Jeremy Laurance gets angry about scrutiny for journalists’ claims

June 8th, 2010 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, hate mail, independent | 62 Comments »

You might be amused by this piece from the Independent’s health reporter Jeremy Laurance today. It’s about what a bad man I am for pointing out when science and health journalists get things wrong. Alongside the lengthy ad hominem – a matter of taste for you – there are a number of mistakes and, more than that, a worrying resistance to the idea that anyone should dare to engage in legitimate criticism. He also explains that health journalists simply can’t be expected to check facts. This worries me. I’ve dashed off some thoughts below, and offered the Independent a piece about the dangers of misleading science and health journalism, recurring problems, how it can be easily improved, etc. I’ve not heard back yet.

Jeremy Laurance: Dr Goldacre doesn’t make everything better

www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/features/jeremy-laurance-dr-goldacre-doesnt-make-everything-better-1994017.html

Is Ben Goldacre, the celebrated author of Bad Science and scourge of health journalists everywhere, losing it? So accustomed has he become to swinging his fists at the media when they get a science story wrong, I fear he may one day go nuclear and take out three rows of medical correspondents with a single lungful of biting sarcasm.

He was at it again in Saturday’s Guardian, pistol-whipping his Guardian and Observer colleague, health correspondent Denis Campbell, over a report he wrote about fish oil and its supposed role in improving children’s intelligence.

Campbell had reported claims made at a press conference that fish oil improved mental performance in children taking supplements. His crime, however, was to fail to check the claims against the academic paper on which they were based. That showed that the fish oil “enhanced the function of those brain regions that are involved in paying attention”, as revealed by a brain scanner.

Not quite the same as “improving their performance”, as Goldacre rightly pointed out. Indeed the paper revealed that there had been no improvement in the children’s performance. Time, then, for Goldacre to deliver his customary knee-capping. He did so because Campbell declined to help him with his inquiries. Small wonder, given it is the second occasion the hapless Campbell has found himself in Goldacre’s sights.

One doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry at The Guardian’s eagerness to wash its dirty linen in public. It is undeniably magnificent, but – in my view – no way to run a newspaper. I wonder at the psychiatrist’s bills. What does it tell us about health and science reporting? First, most disinterested observers think standards are pretty high (a report by the Department of Business last January said it was in “rude health”). Second, reporters are messengers – their job is to tell, as accurately as they can, what has been said, with the benefit of such insight as their experience allows them to bring, not to second guess whether what is said is right. But third, reporters are also under pressure. Newspaper sales are declining, staff have been cut, demands are increasing.

Goldacre is right to highlight the fact that there is too much “churnalism” – reporters turning out copy direct from press conferences and releases, without checking, to feed the insatiable news machine. This ought to be stopped. But no one, so far, has come up with a commercially realistic idea of how to stop it.

In the meantime, while raging rightly at the scientific illiteracy of the media, he might reflect when naming young, eager reporters starting out on their careers that most don’t enjoy, as he does, the luxury of time, bloggers willing and able to do his spadework for him (one pointed out the flaws in Campbell’s report on The Guardian website five days before Goldacre’s column appeared) and membership of a profession (medicine) with guaranteed job security, a comfortable salary and gold-plated pension. If only.

So there’s a lot of bluster there, which I’ll be grown up about.

More importantly, as I’ve explained before, and as I’ve offered to write in the Independent today (not heard back from them yet, although I’m sure they’ll at least reply, surely) I think it’s worthwhile documenting the errors that medical and science journalists make for a number of reasons.

Firstly, their mistakes, like all of our own, are instructive and informative. You can read the piece Jeremy Laurance is complaining about here:

www.badscience.net/2010/06/the-return-of-a-2bn-fishy-friend/

Alongside pointing out an error – which in itself is a bit dull – this was a chance to talk about sample size, the importance of clear referencing for claims, and the appropriateness of making assertions about whether something works or not based on laboratory findings alone.

But secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it matters when health coverage is misleading, because people really do believe what they read in the newspapers, and there is a wealth of research (which I’ve set out in various places online, and also recently in Lancet Oncology if you like that kind of thing) showing that people make really do make real decisions about their real health risk behaviours based on this information, so it needs to be reasonably accurate where possible.

Anyway, I’ve offered the Independent a piece on these issues, which I hope they’ll take, because I think it’s more interesting than responding to Jeremy Laurance’s ad hominem attacks, and because I think these issues are important.

I think it’s also worth saying that while I’m surprised I don’t get more angry articles like this – because journalists have paradoxically thin skins – there have been 3 now in the Independent, and they do always seem to be filled with wild inaccuracies. A whole column from the science correspondent Steve Connor was memorable for knowledgeably attacking the content of a meeting (“last night”) which in reality hadn’t even happened yet.

Meanwhile the piece by Jeremy Laurance above isn’t far behind.

Laurance says Denis Campbell was faithfully reporting the contents of a press conference by Prof McNamara, and says that health reporters can’t be expected to double check false claims made by academics in press conferences about their own work against the contents of their academic paper.

Firstly, of course, I disagree: this is a manifesto for failure. A science or health journalist is not a dictation secretary, and they should be capable of reading and understanding an academic paper, especially if they’re claiming in their piece that the academic paper is their source, as Campbell did. It doesn’t take long, I’ve helped train people in it before, and I’ll happily do so again. But secondly, Jeremy Laurance rather rashly explains that Prof McNamara was responsible for making these false claims about his own research. I don’t know where Laurance gets this idea from, but it seemed very unlikely to me, so I asked Prof McNamara if it was true this morning in an email.

