 2009 at 1:11 pm

    It is an interesting question and I think both calj and Ben have a point.

    I agree with Ben that evidence-based medicine is not that difficult to
    understand as people perhaps think. I believe that most people are capable
    of understanding complicated things if you know how to explain. Also, the
    ethical question of freedom of speech etc. put aside for a moment, silencing
    quacks would just reinforce the conspiracy theories (“You see, they ARE
    being paid by BigPharma”).

    On the other hand, it is a very long process and calj is right, people do
    often say, “Homeopathy must work if there are homeopathic hospitals”. As far
    as they are concerned, they are getting conflicting messages.

    Do you know, Ben, what percentage of the population live their life thinking
    that that “flu and cold remedies” are something special that really work on
    their symptoms? You tell them it is the same paracetamol that they take for
    their headaches plus some decongestant stuff, and they will have the shock
    of the week. Maybe you spend your life among highly educated people, but
    most people don’t tend to have degrees or, sadly, even basic literacy
    skills, and they trust us, the educated ones to make some of their
    decisions for them. Yes, we shouldn’t write them off because then they will
    stay that way!, so you keep up your work.
    But what are we going to do in the meantime?, just allow them not to
    vaccinate their children, or not to give them their asthma medicine because
    their quack has told them it has “chemicals” in it? While for us it is just
    annoying, the fact that people will die of illnesses they shouldn’t is a
    TRAGEDY, and the line has to be drawn somewhere.

  81. Lemonade Lily said,

    February 16, 2009 at 2:49 pm

    Just add my vote to Ben’s ‘the inappropriateness of teaching quackery badly in university science degrees’.

    As one attending such a wooniversity on such a course I can say I am universally challenged by the woeful lack of science and the promulgation of pseudoscience, non-science and even antiscience. If you want any lecture notes Ben for evidence just shout!

    I am fighting from within but it is a lonely battle.

  82. Eliza said,

    February 16, 2009 at 7:53 pm

    Just a comment about teaching in schools, and critical thinking etc.
    In Hisory, from about year 7-8 you are taught to evaluate source material – to look at who said what, what the contradictions are, and why it happens – why is x putting across a certain viewpoint, and is it valid. Surely in schools this can just be built upon to teach this type of awareness in science.

    Also, I think that those who are carrying out research should be encouraged to improve their communication skills – to explain their research in simple terms, to try and help it be interpreted in the correct way. I know there is a lot of intentional interpretation from journalists and the media, but researchers could do with using more ‘plain English’ summaries to explain their work. Perhaps communication skills could be something that is taught at universities, for those that want to disseminate their work more widely.

  83. Sean Ellis said,

    February 16, 2009 at 11:43 pm

    I would ask the Government why they have set up a two-tier system for certification of medical treatments.

    For conventional medicine, they have to be subjected to multi-million pound clinical trials, over several years, and must be demonstrably safe and effective before being allowed near the general public.

    For Supplementary, Complementary and Alternative Treatment, you can get your certification from OfQuack for £45 and the cost of an insurance policy.

    (Insert obligatory link to my Number 10 petition here: petitons.number10.gov.uk/CNHCsafety.)

  84. jonnyroberts said,

    February 17, 2009 at 12:17 pm

    Sent an e-mail to the office of the committee inquiring about which qualifications come under their remit. Here’s the reply:

    “The remit of the Committee mirrors that of the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills. Hence degrees (not A levels and GCSEs); and also scrutiny of the Government Office for Science.”

  85. paddyfool said,

    February 17, 2009 at 12:34 pm

    One important immigration issue which afflicts further education institutions is the barriers faced by students coming into this country. Long visa application procedures, costing hundreds of dollars exist for any non-EU national and probably put a lot of people off, and I’ve heard a fair few horror stories about a disruption to studies persisting even following the start of a course. All of which is a pity for the country as a whole and its universities in particular, because:

    1) Foreign students bring in a lot of money.

    2) Studying in the UK might lead to positive feelings about it among future movers and shakers in other countries.

