Experts say new scientific evidence helpfully justifies massive pre-existing moral prejudice.

April 18th, 2009 by Ben Goldacre in dodgy academic press releases, mail, medicalisation, MMR, scare stories, telegraph | 72 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Saturday April 18, 2009
The Guardian

Is it somehow possible – and I know I’m going out on a limb here – that journalists wilfully misinterpret and ignore scientific evidence, simply in order to generate stories that reflect their own political and cultural prejudices? Because my friend Martin, from the excellent layscience blog, has made a pretty excellent discovery.

First we have some inevitable scare headlines from the Daily Mail about the cervical cancer vaccine in the English Edition. Endure them, the punchline is worth the effort. “Revealed: The serious health concerns about the cervical cancer jab” “Alert over jab for girls as two die following cervical cancer vaccination” “Twelve-year-old girl paralysed ‘after being given cervical cancer jab’” How safe is the cervical cancer jab? Five teenagers reveal their alarming stories” That’s enough.

But get this. In Ireland, where the government refused to fund the vaccine, the Daily Mail are campaigning – vigorously – for the jab. Apparently it’s lifesaving: “Join the Irish Daily Mail’s cervical cancer vaccination campaign today” “Europe will shame FF into providing Ireland’s life-saving cervical cancer jabs” “Ditching cancer vaccine is a big step back, says expert” “Health campaigners in Ireland take fight for cancer jabs to Washington” “Cervical cancer vaccine for Ireland’s girls: online poll slams decision to pull funding”.

In fact they even have a graphic, with the Daily Mail logo and everything. Like something from a parallel universe, it reads: “Daily Mail Campaign: Roll out the vaccine now!” Presumably the reasoning is to attack any government healthcare decision, by pretending it is medically dangerous.

Meanwhile the isolated “facebook causes cancer” headline from two months ago has evolved into a small industry. Many newspapers made huge stories out of the utterly banal survey observation that kids who mess about on the internet with their friends do less schoolwork.

And now science has proven these sites are a moral threat. “Facebook and Twitter ‘make us bad people’” said the Metro. The Telegraph was graver: “Twitter and Facebook could harm moral values, scientists warn.” “Twitter can make you immoral, claim scientists” was the Mail headline. “Social networks such as Twitter may blunt people’s sense of morality, claim brain scientists. New evidence shows the digital torrent of information from networking sites could have long-term damaging effects on the emotional development of young people’s brains.”

Egged on by a rather fanciful press release from the University media office, and a quote from a sociologist, the story was unstoppable. I got hold of the research paper, with some hassle. In fact, before we even begin to read it, I don’t think it’s very good behaviour to pimp a study to the media before it’s published, before academics can read it and respond, since the media commentariat have proven themselves to be morons.

Anyway: in a sentence, the study finds that the brain bloodflow changes which are observed when a subject is experiencing compassion for social pain peak, and dissipate, at a slightly slower rate to those seen with compassion for physical pain. It does not mention Twitter. It does not mention Facebook. It does not mention social networking websites. It makes – and I’m being generous here – a single, momentary, passing reference to the rapid pace of information in “the digital age” in the discussion section, but that is all. These news stories were bullshit.

Am I a lone, potty-mouthed pedant? I emailed Professor Antonio Damasio, the senior academic and “corresponding author” on the paper, and one of the “scientists” “warning” that Twitter and Facebook will make us immoral.

“Thank you for your inquiry. As you can see if you read our study, we made no connection whatsoever with Twitter. Some writers did make that connection but it is not ours. There is no mention whatsoever of Twitter or of any social network in our study. We have nothing whatsoever to say about them.”

Where did it come from, I asked? He dug. “I found the press release from USC where the writer made, on his own, a connection to social networks. We, the authors, certainly didn’t and don’t. The only connection that could be speculated upon has to do with fast presentation of a story without appropriate context. The connection to Twitter and other social networks, as far as I can see, makes no sense. I presume you will reach the same conclusion after reading our article.”

This is how I think it works. Journalists have a 1950s B-movie view of science. To them, it offers a feeling tone of cold, unquestionable truth that can be used to paste a veneer of objectivity over any moral prejudice you might have, and we’ve seen it a hundred times in this column.

The Independent on Sunday campaigned for a decade to have cannabis legalised: then they changed their minds, but without the strength of character to admit that their moral views had changed, they had to pretend that the cannabis had changed, and was 25 times stronger. In England the cervical cancer vaccine is about a government promoting promiscuity, therefore it causes paralysis and other symptoms; in Ireland the vaccine is withheld by penny pinchers, so it is a lifesaver. And Facebook causes cancer. It does: it makes you immoral, scientists have warned.