He’s just got back to me, and Laurance is wrong on this too. There was a press conference, but Prof McNamara is absolutely clear that he didn’t claim his study had shown that omega-3 supplements improve performance, and he never has done so. He has kindly sent his slides from that presentation (and his correspondence with the Observer) which bear him out. Furthermore he doesn’t think there’s evidence that omega-3 supplements work at present, though he’s optimistic for the future, and I can find no evidence of him ever making claims that these pills improve performance, although such a claim has now been attributed to him by both Denis Campbell and, now, Jeremy Laurance.

Meanwhile Laurance repeatedly talks about “fish oil” (the research showed that “fish oil ‘enhanced the function of those brain regions that are involved in paying attention’, as revealed by a brain scanner”and so on). As I explained, in the actual piece that Laurance is responding to, this wasn’t a study of fish oil, it was on omega-3 fatty acids derived from algae. Next up, we drift into Laurance’s slightly dreary ad hominem stuff (why are they so agitated by the idea that I went to medical school?) but it’s pertinent because he’s wrong again: he says that by “naming young, eager reporters starting out on their careers” such as Campbell I will put them off. But Denis Campbell started writing for the Observer in 1999, and in 1999 I was still a student. Meanwhile Denis had already at that time worked previously for the Herald, Scotland on Sunday, Time Out and the Irish Times.

I could go on.

All I suggest is that when people write stuff in newspapers they could first take very basic steps to ensure that it is accurate. I don’t think that’s unreasonable, but more importantly, I hope the Independent will take a sensible piece on this, and on why repeated errors in medical coverage are non-trivial, as it’s an important issue.

If you shout and get angry at reasoned criticism, instead of engaging with it constructively, you go down the same path as the homeopaths. Meanwhile if you are optimistic about the future of science journalism (I am, a little, from bloggers I know, the trainees I meet on various courses, and my mates who are sound science journalists) I invite you to feel the pleasure at this piece from some professional science journalists. Perhaps you will like this ringing endorsement of Laurance’s “good points well made”, from an editor at New Scientist, no less.

twitter.com/hvthomson/status/15698603321

For a corner of science journalists who feel it is impertinent and wrong that we dare to challenge their shortcomings, Jeremy Laurance is a champion. These are the ones to watch.

(In the interests of fairness, I should say that equally, people like the mighty Ed Yong and Lawrence McGinty at ITV were rather less enthusiastic).

Edit 17:15:

Mmm, I’m generally a fan of the Independent, but one thing here is strikes me as being pretty graceless of them. I submitted the comment below to their website at lunchtime today. 5 hours later, 3 further comments that have appeared, all from within the past hour, and my comment hasn’t. I really do think that’s a bit weak, when it’s from the guy you’re writing about, but particularly when it’s pointing out flat errors in your piece. I’ve similarly had no reply from anyone at the Indy that I emailed to offer a piece, the comment editors, the features editors, or the editor’s office. I don’t have a very strong sense of entitlement, fair enough if they don’t want a piece, but altogether I think that’s not very stylish of the Indy, if you’re going to run a piece like that. I don’t think my comment was inappropriate, you can read it below.

www.badscience.net/2010/06/jeremy-laurance-is-an-angry-man/comment-page-1/#comment-33032

Edit 17:45: it appeared 30 mins after I badgered them on Twitter.


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62 Responses



  1. CdrJameson said,

    June 8, 2010 at 3:45 pm

    It sounds to me more like a cry for help – “Yes, we’re doing a terrible job, but then being a journalist is a terrible job so what do you expect?”

    A newspaper is a hungry beast, and it tends to eat a lot of very low quality editorial. Oh, and the commercially realistic alternative is (sadly) not to employ professional journalists to write a lot on topics they know little about, it’s to find knowledgable, interested people who can write a little on topics they know a lot about.

    Sorry, journalists.

  2. twaza said,

    June 8, 2010 at 4:09 pm

    The Sunday Sun is trying to achieve a balance between marketing claims and scientific advice. I suspect this is because Bad Science is having the desired effect on some journalists. Keep up the good work, Ben!

    See tiny.cc/65bnt

  3. DrCyberBob said,

    June 8, 2010 at 4:09 pm

    Whilst there is a lot to be concerned about in that article, the statement that sends shivers down my spine is:
    “One doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry at The Guardian’s eagerness to wash its dirty linen in public. It is undeniably magnificent, but – in my view – no way to run a newspaper.”

    How shocking! A newspaper attempting to provide some balance by publishing, wait for it… contrasting points of view! What will their poor readers do? We can’t trust proles to make an informed decision, we should be collecting together into a nicely edited homogenised mass! Ludicrous, insulting and coming from a spokesperson for science, where the interesting work is done when people disagree, frightening.

  4. Ed Yong said,

    June 8, 2010 at 4:24 pm

    Laurance can’t even cite a report correctly. Referring to the state of health and science reporting, he says that “most disinterested observers think standards are pretty high”, citing a “report by the Department of Business last January said it was in ‘rude health’”. Unfortunately, that report solely looked at the amount of science reporting in the UK with no consideration given to its standards. Quantity is, of course, not the same as quality. The report was also based on a piece of research conducted by surveying journalists, who could hardly be said to be “disinterested observers”. Either he hasn’t actually read the report, or he’s very subtly suggesting that journalists are disinterested in their own profession.

    If it’s the latter, this might help to explain the frankly terrifying “reporters are messengers” bit. Does this not read like the manifesto for science journalism as stenography? Is it not part of a reporter’s job to add some form of analysis and context, to speak truth to power?

    The bit about pressure does at least have the joyous upside of actually being true. But it hardly excuses bad reporting! Perhaps in future, we should all stop being such big meanies to “young, eager reporters” and just ruffle the lovable scamps’ hair and draw a sad face on their report cards.

