Caroline Pidgeon (lib dem) falls for bogus Rentokil story, in the London Assembly… UPDATED for un-fail

March 18th, 2010 by Ben Goldacre in adverts, bad science | 33 Comments »

Briefly. Lib Dem councillor Caroline Pidgeon raised the bogus Rentokil stories in the London Assembly yesterday: and fell for them, hook, line and sinker. People often forget that politicians – as much as anyone else – get their information about how the world works from reading newspapers. I guess this is fairly good evidence that the bogus story from Rentokil will go some way to influencing the political process, and help them build on that nice £200m contract from London Underground. I guess this also means that Caroline Pidgeon is not a reader of bad science.

legacy.london.gov.uk/assembly/assemmtgs/2010/mqtmar17/item05.pdf

Watch the Bus Bugs Don’t Bite! (1)
Question No: 1044 / 2010
Caroline Pidgeon
Were you as horrified as me to read recent reports about the disturbing
amount of bugs on our
buses and trains?
*
Watch the Bus Bugs Don’t Bite! (2)
Question No: 1045 / 2010
Caroline Pidgeon
Can you assure Londoners that TfL will step up their efforts to keep our
buses, trams and trains
clean and bug-free?
*
Watch the Bus Bugs Don’t Bite! (3)
Question No: 1046 / 2010
Caroline Pidgeon
How much is spent keeping TfL’s transport system bug free? Please can
you provide the cost
for each mode (bus, tram and train)?

And lastly – with thanks to Thimble in the comments below – let me direct you to Ruth Shearn, a PR consultant who will I suppose be odiously delighted at a mention here. This is the mindset you are dealing with.

www.rentokil.com/blog/learning-the-hard-way/#comment-6378

Update 19/3/10:

got this today, she’s going to raise it again depending on BJ’s response, so, jolly dee, etc.

Dear Ben,

I noticed the references to my questions on your blog and have received several emails from your readers. I just wanted to clarify that my written questions were submitted for answer quite some time ago (not the 17th March as stated) and this was before you did such a great job in exposing the false claims in the report. Whilst we knew the report was from a particular company, we thought it generally raised an interesting issue and thought we should pursue with further questions.

The questions will be finally answered by the Mayor of London late on Monday (21st March) and I will make sure they are sent directly to you. I hope the answers will be of interest to readers of your blog.

With best wishes,

Caroline

Cllr Caroline Pidgeon AM
Liberal Democrat Group
Chair of Transport Committee
London Assembly

hi

thanks, v kind and always good to see politicians being good!

i wonder if you might consider raising a question in the assembly about rentokil misleading the press and the public instead, with their PR story about the infestation of london’s public transport, in an act of scaremongering that will plainly cause distress to the public, smear public transport operators, but also lead to greater income for rentokil? i think the fact that you were taken in – understandably – and raised it as a member of the London Assembly speaks volumes, and this all seems especially relevant in the light of their £200m contract from London Underground.

do please let me know!

b


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

33 Responses



  1. miked said,

    March 18, 2010 at 3:26 pm

    I’ve emailed her as I’m her constituent asking her why she isn’t using a solid evidence base to inform her decision making and questions she’s asking the mayor.
    Doutbless others will do the same.

    * * *

    It did get me thinking though – the “Hive Mind” that follow @bengoldacre on twitter and on your blog – is there not a good use that all these followers could be put to. Some wider public good, or public benefit that could be made from a large group of technically literate and generally rationally minded folk?

  2. Ben Goldacre said,

    March 18, 2010 at 3:32 pm

    yeah i keep thinking that but it’s a bit like herding cats, you do need organisation

    one thing i do think, tho. i keep meeting people from organisations with money which i grumpily think they don’t entirely deserve and i think: if i could get some cash, and employ someone properly as a coordinator with phones, computer, etc, we could do a lot: campaigns, media haranguing, info resources, vid content, audio, etc. got halfway through doing this a few times but too many balls in air to follow through at time. and thing is, i’d need someone to start work just on applying for the money, with the giant forms etc. maybe i’ll advertise for someone on the blog during easter when termtime work is over.

  3. collapsibletank said,

    March 18, 2010 at 3:45 pm

    And thus in centuries to come this post is found to be the turning point of civilisation.

  4. Bonobo said,

    March 18, 2010 at 4:14 pm

    Do you envision something akin to this www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pk7yqlTMvp8

    In all seriousness, it depends how closely you want to manage the “Herding”. What about just setting up a web based collaborative group?