You can’t read the study that’s not about Twitter. It’s not out yet.

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72 Responses

  1. SteveGJ said,

    April 21, 2009 at 4:42 pm

    Well there is a measure of agreement, but still quite a few differences. Firstly, let’s deal with the issue of Oppenheimer and Heisenberg. Now there is no doubt that there politics had a strong relationship on some of the science they did, and what they chose to do with it. However, that’s a very long way from saying that their politics shaped their scientific theories, although having said that, there is an intriguing twist with Heisenberg over which there is, appropriately, uncertainty.
    Now it might has been that with different motivations, Oppenheimer may not have chosen to be so involved with the Manhattan project. However, that had nothing at all to do with any theories be produced. That’s very different to Lysenko where the “acquired attribute” theory was prompted my Marxism (and disastrously resulted in huge number of deaths through starvation). With Heisenberg, his fundamental work in the foundations of quantum mechanics, most famously the uncertainty principle, are not prompted by a political outlook. However, there is a twist – some claim that he deliberately made miscalculations on the sustainability of a chain reaction in order to prevent the Nazis developing a A bomb. Now, if true, I would consider that a deliberate deceit – something scientists did with enemies all through the war. (And the balance of opinion appears to be that he just made a mistake).

    Now – I’m not claiming that some of the techniques used in “hard” science subjects cannot be used in social sciences. What I’m saying is that some of them are very much harder and less reliable. Compared to “hard” sciences it is very much more difficult to carry out controlled experiments – not only are there practical matters, there are serious ethical issues (nobody is going to try a real “Lord of the Files” experiment). The number of variables is immense, and the number of unknowns similarly. There is also a more profound problem in that the theory of a mechanism of operation is a major problem because human beings and society are so complex. I’d make a case that many of the theories regarding the mechanisms of operation are based on assumptions, and often those based on faith, politics or other ethical patterns. For instance, Marxism is strongly predicated on a theory of the perfectibility of human nature. Economics on rationalism (although that last one is provably wrong).

    Because of the difficulty of controlled experiments (particularly difficult with sentient subjects – you get into the Hawthorne and placebo effects) then often the analysis comes down to one of statistics. It’s very easy to get into correlations and interpret them as causative. For instance, looking at a gun-control site, they state:-

    “Having a gun in the home makes it three times more likely that you or someone you care about will be murdered by a family member or intimate partner.”

    In fact what that shows is that there is a correlation between guns and domestic homicides. Now is might be that a reasonable causal theory that having a gun around in the house makes it easier to kill somebody on the spur of the moment. Another theory just says that people (and it’s mostly men) who commit domestic homicides are just more likely to be attracted to violence and have guns around. If they didn’t have guns, they’d use some other means. Now there are ways of correcting by adding in other factors, but that game is played by both sides of the gun lobby and they come to different answers. Who is right, and how do you tell objectively (and the implications of gun control on domestic policy is an easy one – reliable stats and lots of clear outcomes).

    Ben has a lot of faith in the power of controlled experiments to analyse the outcome of social policies. I’m much more sceptical myself – for instance, changes in the UK education system were made to increase educational levels among the population. There are now plenty of exam result statistics to “prove” this (much beloved by politicians), but the changes in the basis of measurement are such those are virtually worthless as outcome measures (although we do know there has been a massive drop in people studying most “hard” science subjects to higher levels – did a change in education policy cause that? Who knows, and how does that square with the policy that made more pupils study science in the first place?)

  2. mikewhit said,

    April 21, 2009 at 5:03 pm

    So who are the Nick Robinsons, the Mike Cricks and the (go on …) Robert Pestons of the newspaper science journalists ?

    I can’t imagine one of the dailies taking on ex-Reg physics graduate Lucy Sherriff, for example …

  3. henrywilton said,

    April 21, 2009 at 5:56 pm


    Well, thanks for the lecture on the difference between causation and correlation. I’m not an idiot, you know.

    Heisenberg and Oppenheimer were extreme examples, intended to point out that there are obviously moments when even a “hard” scientist’s politics can be important, sometimes even to the theories that they develop.

    The examples of Lysenko and Darwin are more pertinent. Your reply ignored Darwin, and missed my point about Lysenko. Let me spell it out. Lysenko was a bad scientist, and perhaps that was because of his politics. But it doesn’t matter. Lots of people are bad scientists, for all sorts of reasons. Lysenko’s theories had disastrous consequences not because his politics were bad, but because the sphere in which he operated didn’t allow his ideas to be criticized.