  5. Peter Beattie said,

    June 8, 2010 at 4:27 pm

    A science or health journalist is not a dictation secretary …

    Nor is any other journalist, I might add. Laurance’s assertion that

    reporters are messengers – their job is to tell, as accurately as they can, what has been said, with the benefit of such insight as their experience allows them to bring, not to second guess whether what is said is right

    (or as Stephen Colbert said: “make, announce, type”) is a piece of breathtaking inanity, not least since it logically means that reporters should not be required to know what they’re talking about. What a disgrace for someone writing at The Independent.

  6. muscleman said,

    June 8, 2010 at 4:43 pm

    Is it any wonder he is angry Ben, you are asking him to actually do some proper work for a change, or that would be an implication of his ire at being asked to actually properly check his sources or gasp, learn to understand a science paper properly.

  7. skyesteve said,

    June 8, 2010 at 4:45 pm

    “reporters are messengers – their job is to tell, as accurately as they can, what has been said, with the benefit of such insight as their experience allows them to bring, not to second guess whether what is said is right”

    I can’t believe he said that either. It’s not reporters job to seek out the truth?! How can anyone who actually writes that even call themselves a journalist?

  8. SarahK said,

    June 8, 2010 at 4:51 pm

    Srsly, he resorted to calling you mental? How grown up.

    Apparently doctors have super easy jobs and shouldn’t be mean to poor widdle journalists about “facts”.

  9. Tall Paul said,

    June 8, 2010 at 4:59 pm

    It is dismaying to see that the original article has been pulled already. Click on the links and you get 404. Typical. Sweep it under the carpet.

    Also, surely Ben you could have made a lot more of the fact that the actual headline of the original story is contradicted by its content! (and that is even allowing for the fish oil/ algae derived omega-3 mix-up)

    Surely that is the biggest journalistic mistake here? Sadly it is one that is extremely common, particularly in health news reporting, so maybe we overlook it because we are so accustomed to it? Although it may be that Campbell is not responsible for that, it may well have been an editor that decided the final headline.

  10. lawrencemcginty said,

    June 8, 2010 at 5:00 pm

    Jeremy Laurence is actually one of the more careful journalists on national newspapers. That’s why I find it very strange that he takes the view that health reporters should merely report what people said without checking. I know that resources are spread thinly but I don’t think that’s a reason for not reading the original paper when reporting from a press conference based on publication. OK it can get really technical but the basics are not too difficult to decipher. And personally I’d like to be able to refer readers/viewers to the original paper (though I doubt I could convince programme editors of that). Anyone who read the original Wakefield et al paper knew it was bullshit. We just reported what he said at the presser. Woe.

  11. Thimble said,

    June 8, 2010 at 5:01 pm

    Here is the very first rule in the PCC’s Editors’ Code [of conduct]:

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

    www.pcc.org.uk/cop/practice.html

    Compare and contrast:

    “Second, reporters are messengers – their job is to tell, as accurately as they can, what has been said, with the benefit of such insight as their experience allows them to bring, not to second guess whether what is said is right.”

    Speaking for myself, I am with the PCC on this.

  12. Ben Goldacre said,

    June 8, 2010 at 5:08 pm

    ok, i’m generally a fan of the Independent, but one thing here is really graceless. i submitted the comment below to their website at lunchtime.

    there are now, 5 hours later, 3 further comments that have appeared, all from within the past hour. my comment hasn’t.

    that’s really a bit weak, when it’s from the guy you’re writing about, and also pointing out flat errors.

    i’ve also had no reply from anyone at the Indy that I emailed to offer a piece, the comment editors, the features editors, and the editor Simon Kelner.

    that is all very weak, imho.

    ###################################

    I think it’s worthwhile documenting the errors that medical and science journalists make for a number of reasons.

    Firstly, their mistakes, like all of our own, are instructive and informative. You can read the piece Jeremy Laurance is complaining about here:

    www.badscience.net/2010/06/the-return-of-a-2bn-fishy-friend/

    Alongside pointing out an error – which in itself is a bit dull – this was a chance to talk about sample size, the importance of clear referencing for claims, and the appropriateness of making assertions about whether something works or not based on laboratory findings alone.

    But secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it matters when health coverage is misleading, because people really do believe what they read in the newspapers, and there is a wealth of research (which I set out recently in eg the academic journal Lancet Oncology bit.ly/bSImmD ) showing that they base their health risk behaviours on it.

    I’ve offered the Independent a piece about this, which I hope they’ll take, because I think it’s more interesting than responding to Jeremy Laurance’s ad hominem attacks, and because I think these issues are important.

    It’s worth saying, lastly, that while I’m surprised I don’t get more articles like this – because journalists have paradoxically thin skins – there have been 3 now in the Independent, and they always seem to be filled with bizarre inaccuracies. A whole column from the science correspondent Steve Connor was memorable for knowledgeably attacking the content of a meeting (“last night”) which in reality hadn’t even happened yet:

    www.badscience.net/2009/07/steve-connor-is-getting-eggy/

    Meanwhile the piece by Laurance above isn’t far behind.

    He repeatedly talks about “fish oil”, the research showed that “fish oil ‘enhanced the function of those brain regions that are involved in paying attention’, as revealed by a brain scanner” and so on. As I explained in the very piece Laurance was responding to, this wasn’t a study of fish oil, but of omega-3 fatty acids derived from algae, that was one of Campbell’s many errors, repeated by Laurance.

    He says that by “naming young, eager reporters starting out on their careers” like Campbell I will put them off. Denis Campbell started writing for the Observer in 1999, when I was still a student (he had already at that time worked previously for the Herald, Scotland on Sunday, Time Out and the Irish Times).

    He says Denis Campbell was faithfully reporting the contents of a press conference by Prof McNamara. I asked Prof McNamara if that was true this morning in an email. He’s just got back to me to say that this is untrue, and has kindly sent his slides (and correspondence with the Observer) which bear him out. I might post this on badscience.net when I next get a spare moment. It didn’t take long to check!