  5. miked said,

    March 18, 2010 at 4:14 pm

    I don’t know what I was thinking of exactly. Perhaps some sort of enquiry centre where people can ask for advice and they get seneible guidance? Or can query media coverage of a particular story and find out to what extent it is true or not.

    The MMR hoax where the press coverage was wrong, and the Bird Flu pandemic where the press coverage was alarmist but genberally accurate are two examples of how the press can be both wrong and right. It isn’t correct to just assume “well its probably alarmist if its in the newspaper, they are always exaggerating”.

    A central resource of people answering questions would maybe have public benefit?

  6. Bonobo said,

    March 18, 2010 at 4:28 pm

    @miked: ah I see, I was looking at the campaigning side, reducing the overhead for Ben re: employing someone. Your more on the lines of an advisory service like www.talktofrank.com like an FAQ setup. Thus the Caroline Pidgeons of this world can use as a reliable evidence base for pretty much anything. I can see the merits in that, pooling sceptical resources into an easily accessible format. I like.

  7. James Aylett said,

    March 18, 2010 at 4:29 pm

    I’ve discussed with some others in the past having a website that could help track claims in the media. So you might have some articles, or a series of adverts for skin cream, or whatever; and annotations to those that dig into the facts for or against what is being discussed.

    However, useful though that is, it doesn’t tackle the advocacy issue of getting the word out to people who aren’t engaged, and who will just believe what is put in front of them.

    I don’t know if the former is needed as a tool to help coordinate people who do the latter, however.

  8. cloudyskies said,

    March 18, 2010 at 4:35 pm

    I was toying with the idea of setting up/getting involved some kind of social enterprise type organisation for outreach work educating people (who might not necessarily read something like this fabulous website) about the principles of science/health research in a fun way…

    I think it would link in well with the DH’s current love of a) social enterprise b) self-care and c)patient empowerment and choice so funding could be available through there.

    Could be linked in with helping people achieve science A-levels and go to uni to do science maybe? Possible funding through universities wanting to widen participation from traditionally under reperesented areas.

    And good for public health and MMR uptake I would hope.

    Might be worth working/getting funding through the British Science Association?

    Will most likely be applying for a job doing funding applications if you get it sorted Ben! :)

  9. Ben Goldacre said,

    March 18, 2010 at 4:39 pm

    thanks, not interested in fact checking org, doubt it would help or be used. do have a zillion other ideas tho, needs some vaguely officey type thing and one genius 3 days a week i suspect. cld churn out a lot.

  10. miked said,

    March 18, 2010 at 4:41 pm

    @James Aylett

    “However, useful though that is, it doesn’t tackle the advocacy issue of getting the word out to people who aren’t engaged, and who will just believe what is put in front of them.”

    Yeah I think sometimes we miss in the media the joy of science and the pleasure of finding things out. Something great communicators such as Feynman and Sagan did so well.

  11. blueporcupine said,

    March 18, 2010 at 4:41 pm

    The advisory service could be one idea to be pursued if funding was in place. There are also a lot of blogs that do the job Ben’s does for other subjects. Just an aggregator linking them all under subject area would be a start. Though voting or otherwise appointing them on there in the first place would be controversial.

    What I like (and I’m not sure to what extent this was the original intention) is the way Bad**** has become a bit of a standard prefix (I nearly said brand) in some internet communities. You see Bad Law and Bad Stats used as a tag. I’ve just come from a two-day argument which involves what I consider to be pretty clearly Bad Tax. The idea linking all usages is an emphasis on evidence-based decision-making, whether in medicine, legislation or whatever.

    If you were to create some sort of resource for aiding evidence-based decision making, it couldn’t be as absolutely empirical across all subjects as it is in science and medicine, of course. But frankly I think, looking at the current state of media and public debate, we’re a long way off erring on that side.