    3) At the undergraduate level, bringing in people who are enthusiastic enough to travel around the world for their studies tends to provide a boost to the overall mood of sessions etc., in my experience.

    4) At the graduate level there’s even more to offer, since getting in the best and brightest of the world helps with research output and fosters future collaboration with research institutions.

    5) What real terrorist threat is posed by a typical student, especially a graduate student, anyway? There are much easier ways to get into the country which don’t require going through a university application on top of a visa application.

    I don’t know if this comes under the committee’s remit, but if they could be persuaded to quietly lobby for, fast-tracking student visa applications in general and graduate visa applications in particular, this could surely only be a good thing.

  86. sciteach@comp said,

    February 19, 2009 at 1:02 pm

    I don’t know if this comes under the committee’s remit, but I think they could look at the use of un-necessary scientific jargon, in scientific papers.
    I teach students to look critically at evidence in lessons, particularly when doing their Science In The News coursework. However, a lot of students get put off when they link back to a scientific paper as it is can be difficult enough for me to understand what’s been done, nevermind a bright A grade GCSE candidate or your everyday interested person who’d like to have a balanced informed opinion, but does not have a science background and therefore can’t access the information in the paper.
    We complain about unecessary legal jargon in terms & conditions etc, but our scientific community is not exempt, from the same issue.

  87. DHR said,

    February 20, 2009 at 11:51 pm

    My topic would be the undue influence of the Pharmaceutical industries over medical practice in the UK to the detriment of patient care and at considerable expense to the NHS and social services through unnecessary ill health as a result.

    It is common practice for NHS senior consultants to receive large payments from Pharmaceutical companies. Not just for directly promoting some product but by recommending treatment protocols which lead to a requirement for a product that is unnecessary, damaging to the patient’s health, career and family life and would not exist if they received the actual healthcare they needed. This is not as straightforward as simply saying “Everyone must take Statins no matter how bad the side effects or the fact it will probably only add a couple of months to your lifespan”, it’s also a case of withholding simple cheap cost effective treatment for well know diseases because they make way more money treating the symptoms than they do the cause. The fact that lives are ruined and it costs the NHS huge amounts of money that then can’t be used to treat other people bothers no one.

    Simple, very cost effective treatments that people have used for decades are increasingly being withheld for no good medical reason and on no concrete evidence to the great harm of many hundreds of thousands of people and the only reason anyone can figure out is that by treating the symptoms instead of the cause a lot more drugs are sold.

    Pharmaceutical companies pay for conferences, often somewhere sunny with good golf courses, pay money directly to consultants for “advice”, pay for research studies that tend to be skewed to the results they want and famously gloss over “adverse effects”, they have a huge influence over medical schools and the business in general. Senior consultants make huge amounts of money. Huge. This does not come from the NHS.

    Treatment protocols are decided by self appointed “experts” who do not produce any actual evidence or work from unbiased studies but have the backing of many long standing networks that are basically old boys clubs who play the game. Many of them have fingers in so many pies it’s a wonder they have enough fingers. Editorships of influential journals (so they can dictate what is published, very important) seats on dozens of committees, various lectureships.

    Medical training is also dictated by these same bodies. There is no independent body, uninfluenced by these institutions who are influenced by commercial gain, who can verify or arbitrate or protect patient care.

    Any doctor brave enough to dissent on behalf of his patients is risking his entire career.

    Metadata analysis, which can be angled to prove any point you want, feature heavily. Actual proper unbiased research is rarely available and any research that proves a counterpoint is completely ignored. In some instances you get senior policy making doctors doing a complete 180 turn on their own recommendations (which are really diktats which less powerful doctors dare not ignore) so that 10 years ago they were recommending sensible well researched treatments and diagnostic procedures and now they are far higher up the professional tree, they are demanding the complete opposite in the teeth of all the evidence and ignoring the justifiable protests of the patients affected.
    What happened in between to change their minds is not explained.