    I could go on. All I suggest is that when people write stuff in newspapers they could first take very basic steps to ensure that it is accurate. I don’t think that’s unreasonable.

    Anyway, hopefully the Independent will take a sensible piece on this, and on why repeated errors in medical coverage are non-trivial, as it’s an important issue.

    (Small print, but for the alternative medicine enthusiasts here who pretend I don’t write about big pharma too… This piece below, from me in the British Medical Journal, sets the problems out fairly clearly, I hope it’s worth reading, you could also see my dozen or so pieces on the subject in print over the past year, my numerous open public lectures on “drug company bullshit”, my medical student teaching on the same topic, various radio 4 appearances about bad behaviour in big pharma, and indeed my next book, which is on the subject. You guys. You guys!)

    www.bmj.com/cgi/content/full/339/nov27_1/b4949

    [edit 17:45: it suddenly appeared 30 mins after i badgered them on twitter.]

  13. Andy Williams said,

    June 8, 2010 at 5:26 pm

    As I conducted part of the BIS research that is referred to here I’d like to pipe up as well.
    The report by the Expert Grroup on Science and the Media referred to science journalism as in “rude health”.
    My separate commissioned research was much more circumspect.
    In terms of increases in the number of science, health, and environment reporters on this news beat there is some (limited) reason to be cheerful.
    But almost everything else I found was severely depressing.
    I found the same number (or fewer) journalists doing A LOT more work since 2005…
    Consequently they have less time to check facts and research stories – one fifth said that they didn’t have enough time to fact-check the storie they write, and only a fifth said that most of their stories originated with their own journalistic enquiries.
    I found that to a large extent science journalism is becoming de-skilled and more passive… less active “original journalism”, almost no investigative stuff
    Science news content has been homogenised… largely because of this over-reliance on efficient and dominant news sources with slick PR operations, and because news outlets do not want to experiment, and rely too much on a “pack journalism” mentality… covering what the competition does rather than investing in independent investigations.
    We found that PR and strong news sources are providing increasing levels of “information subsidy”, and are having more and more influence.
    And all of this in aggregate means that the prospects for high-quality, independent, science journalism in the mainstream news media are severely diminished.
    And all of this, as Ed Yong rightly points out here, from a research project based on asking science journalists themselves for the answers.

  14. Andy Williams said,

    June 8, 2010 at 5:28 pm

    [shameless plug]
    Anyone can download the full report here if they want. I don’t think it makes very encouraging reading at all if you care about the future of science news:
    www.cardiff.ac.uk/jomec/research/researchgroups/riskscienceandhealth/fundedprojects/mappingscience.html
    (link at bottom of the page)
    [/shameless plug]

  15. SteveGJ said,

    June 8, 2010 at 5:30 pm

    On a pure technical matter, I don’t think that Jeremy Laurance’s personal attack is an example of “ad hominem” (in it’s usual sense as an argument addressed at the man and not the argument). As various authorities will point out, personal attacks and abuse are not “ad hominem” logical falacies as such (the normal use). That’s only the case where it’s used as a way to detract from the underlying argument.

    It’s my reading of this item that it is actually intended to be a personal attack on the way Ben criticises the reporting of individual stories and the effects on young reporters. Also the charge is that Ben is cherry picking easy particular targets and using that to highlight a general argument that science reporting in the UK is generally misleading and argument.

    I suppose it qualifies as “ad hominem” as a literal translation, but really the issue of this article is a complaint about Ben’s conduct. As such it can hardly be but personal.

  16. elfy said,

    June 8, 2010 at 5:30 pm

    He also seems to be suggesting that professional journalists have less time to research and write about things than people like Ben who mostly work in another profession and blog in their spare time. That doesn’t quite seem right.

  17. SteveGJ said,

    June 8, 2010 at 5:33 pm

    oops – far to many grammatical errors in my post (the “and argument” at the end of the second paragraph should read “and inadequate.”). One day I’ll learn to proof-read what I write.

  18. phayes said,

    June 8, 2010 at 5:53 pm

    Scaremongering; getting their facts and logic hopelessly, absurdly wrong; ignoring important stuff that isn’t ‘sexy’ and focusing on the personal; failing to acknowledge their errors; not publishing website comments they don’t like;…

    That *is* ‘professional journalism’, isn’t it?

  19. wiz5 said,

    June 8, 2010 at 8:39 pm

    reporters are messengers – their job is to tell, as accurately as they can, what has been said, with the benefit of such insight as their experience allows them to bring, not to second guess whether what is said is right

    In the age of the internet you would think journalists would be eager to prove their worth and not have their function described as something which can be done by a piece of software.

  20. nel said,

    June 8, 2010 at 8:43 pm

    How many articles would a science journalist write in a week? Surely it can’t be that many, unless they’re all writing for several different papers at once. I find it hard to believe there isn’t time to read one article before you write about it.

  21. nel said,

    June 8, 2010 at 8:54 pm

    I just looked up the number of articles by jeremy laurance on something called ‘journalisted’ i think it was. 889 published since august 2006 so about 5 a week? A whole day isn’t enough to read the article you’re writing about? Nonsense. I do a proper job and read articles on top of that, and probably earn a lot less than him. I officially don’t feel sorry for journalists.

  22. RainyDayInterns said,

    June 8, 2010 at 11:51 pm

    Perhaps Jeremy should switch to covering celebrities and entertainment news where the “facts” are more… fluid.

  23. CoralBloom said,

    June 9, 2010 at 7:00 am

    This is all really worrying.