  12. mus said,

    March 18, 2010 at 4:48 pm

    That’s actually something I would want to see in action: some kind of “science rapid response team” or something. You’d need some sort of hub, where news stories (or stuff that’s being pushed by pill-peddlers or politicians, or…) are dissected. Or rather, you’d have people in the hub who’d dig for more information and then hand all that, together with the original story, over to someone within that specific area of expertise. They’d analyse it, give a short rundown of all the facts, and what the real experts (and common sense) think of it, maybe add some citations of relevant peer-reviewed articles, etc, and publish it all back on the hub in a very nice, concise, layman-readable response, and, ideally, mail it over to the original story producer (politician, journalist, etc), and, in the case of a news item, dispense it as mass-letters to the editor.
    Has to be quick, though (faster than factcheck.org), what with short news cycles and that…
    Could maybe also be done in the form of some wiki or something similarly collaborative…

  13. cloudyskies said,

    March 18, 2010 at 4:50 pm

    I was toying with the idea of setting up/getting involved some kind of social enterprise type organisation for outreach work educating people (who might not necessarily read something like this fabulous website or attend goldacre talks) about the principles of science/health research in a fun way…

    Mostly came from some visits I did to some self-help groups who were letting all kinds of nutritionist-types come and peddle their wares to vulnerable people…made me a bit annoyed.

    I think that anything like this, or Miked’s idea would link in well with the DH’s current love of a) social enterprise b) self-care and c)patient empowerment and choice so funding could be available through there.

    Outreach could also be linked in with helping people achieve science A-levels and go to uni to do science maybe? Possible funding through universities wanting to widen participation from traditionally under reperesented areas.

    Also maybe the British Science association might be interested.

    Looking forward to seeing a vacancy I can get excited about applying for anyway…

    In fact Ben, I would probably do the funding apps on a voluntary basis, because it’s something I care about. So if it turns out you can’t create a paid post, for whatever reason, I’ll bet there’s a few students around who would apply for an “internship”?

  14. cloudyskies said,

    March 18, 2010 at 4:53 pm

    Whoops…I thought that first post didn’t go through but obviously it did…if I knew how to delete it I would.
    Apologies everyone.

  15. Katherine Sladden said,

    March 18, 2010 at 5:12 pm

    I’m sure there are lots of examples of Government policy being influenced by media reports.

    I’ve mentioned this before but one that I have done work on is around so-called HIV health tourism, where I think you can see a clear link between a series of unsubstantiated claims in the media and a change in public health policy, that has had a serious impact on people’s lives (i.e. people with HIV not getting treatment). The charity I work for produced this report on this issue – www.nat.org.uk/Media%20library/Files/PDF%20documents/Myth-of-HIV-Health-Tourism-Oct-2008.pdf

    Some kind of coordinated campaign to tackle this kinda stuff would be very interesting. I do it just for HIV issues and that alone could almost be a full-time job, monitoring the media to identify the stories, pursuing complaints through the Press Complaints Commission, managing group of people ready to response to stories, lecturing journo students, producing resources etc. etc.…

  16. miked said,

    March 18, 2010 at 5:13 pm

    Caroline Pidgeon responds:
    “I read the report and thought it was a concern. Am sure the reply will be reassuring for everyone!
    Thank you for taking the time to email me.”

    I think the fact she made a slight error of judgment (a tiny mistake in the grander scheme of things) isn’t the main issue.

    For me the main issue is that the press routinely misleads, that churnalism is on the rise and that people don’t really understand or use evidence effectively.

    @blueporcupine I welcome your comments on the “emphasis on evidence-based decision-making”

  17. ewan said,

    March 18, 2010 at 6:13 pm

    “I guess this also means that Caroline Pidgeon is not a reader of bad science.”

    I wonder if whoever in the mayor’s office winds up answering the questions does though. Could be an interesting response.

  18. blueporcupine said,

    March 18, 2010 at 6:13 pm

    When I’m not a cerulean spiny mammal I’m mostly a copywriter and researcher for the third sector and I’ve done a bit of fund app stuff. Would be happy to chip in a bit of time, just to see if we get anywhere.

  19. raygirvan said,

    March 18, 2010 at 6:51 pm

    Sorry if I’m a bit late on this, but the whole “filthy underground meme” has been on an outing before: see Snopes, Inner Tube, concerning a bogus report, circulating in 2002, of all kinds of filth found on Tube seats.

  20. chris__w said,

    March 18, 2010 at 7:20 pm

    (I finally registered with WordPress and quit lurking, just to post this – y’all are honoured)

    Ben, are you aware of the Open Rights Group? This originated a few years ago as a pledgebank post “I’ll pay a fiver a month for a UK digital rights campaign if 1000 other people also do.” Now, along several hundred other people (not everyone ponied up when the pledge matured…) I help to fund ORG to the tune of a fiver a month. This pays for an office in London and an employee. ORG has also got money from various foundations, but the core funding is independent. Could the ‘Bad Science Club’ work in a similar fashion?

  21. Spence said,

    March 18, 2010 at 8:24 pm

    This is my first post here too and is to pledge my fiver.