    In parts of America a law was passed that every doctor and every Pharmaceutical company had to declare money from any source. They are still having a hard time enforcing it but at least they are trying.
    Drug reps have come out and said publicly that it was their job to target consultants in useful positions and offer them money and professional advancement, another key incentive for many, to promote the treatment protocols the company wanted to use to sell more drugs.

    It is going to be very hard at this stage to rectify such a well entrenched and corrupt system but all our lives and our families health depends on the extent of the problem being recognised and dealt with. That’s you and your family too if you ever get ill.

    All senior doctors and medical researchers should be banned by law from taking any personal payment or any form of professional advancement from pharmaceutical companies, their representatives or anyone other than their hospitals and private patients.

    MP’s have to declare their interests to prevent exactly this sort of thing. Doctors are at least as powerful in their way and they are completely unregulated by any independent body. You cannot count the GMC, the BMA, the RCP or any of that lot because they are up to their eyes in it. They enforce the status quo.

    Payment from the pharmaceutical industry to Universities should be preferably banned or at the very least properly overseen and situations such as the Actinel rent a researcher scandal at Sheffield: A should not be allowed to happen at all, and B if they do, should be dealt with heavily and with firings of the entire senior staff instead of ignored as it was that time simply because the UK has no form of enforcement that deals with this sort of corruption.

    Simply propose a law to outlaw the payment of any moneys from any source other than their day job to doctors involved in the formulation of treatment protocols on the grounds that it undermines impartiality and lays them open to a charge of a risk of undue influence.
    Then wait to see who starts kicking up a fuss and what their excuses are. If they are not getting money to influence them they why would they make a fuss?

    This is a very serious problem that is kind of known about but everyone ignores unless they personally fall foul of it.

    Please investigate as a matter of priority. Or as I say, just pass a law banning all doctors but most especially senior consultants and professors from taking any sort of payment or advancement from drug companies on pain of being struck off. Easy. If there is no problem then why should they complain? They got into medicine to help people didn’t they?
    Not make money.

  88. billyboots said,

    February 21, 2009 at 3:14 pm

    In addition to what Eliza said (post #82):
    I teach secondary science. In my school we actually do teach about all of the following at GCSE:

    – Correlation + cause
    – Forming correct/incorrect conclusions from data (e.g. ice cream sales rise in the summer + cases of hay-fever rise in the summer = ice cream causes hay fever?)
    – Pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (science and ethics of)
    – Planning experiments (understanding how control variables and sample size are important)
    – Epidemiological studies (understanding that data are more reliable from a study with: more people, mixed race, mixed sex, wide age range etc)
    – “Real difference” (a horrible term – but the idea is recognising that if two sets of data have values that overlap there is not a ‘real difference’ between them
    – Placebo effect (blind and double blind trials)
    – Vaccinations, vaccine policy, herd immunity (covering the science of vaccines but also the moral, social and financial issues of compulsory vaccination)

    All students also do a “Case Study” which makes up 20% of their GCSE. They have to research a topic and weigh up evidence and arguments on both sides before discussing their own conclusion. We encourage them to chose one of the following in Biology:
    Is the MMR vaccine safe?
    Is there an obesity gene?
    Is the British Government right to allow stem cell research?
    Is pre-implantation genetic diagnosis ethical?
    Is the new cervical cancer vaccination value for money?
    Should smoking related lifestyle diseases be treated on the NHS?
    Creation or evolution?

    Students get marks for showing understanding of the science, finding evidence for both points of view, referencing where they found the information and commenting of how trustworthy each piece of evidence is (i.e. increased confidence if found in peer-reviewed journal) and deciding on their opinion based on all the evidence that they have found.

    I hope you agree that all this is beginning to move things in the right direction. Words like “reliable, trustworthy, valid, accurate and precise” are becoming more and more prevalent in the syllabus content and in the exams too.

    All is not lost.