    @Andy Williams (13)
    As I suspected, not enough people doing too much work. Can we think of a single industry where this isn’t the case? Employers should sort that out because working people too hard leads to stress and as far as I am aware, employers have an obligation to ensure they do not do this under current Health & Safety regulations. Journalism needs better training and on-the-job maintenance but that only comes from a decent culture within the companies. Still, it takes the journalists to stand up for themselves and that is what they have unions for! Perhaps the journalists themselves should be pressing for a better enforcement of the PCC Editors’ Code.

    Why don’t enough journalists take some responsibility for the work the do, and the subsequent effects? What is wrong with taking some pride in doing a job well? The situation will not improve until the journalists themselves start telling their bosses that they simply are not prepared to ‘whip something up quickly’.

    As for the statement:
    “Second, reporters are messengers – their job is to tell, as accurately as they can, what has been said, with the benefit of such insight as their experience allows them to bring, not to second guess whether what is said is right.”

    I’ve just been listening to an old American radio show reporting on the reporting by the New York Times on how one TV news journalist with a well-known programme became embroiled in a bit of a scandal. The expose is exactly what we want from journalists (www.democracynow.org/2003/5/8/looks_like_news_sounds_like_news
    ). But we don’t get it. What we get instead is no better than astrology! It simply isn’t good enough. There are marketing people employed to give out spin. Journalists are there to break through the spin, the misleading statements etc.

    This doesn’t just apply to science. It applies to just about everything ever reported. Should we have reporters simply writing out verbatim a form of history that suits some government somewhere in the world? Should we have reporters simply repeating a multinational corporations version of economics, thus creating new ‘facts’ and mathematics? Should the public be spoon-fed propaganda to suit some company that needs to create a market for their superb method for enhancing education?

    It’s so bad I stopped buying newspapers years ago because they aren’t newspapers, they are comics IMHO. Any news or documentaries I see on TV or hear on radio, I treat as no more factual than what is on offer on Corrie or I’ve heard along at the bus stop. The clue was a news reporter on TV many, many years ago informing the public that E. coli was a virus – quite a memory, I was recovering from the departmental Christmas party the night before with about 6 uni mates all of us working in one biology field or another when that came on the news!

    RainyDayInterns

    I think he’d be better off spending a year working with a journalist like Allan Nairn – get some really skills and experience of what the profession of journalism really is!
    www.allannairn.com/2010/03/breaking-news-indonesian-army-kopassus.html

  24. Timo_M said,

    June 9, 2010 at 7:32 am

    Ben:”…there are now, 5 hours later, 3 further comments that have appeared, all from within the past hour. my comment hasn’t…”

    Now it seems your comment has been published alongside some other tough comments on Laurences piece. Pure science reality entertainment.

  25. Ginger Yellow said,

    June 9, 2010 at 8:39 am

    “Second, reporters are messengers – their job is to tell, as accurately as they can, what has been said, with the benefit of such insight as their experience allows them to bring, not to second guess whether what is said is right”

    As a journalist myself, comments like this – which I’m more used to seeing from US journos than Brits – make my blood boil. Of course we’re supposed to “second guess whether what is said is right”. We do so all the time – how else would we know who to talk to in the first place? We’d just interview everyone we meet in the street if we weren’t making truth judgements all the time. More fundamentally, the purpose of journalism is to inform and entertain your readers. You can’t inform someone accurately if you conduct misleading stenography. By all means quote someone who you think is wrong, but give your readers sufficient context so that they can arrive at the truth. If your readers don’t end up more accurately informed at the end of the article than the start, then you’ve failed as a journalist.

  26. chinajiaho said,

    June 9, 2010 at 9:26 am

    How many articles would a science journalist write in a week? Surely it can’t be that many, unless they’re all writing for several different papers at once.

  27. Guy said,

    June 9, 2010 at 9:47 am

    I must say I had to check the link to the Indie. Thought it had probably been a spoof in Private Eye or similar. You really do wonder what the Editor of the Indie is doing allowing this sort of crap to be published. Does he have no pride for his once proud paper? I took the Indie for a number of years when it was first launched. Got fed up and swapped to the Guardian. This reminds me why!

  28. mtettmar said,

    June 9, 2010 at 11:38 am

    It’s interesting that Laurance thinks that it is not the job of journalists to fact-check or analyse their reports. Is that not exactly what political and financial reporters do? Journalists writing about the current political and economic goings on certainly do not just write what they hear coming from politicians mouths, or copy verbatim from party manifestos. They are actually hell bent on digging out the truth and checking what lies behind them. So why is it not the job of health journalists to do the same?

  29. lasker said,

    June 9, 2010 at 4:43 pm

    From the list at Guardian.co.uk Denis Campbell wrote 19 articles in May 2010, although the list does not include the fish oil piece so the total may be higher. So about one article per day not including weekends. I don’t imagine that it would be possible to write scientific papers at the rate of one per day so this will inevitably be a different type of writing with a different degree of rigour.
    Does Mr Campbell have complete control over the output expected from him? If not then perhaps criticism could be directed at editorial policy. Presumably it was an editorial decision for the Guardian to withdraw the original article from their website. So does this mean that the Guardian editorial policy will come to reflect your drive for pure, clean information? That would be a great step forwards.

    On a different point if newspaper articles come to link to the original papers it will be frustrating if all that are linked to are abstracts rather than the whole papers.

  30. StevieWill said,

    June 9, 2010 at 5:00 pm

    In his Diaries the late Alan Clark suggested that journalist should be subject to a yearly audit. He didn’t develop the idea, but how about the following.