    It’s very like MMR and Andrew Wakefield. The MMR scare wasn’t caused by Wakefield but by the UK media, ie the public sphere in which he operated. Wakefield was a bad scientist, perhaps even a fraudulent one, but we have to allow people to do science badly if we want them to do it at all. The flipside gives you Darwin, since it’s possible that his politics helped him to do good science. This is why, ultimately, you can’t divorce science from politics. A scientist’s politics and her personality are deeply bound up, and her science is a product of her personality.

    In fact, agronomy is a hopeful example. In the wrong country Lysenko’s ideas led to disaster, but over the course of the twentieth century, in countries with a healthier attitude to scientific debate, crop yields have increased manyfold. (Of course there are various ethical concerns, but that’s another matter.)

    I agree with you that it can be extremely hard to interpret evidence about social policy accurately. But we differ in the conclusions that we draw from this. Your think we should give up, I think it’s too important an enterprise. The best way to do good science is to do it in a public sphere that can provide intelligent criticism. Now, that may not be the public sphere that we have, but it’s a worthwhile aim, don’t you think?

  4. hrt25g said,

    April 21, 2009 at 8:16 pm

    @ Heavens

    ‘Seriously, Ben, you clearly have a decently developed vocabulary, and English has, by far, the largest set of words in the history of human language, with dozens of choices that could have worked in that sentence. It would be fun to see more of them, instead of the same old lazy scatological choices.’

    Which would be fine except that there isn’t a more suitable, accurate or appropriate word in the English language than ‘bullshit’ in this case.

    If the use of a single word (even if that word really was a proper* swear word) distracts you from an entire argument, then it is you that needs to grow up my friend.

    *which was my originally planned one-word answer but I didn’t think it would get past the moderators or be appreciated by the recipient with the humour with which it was intended…

  5. SteveGJ said,

    April 21, 2009 at 11:04 pm


    I may have laboured the point of correlation and causation, but that’s because it is the absolute crux of the issue. “Hard” science subjects are distinguished from “soft” sciences essentially because the former have a very well developed causation model with a gradual building of complexity. That reductionist model has its limits though. Several sciences (like medical science) have changed radically in the last 60 years as they have been able to develop such models, but even they hit considerable limits at the moment. It is that causation model gap which I think is really what makes social sciences different.

    I didn’t mean to ignore Darwin – he didn’t really have strong politics as far as I can tell. No doubt he had the social norms of his class, and originally some sort of conventional religious faith, but as far as we can tell that didn’t stop his analysis. Of course many Christians believed that there could be no contradiction between their faith and science would just reveal God’s work.

    I’d certainly agree that Lysenko drove his science through because of the politics and power structure of the Soviet Union at the time. But that’s precisely why science and politics (or any faith structure for that matter) make very poor bedfellows when trying to arrive at some attempt at objective truth (whatever that is). It’s just subjects that involve the humanities are much more difficult to entangle.

    Finally, where on earth did I say give up? What I said was treat the results and predictions as being a lot more uncertain and be prepared for them to be wrong – or accept that we might never know. If Godel demonstrated that this was so for some parts of mathematics, then surely how much more so for these more complex subjects. What I see though is politicians, journalist and all sorts of other interest groups essentially pretending (or even believing) higher degrees of certainty than is warranted. Seriously, if we can’t even get consensus for something as relatively straightforward to analyse as gun control, then just what can we be reasonably certain about?

  6. heavens said,

    April 21, 2009 at 11:11 pm

    hrt25g said: “If the use of a single word (even if that word really was a proper* swear word) distracts you from an entire argument, then it is you that needs to grow up my friend.”

    I don’t find that it distracts me, and I’m not offended by it any more than I am by sloppy grammar. I just think it’s lazy and uncreative. (I agree that it’s not blasphemous and therefore not a “swear” word.)

  7. henrywilton said,

    April 22, 2009 at 12:23 am


    What I said was treat the results and predictions as being a lot more uncertain and be prepared for them to be wrong… What I see though is politicians, journalist and all sorts of other interest groups essentially pretending (or even believing) higher degrees of certainty than is warranted.

    It seems to me that here you’re saying that we have a scientifically illiterate public sphere – and here I agree with you. My point is that it’s better to lay the blame there – and attempt to rectify things by contributing to the discussion – than to dismiss social sciences as inobjective. (Which you did.)

    Seriously, if we can’t even get consensus for something as relatively straightforward to analyse as gun control, then just what can we be reasonably certain about?