  89. ethicspiedpiper said,

    February 27, 2009 at 3:54 pm

    is it possible to produce a standard for what critical thinking is – including the relationship with creative expansive thinking – and blinkered straight line and etc –
    In other words – is the scientific model enough – in the ‘real’ world – with all the fiddly bits “its not that simple”? “whole is more than the sum of the parts”? – “limits of our language{s} are the limits of our world{s}”?

    how many people could we get to agree:) – to a declaration of bill of rights – of the human thought – creationist revolutionary to hard line straight as a darwin die progression hard – diversity? :)

  90. Thrinity333 said,

    March 1, 2009 at 6:11 am

    Hi my name Theresa and I am a science/education student at the University of New South Wales in Australia and I would like to say how much I agree with you. I’m currently in my 3rd year and we’re beginning to study the syllabus, how to implement it (a seemingly mandatory skill many teachers have forgotten), and introducing the concept of scientific literacy and its importance over content knowledge. I feel, and I am sure I would have followers that scientific literacy (the ability to critically analyse information, design and implement experiments, read and interpret graphs and scientific data, all summing to the ability to detect bullshit) is far more resourceful and imperative to a constructive, well informed, scientifically sound community then knowing in 1901 someone invented something that did something.

    I have just started reading “Bad Science” and I am extremely amused by its content. I think it is a fascinating read and should be a prescribed text for any aspiring scientists and the whole population, who have had a lack of exposure to scientific literacy.

    I think all universities need a regulatory process that insures the main points wanted in science students and teachers are enforced. For example: posing to the United Nations that all school, in every country, implement scientific literacy as a goal for their graduating pupils. This would also entail universities and colleges cooperation in instructing prospective teaching staff, on how to use the syllabus, and develop their students in this form; because as it has been seen in Australia, where scientific literacy has been the goal of NSW syllabus for the whole 9 years of its instatement, teachers are still found that don’t know how to use the syllabus and who completely ignore the crucial aspects of it and insist on making their students learn the top 20 elements off by heart.

    If you have reached thus far into my post then I congratulate and thankyou for taking the time to read my comments. I would like to end with one last point:

    When I graduate and become a teacher, if I cannot teach my students anything I at least want them walking out of my class room being scientifically literate so they can contribute to society, actively get involved in discussions in a scientifically correct manner, and not be bamboozled by bad science.

  91. Ben Goldacre said,

    August 4, 2009 at 10:50 pm

    here is what i sent in (as you can see i suggested myself among others as a witness, like the giant cock that i am).

    An investigation into the appropriateness of pseudosciences such as homeopathy and other alternative therapies being taught as science subjects in universities.

    It is natural that there should be a market for courses to train therapists, or to study these subjects from a sociological perspective. However there is good evidence that these courses are being taught in a way that is plainly inconsistent with the basic tenets of good scholarship: endorsing the selective cherry picking of evidence to suit a case, selectively brushing over inadequate methodologies in studies rather than discussing them critically, misrepresenting the findings of existing research, teaching wholly outlandish ideas as scientific fact, and so on. There are also good grounds for concern about the background of many of those teaching.

    Attempts to investigate this outside of parliament have met a brick wall as the universities involved have refused to disclose teaching materials, exam papers, and so on. Where these have been leaked the contents have been extremely alarming. I have also been contacted by individuals who have signed up for these university degrees – paying for them – and are extremely disappointed to find that instead of being taught about the science behind the alternative therapy, they are instead being taught a string of unevidenced claims by therapists whose practice is based on faith.

    The issue is timely as public pressure is mounting following a series of leaks of exam and teaching materials which have been publicised in the media by myself and others. There are hearings being held in some universities, but generally in secret and there is little evidence of movement.

    A hearing would bring these issues out into the open, and allow the evidence for these worrying and prevalent new academic practices to be discussed publicly so that a balanced view can be reached on the standards and principles behind these courses.

    As witnesses I would suggest myself and Professor David Colquhoun of UCL, experts in evidence based medicine and basic scholarship (I can recommend), university heads and heads of department for the instutions where these courses are taught, individual tutors, and individual students, whose contacts I can give you, with their permission.

    Many thanks,

    Ben

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