    An independent agency looks at all the stories written by the main journalists in all our major newspapers.Each story will make a number of statements of fact or predictions, each of these could be analysed into one of four categories

    Supported by the balance of the evidence
    Unsupported by the balance of the evidence
    Meaningless Waffle

    This would clearly be a massive undertaking, and probably impractical; but it would highlight the level of trust we can put in individual journalists and give an indication as to their professional integrity

  31. SteveGJ said,

    June 9, 2010 at 7:25 pm

    @30

    It’s a sort of reverse “ad hominem” point (I’m sure a Latin scholar could avise me of the right form), but in making an argument, then I think it’s probably going to be important to choose who you care to quote. Alan Clark may have been amusing, but he was a detestable, self interested, individual and it’s difficult to think of any single thing he said which would improve public accountability. But then his dad was a dreadful example too and I hated his narrow minded view of what civilisation meant. We are well rid of the both of them.

    But to be serious, the idea of some official audit of the writings of journalists is surely an appalling one replete, as it is, with the possibilities of institutional repression. What we surely need to encourage is a proper diversity of viewpoint and some encouragement to individuals to be suitably sceptical about anything that they read. Too frequently I see those on the side of angels resort to the propoganda of an Engels.

  32. StevieWill said,

    June 9, 2010 at 8:27 pm

    Interesting analysis, and I would agree with Alan Clark being a detestable, self interested individual. I would also add childish, insecure and rather sad to the mix.(Though why you needed to drag his dad in is beyond me). He did however, first come up with the idea so obviously that had to be acknowledged.
    As to the more serious point, I again agree that some audit by an “Official Agency” would be appalling. This is why I used the term “independent”, perhaps run by volunteers, whose only aim is to be objective in their analysis. This is naive of me I know, but I live in hope.
    I also, finally, agree that we should encourage diversity of viewpoint, but ultimately your viewpoint either is supported by some evidence, or it is not.
    In the end, the judgement as to the strength of the evidence is down to the individual, but some help would surely always be helpful.
    As to your final line, I would only say that it is a pity that after such a thoughtful and intelligent analysis you felt the need to resort to cliche.

  33. SteveGJ said,

    June 9, 2010 at 10:47 pm

    @32

    Resort to cliche? Dear oh dear – it may have been resorting to a bad pun (as far as I know, one completely my own creation and therefore fault) in support of an important point. What I meant, and it certainly wasn’t aimed at you, is that there are a lot of journalists and columnists who will support an ethically whorthwhile position with something not far different from propoganda.

    Also, I can’t really support the notion that a viewpoint is necessarily supported by the evidence or otherwise in all cases. Of course there are some items which are simple matters of fact which are relatively straightforward to test. However, there are many issues which it is simply impossible to decide on the available evidence at the time – that’s particularly true when it comes to basic ethical standards or personal outlook. If studying physics taught me one thing, it was that there is a limit to certainty, and it has made me deeply sceptical about just how far this can be taken in the world of society. Which, of course, gets me back to Engels and Marx and spurious certainties of political theory and economics.

    As for dragging in Lord Clarke into it, then I can’t really make an apology. I think there was rather a lot of his outlook in his son’s approach, and I think he took a very narrow minded view of what the nature of civilisation was. Jacob Bronowski was, to my mind, a far wiser mind with much more humanity in him and somebody who could genuinely span CP Snow’s two cultures.

    I’m also not wholly convinced of the idea of some self-elected independently minded group that can be considered to be truly objective. Inevitably such groups don’t tend to confine themselves to those parts that can be narrowly defined as reasonably objective.

  34. Catso said,

    June 9, 2010 at 11:03 pm

    I find this bit quite offensive:

    “…membership of a profession (medicine) with guaranteed job security, a comfortable salary and gold-plated pension. If only”

    Doctors have to compete for jobs every couple of years or so until consultant level with no guarantees along the way. Who knows when the government will spring the next MMC on them?

    They are charged over £400 annually by their regulatory body, membership of which is mandatory to practise medicine. This registration is dependant on their practise being evidence based and accountable at all times.

    I somehow doubt science journalists are particularly poorly paid, and they can write what they like, justify it to nobody, and still call themselves ‘professional’.

  35. Andy Williams said,

    June 10, 2010 at 9:31 am

    @ CoralBloom (23)
    I think that the problem runs much deeper than that, and journalists fighting thier corner in over-worked newsrooms can only go so far.
    The problem is that most news organisations have to make a profit, and most long ago decided that the pursuit of cash for shareholders was far more important than the public interest.
    No amount of refusal to “whip something up quickly” will change the systemic roots of a problem that lies in the currently applied market model for news.

  36. JonDurham said,

    June 10, 2010 at 11:12 am

    The print media defence that journalists only report what is said is disingenuous to say the least. It then becomes acceptable for the Express to report (as it did) that mobile phone masts have a causal link to suicides of young people. Someone said or wrote this, after all, so the journalist was simply reporting a third party opinion.

    Not good enough, I’m afraid. It would be hard for any journalist to ignore such headline-grabbing claims, but at the very least they deserve to be balanced by informed, expert opinion from elsewhere. That’s what happens with reporting on politics (the Tories say this, but Labour disagrees), finance, social issues, and even the arts. Why not science and health reporting? Especially science and health reporting?

  37. irishaxeman said,

    June 10, 2010 at 11:34 am

    I think the general decline of journalism and the reliance on PA type copy has been well charted by Nick Davies and others. There is a presumption by the London media and polity (including all the major parties) that the rest of the country consists of dumb proles who can’t handle anything intelligent complicate or conflicted. This is reinforced by the baleful influence of the arch misanthrope Murdoch. Put the lot together and sooner or later even good reporters will compile bollix or spout drivel.

  38. Ben Goldacre said,

    June 10, 2010 at 2:23 pm

    sent this to Indy letters. not my greatest letter to a newspaper but i can’t be arsed to finesse.

    ####

    Dear Guy,

    letter for publication below if that’s ok, it would be good if you
    could let me know about edits, if you’re able, but I’m sure you’re
    busy.