    Frankly, I think this sentence is bizarre. I’d have said there’s a pretty clear consensus on gun control everywhere except the US, and there the lack of consensus is mostly down to an anti-scientific and indeed irrational streak in public discourse. Are you American, by any chance? (I presume not from your spelling of “analyse”, but you never know.)

  8. etox said,

    April 22, 2009 at 4:27 pm

    That’s hilarious how they said that Twitter can make you immoral. It’s your cause deep down that decides that, Twitter is just a medium.
    Eric T.

  9. Antony Eagle said,

    April 22, 2009 at 5:27 pm

    Just to note that Mark Liberman of Language Log has also picked up on this, gives a hat tip to Ben, and follows up a bit more on the detail of the science.

  10. Squander Two said,

    April 22, 2009 at 5:56 pm

    Presumably, Professor Damasio, angry at the way his work has been misrepresented by his own university’s press office, will be taking some sort of action against them? If this keeps happening, he might even resign?

  11. peningda said,

    April 23, 2009 at 12:24 am

    I agree with Bob Ward’s comment at #13.
    The university press office has created the false story, not the media. This is very common, and the press offices seem to be completely unaccountable. Universities puting out premature and deceptive press releases should be rebuked and downrated (fewer research grants) because they are deceiving the public. The press offices have presumably been created to raise the profile of the university, for financial reasons, so the feedback the vice chancellors will listen to is bad press offices costing them income.

  12. ynrob said,

    April 23, 2009 at 4:53 pm

    I disagree, with all this blaming of the press nonsense. A business’s first priority is to make money and the articles
    published by the newspapers reflect this. The problem we have here is that we have people that believe whatever they are told. Only an idiot would use the daily horoscope as an investment guide. So why do so may take what is said in the news media as gospel?

    Newspapers should by law be made to put a disclaimer within each publication. It can be in small print but MUST be placed at the bottom of the FRONT page.

    Although every effort has been made to verify the facts in this publication due to time constraints, potential misinformation from our sources and the personal opinions of parties involved or that of the writer. It must be assumed that any article within this publication is wholly or in part a work of fiction. The Daily Bob takes no responsibility for any harm or offence that an article published herein may cause.

    When people are made aware that the articles they read are of low quality and demand better. Then and only then will they improve. We don’t see this sort of thing nearly as often in for example the financial section.

  13. Delster said,

    April 23, 2009 at 10:55 pm


    The difference is that in the financial section you get things like company A bought a 20% stake in company B thus bringing their holdings in company C to 51% etc Nice easy factual stuff where they can’t really make up a scare story.

    The science section on the other hand… seems largly to consist of a journalist with no qualifications in the subject taking a study with minor fairly unremarkable results and telling you it’ll cause cancer…or cure it…or possibly both in the daily mails case.

  14. Delster said,

    April 23, 2009 at 10:59 pm

    oh yes forgot the other point… a business is there to make money, totally agree. however why not do it by reporting the facts in a way that will get it across to the non scientific public in an entertaining and engaging way.

    Sell your papers based on the actual news and not on a bunch of made up, twisted to fit rubbish.

    after all they are called News papers…not lie papers

  15. shai-hulud said,

    April 26, 2009 at 11:53 am

    “the context in which we make moral decisions matters quite a lot. Moving from disgusted to neutral thoughts leads to a significant change in moral attitude, and moving from neutral to pure thoughts causes yet another change. We don’t appear to make moral decisions with cold rationality or consistency…”

  16. SimonCox said,

    April 26, 2009 at 12:45 pm

    @Dr Aust

    “The only (veteran) science journo I know says that he and his fellows:

    (i) take publication in a peer-reviewed journal as a badge of “soundness”; and

    (ii) assume Univ press office folk (who are largely ex-journos or part-time journos) have done the “translating” to plain language for them, AND the checking w the scientists for accuracy of message.

    One can debate whether this is good practice, but it is the way the current system works.”

    I realise that this is the way the current system works, but the current system is what’s giving us situations in which newspapers and other media outlets publish things that just aren’t true.

    Just because it’s the current system doesn’t mean it’s the right system.

    To reiterate:

    If journalists are not responsible for the content of a newspaper, then who on earth is?

    Is it really too much to ask for a journalist to actually read a paper before writing about it?

  17. AndyM said,

    May 3, 2009 at 9:18 am

    Re the cervical cancer vaccine: writing as a dad with a 13 year old daughter, where is the unbiased advice?

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    Anything everyone does, a lot, has to be labelled as harmful, from mobile phones to now social networking sites; a less quacky article said that children are less social (dont converse face to face) that often nowdays ’cause of facebook etc. Most my friends who spend the most time of Facebook have, in fact, the busiest social life!

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