    Will it be tax deductible?

  22. beedyg said,

    March 18, 2010 at 8:43 pm

    Ling Valentine made an interesting comment on the rentokil blog www.rentokil.com/blog/learning-the-hard-way/#comment-6369 her point being that all publicity is good publicity and that rentokil can only benefit, besides what harm was done?
    Caroline Pidgeon’s questions are a good visible indicator of the true cost of ‘free’ publicity.

  23. Thimble said,

    March 18, 2010 at 9:50 pm

    The one below that is even worse!

    www.rentokil.com/blog/learning-the-hard-way/#comment-6378

    The PCC’s code pf practice for editors (www.pcc.org.uk/cop/practice.html) say , right at the very top…

    i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures.

    Fail fail fail. I do blame rentokil and the really rather irresponsible PR industry, but it seems lying to the press breaks no rule. The press printing utter rubbish does break a rule, but it seems to go completely unpunished.

  24. Chris Walsh said,

    March 18, 2010 at 11:25 pm

    Is it just for me, or is the Rentokil site down? (error500)

  25. ellieban said,

    March 19, 2010 at 12:36 am

    I too pledge my £5 pm and my time. I’m overseas at the mo, so it would have to be doing something that can be done online, but anything I can do to help :)

    The enemy are organised at the very highest level and they use sophisticated propaganda techniques (check out Climate Cover-up by James Hoggan and desmogblog.com for the chilling truth). We need to start using some of the same tools for engaging or we will continue to loose ground.

    It may seem over the top to use words like “enemy” and “propaganda” but I believe we need to start thinking about these people in those terms and we need to get organised and take them on. Count me in!

  26. PlasticManc said,

    March 19, 2010 at 12:42 am

    Apparently the rentakil site is now down for “maintenance”.
    Google cache here:
    66.102.9.132/search?q=cache:kFuJEJzFgUQJ:www.rentokil.com/blog/learning-the-hard-way&cd=2&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=uk

  27. mrmuddle said,

    March 19, 2010 at 12:59 am

    miked: “Or can query media coverage of a particular story and find out to what extent it is true or not.”

    I’m probably being hideously misguided here, but I kinda thought we had civil servants & appointed experts who are supposed to do this kind of thing for us/the government anyway? And if not, why not?

  28. Marky Mark said,

    March 19, 2010 at 4:31 am

    Assuming that Ruth Shearn really did leave the comment on the Rentokil blog, her website bio is interesting:

    www.rmspr.co.uk/team?team_id=1

    “Honesty, decency, hard work, fun and a passion for generating masses of media coverage for clients are the core values upon which Ruth has built RMS PR.”

    “Honesty” != “Everyone who’s has been offended by the massaging of facts in that initial story appears to be in the marketing profession – surely you should know better.”

  29. Mark Wainwright said,

    March 20, 2010 at 10:07 am

    @11: I love the idea of Ben as Director of the new Institute of Badness, funded by readers of his blog. I pledge my £5.

  30. mikewhit said,

    March 22, 2010 at 10:17 am

    I guess that the Press Complaints body and the ASA aren’t taken too seriously here, but I would always start by issuing a complaint, noting all the relevant complaint section numbers, to the body in question.

    If nothing else, the newspaper or advertiser will tighten up their safeguards on outgoing material. They might even employ some decent staff !

    For example that Rentokil item should have been identified in the press as an ‘advertorial’ or whatever the term is.

  31. JimG said,

    April 3, 2010 at 10:49 am

    The Mayor (or rather, somone who works for him) has since replied to CP’s question:

    Watch the Bus Bugs Don’t Bite! (1)
    Question number 1044/2010
    Meeting date 17/03/2010
    Question by
    Caroline Pidgeon
    Were you as horrified as me to read recent reports about the disturbing amount of bugs on our buses and trains?

    Answer by Boris Johnson
    I am afraid that these reports are a classic piece of PR manipulation by a company trying to sell its wares, and are completely unfounded.
    Rentokil subsequently retracted the claims, and London Underground’s occupational hygiene specialists undertook a full examination of trains, and found no evidence whatsoever of any infestation. Tube trains are cleaned after every working day, and deep cleaned every 14 days to maintain the highest levels of cleanliness. There is no evidence of infestation on buses, either.

    Link: mqt.london.gov.uk/mqt/public/question.do?id=30763

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  33. joey89924 said,

    November 16, 2012 at 2:22 am

    What about just setting up a web based collaborative group?
    www.hqew.net

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