    I think you might also get one from Prof McNamara, as Jeremy
    Laurance’s piece falsely suggests that he made unsubstantiated claims
    about his own research which led to Denis Campbell’s error, which is
    untrue (and I guess vaguely defamatory). I thought unpicking all the
    various errors like that in Laurance’s piece myself in a letter was
    unrealistic though.

    cheers,

    Ben

    Dear Editor,

    your health correspondent Jeremy Laurance devotes a whole column this
    week to criticising me for daring to point out when health
    correspondents get things wrong. He says that health journalists
    cannot be expected to check claims about a medical research paper, by
    reading that research themselves, because they are too busy.

    This is a manifesto for failure. People buy newspapers because they
    believe the articles are written by people who have checked their
    facts. Reading an academic paper doesn’t take long, and it should be
    well within a health correspondent’s abilities: doctors can sometimes
    read them, and we’re neither clever nor known for our slack diaries.

    The damage to the reputation of journalism from assertions like
    Laurance’s are one thing, but health is special: as I show at length
    in my book, people really do make health risk behaviour decisions
    based on what they read in the papers. They trust journalists, and in
    the arena of health, when that information is incorrect, it causes
    unnecessary suffering and loss of life.

    I can’t judge how bad it looks when a newspaper repeatedly attacks one
    critic of their profession in such personal terms, and with so many
    bizarre inaccuracies (documented at badscience.net, for pedants). But
    lives are at stake from flat misinformation about health in the media,
    so if reasoned criticism really does make you this nervous, I’ll keep
    on going.

    Yours,

    Ben Goldacre

    ben@badscience.net

    www.badscience.net

    dr ben goldacre
    ben@goldacre.net
    www.badscience.net/

    READ CAREFULLY. By reading this email, you agree, on behalf of your
    employer, to release me from all obligations and waivers arising from
    any and all NON-NEGOTIATED agreements, licenses, terms-of-service,
    shrinkwrap, clickwrap, browsewrap, confidentiality, non-disclosure,
    non-compete and acceptable use policies (“BOGUS AGREEMENTS”) that I have
    entered into with your employer, its partners, licensors, agents and
    assigns, in perpetuity, without prejudice to my ongoing rights and
    privileges. You further represent that you have the authority to release
    me from any BOGUS AGREEMENTS on behalf of your employer. If you
    are anything other than a friend or an institutional professional colleague and
    you are writing to me about Bad Science stuff then it is reasonable to assume
    that I might quote our discussion in my writing, usually anonymously.

  39. Sqk said,

    June 10, 2010 at 5:15 pm

    I see that no one wants to be first to reply after Ben…

    If you’ll excuse my not responding directly to the argument, instead I wish to address Catso’s comment. I take your point about the journalism profession but I feel that you should be a little less offended.

    Medicine IS a relatively secure profession (‘secure’ itself being a relative term, especially so these days) as people will always be ill and medics will always be needed (how they are treated is another matter, but my point remains). I would have loved to have been part of a profession that is so useful to society, and the health professionals I know feel I’d have been horribly good at it and certainly have the stomach and humour, but I was precluded by a pre-existing condition.

    Instead I have gained my doctorate in something else and traipse the world bringing science to humanities undergrads and postgrads, prevention always better than the cure. I can assure you that this is nowhere near as ‘secure’ or well-paid as medicine and with said condition jobs aren’t exactly plentiful.

    Incidently: I also have to belong to my professional body and remain accountable at all times.

  40. elvisionary said,

    June 10, 2010 at 11:28 pm

    Nothing wrong with your letter, Ben.

    I’ve really tried to have some sympathy with Jeremy Laurance, but I just read his piece again, and I’m sorry, it’s just one of the most pathetic things I’ve ever read.

    Jeremy and Denis must have had a flush of pride the first time they saw their names against an article in a national newspaper. They must have felt that in some sense they’d made it – and they were right. Their words could be read by hundreds of thousands of people – they can make a real difference.

    It’s bizarre – one of the things that annoys me about the press in the UK at the moment is their Watergate complex – their sense that there’s no point in becoming a journo (and accepting lower pay than an intelligent and literate person might have got in another profession) unless they get to expose corruption or wrongdoing. And yet here we have a journalist whingeing about the idea of having to be sceptical about what he’s been fed. Get a life.

    If I were Laurance’s editor, I’d be looking for the first excuse to get rid of him for this. Surely our journalists should be made of sterner stuff.

  41. JimLee said,

    June 10, 2010 at 11:39 pm

    The original story via the link quoted here seems to have been pulled

    www.guardian.co.uk/science/2010/may/30/fish-oil-supplement-concentration

    “Sorry – we haven’t been able to serve the page you asked for”

    What could it all mean?! Seems like a nice symbiotic relationship going on here, shame the Indy went and messed it all up eh.

    Btw Ben if you pull this post too you’ll look like the journalistic equivalent of Gillian McKeith.

  42. JimLee said,

    June 11, 2010 at 12:07 am

    Not that I’m insinuating you were responsible for the pulling of the guardian.co.uk article, only a post I made on another thread.

    And maybe Gillian McKeith is a little harsh, but certainly if you pulled my last post I would proably place you in the same category as a 470 quid kettle lead.

  43. Ambulance Amateur said,

    June 12, 2010 at 10:38 pm

    The term “Science Jounalist” puts “science” first and “journalist” second. That is the way they should work.

    A Crime Reporter does not have the luxury of working with experts, except for the terse statement that they get from the police. He has to rely on the layman. The same applies to most other sections of journalism, with the possible exception of sport.

    How many crime reporters have degrees in Criminology? Most (all?) science journalists have at least a first degree in a science subject, and many have higher degrees.

    When reporting science, the writer must use his/her own knowledge and research abilities as well as the statement from experts. The journalist is then in a position to make a critical review of a statement made.

    As you said, science journalists are not there simply to render donated papers intelligible to the general public, but to use their scientific knowledge.

  44. Daibhid C said,

    June 12, 2010 at 11:29 pm

    Jim, I’m not quite sure how this “symbiotic relationship” works: Ben writes a column pointing out the errors in a Guardian article, and then the article gets pulled? If Ben is sneakily warning the Guardian about scientific errors so they can pull such articles, surely a much better way of going about it would involve not writing columns pointing them out?

  45. David Dobbs said,

    June 13, 2010 at 12:25 am

    “reporters are messengers – their job is to tell, as accurately as they can, what has been said, with the benefit of such insight as their experience allows them to bring, not to second guess whether what is said is right.”

    Yong and Goldacre are dead right, this is a recipe for failure, and not of an abstract sort. In science reporting it led to the MMR>autism debacle. In political reporting it gave us the Iraq War, as the press relayed with great fidelity the lies and bad info about WMDs.

    And it appears here that the reporting didn’t even relay the researcher’s statements accurately. This is bad enough. But to have it defended with the recipe for failure is disheartening indeed.

  46. Grant Jacobs said,

    June 14, 2010 at 12:31 am

    I’ve added my own thoughts in a blog post:

    sciblogs.co.nz/code-for-life/2010/06/14/that-ben-goldacre-fuss/

  47. Jessicathejourno said,

    June 15, 2010 at 4:20 pm

    “Journalists writing about the current political and economic goings on certainly do not just write what they hear coming from politicians mouths, or copy verbatim from party manifestos. They are actually hell bent on digging out the truth and checking what lies behind them. So why is it not the job of health journalists to do the same?”

    Er . . . no. Really – no.

    Not to say it isn’t important to point out shoddy science journalism, not to say Ben isn’t doing important work (though this entry’s starting to suggest troll-feeding and and his column generally is getting too many first person singulars), but to imagine science journalism is subject to hackery any more than financial and political journalism – er – no. Really.

    Of course sniffing it out is sometimes helped along by some academic training in the humanities, particularly history, which is notoriously unpopular here, so carry on.

  48. Bob Ward said,

    June 16, 2010 at 1:43 pm

    Oh dear Ben, I see that you are up to the same old trick, having a lazy pop at journalists when in fact the journal and researchers bear much of the responsibility for inducing your fit of indignation. You’ve misdiagnosed the problem and prescribed the wrong cure.

    So, maybe the first thing that you should have noted is that a link from the story to the journal paper would have been of little use – the paper cannot be freely accessed and requires a payment of $25. And assuming that a member of the public actually bothered to get hold of the paper, do you really think that it would have been informative given that the journal paper was written for other professionals?

    However, what can be freely accessed is the journal’s summary of the paper, which was circulated to journalists in March: www.ajcn.org/misc/release2.dtl#mcna

    It states in the background: “Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is a type of fat found primarily in fatty fish such as salmon and tuna, although additional sources include supplements and DHA-fortified foods. Some studies have shown that increased dietary DHA intake is related to more optimal brain development and metabolism, and there is some evidence that plasma DHA may be lower in children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder”.

    It goes on to state: “In the April 2010 issue of The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers from the university of Cincinnati report the findings of a study they conducted to evaluate the effects of DHA supplementation on attention in children.”

    Most of the content of the article in ‘The Observer’ is consistent with the journal’s summary of the paper. The description of the results includes: “In addition, although neither dose of DHA influenced the boys’ ability to complete the simple attention-requiring task, there were myriad effects on brain activation. For instance, DHA increased activation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex compared with controls. This may be important, because this region of the brain is important for some aspects of motor planning and intellectual function.”

    However, I’m willing to bet that this paper from March was not the prompt for Denis Campbell’s story on 30 May. In fact, the lead author of this paper, Robert McNamara, was speaking at this conference on ‘A celebration of DHA’ at the Royal Society of Medicine on 26 and 27 May: www.regonline.co.uk/builder/site/tab2.aspx?EventID=806114

    The conference organisers held a press conference on the morning of 26 May, at which Robert McNamara spoke about “‘DHA Supplementation and Child Psychiatry’ – the latest research into implications for brain function and behaviour in children”: www.fabresearch.org/view_item.aspx?item_id=1461

    Of course you could have found this out if you had read the coverage in ‘The Sunday Telegraph’ of the same conference: www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/7782834/Pregnant-women-should-be-allowed-to-eat-more-fish.html

    And indeed the article in ‘The Observer’ included the following quote from Robert McNamara, the lead author on the journal paper: “We found that, if you take DHA, you can enhance the function of those brain regions that are involved in paying attention”.

    I’m willing to bet that this quote was obtained at the pres conference or during a conversation with McNamara.

    And so all the things you have complained about in Campbell’s article are probably what McNamara has said or has been written in materials circulated to journalists.

    So I suggest that next week, instead of just spending 20 minutes knocking off another poorly-researched column that has a go at journalists, why don’t you do a bit more digging into the story – I think you’ll find that things are a little more complicated than you assume. The reporters I know are hard-working and do their best to report science stories well. But it seems to me that you’ve become a little like Richard Littlejohn and all those other lazy columnists who pick up a fat pay cheque each week just for jotting down the first few angry things that enter the head.

  49. aristhrottle said,

    June 17, 2010 at 1:27 pm

    Regarding reporting in general,

    journalism.nyu.edu/pubzone/weblogs/pressthink/2009/04/12/hesaid_shesaid.html#more

    journalism.nyu.edu/pubzone/weblogs/pressthink/2010/06/14/ideology_press.html

  50. Ben Goldacre said,

    June 17, 2010 at 4:07 pm

    hi bob

    this is a bit of a drag but I will unwisely rise and respond, swiftly, apologies for length,

    thanks for the link to the press release. it doesn’t make the claim that fish oil pills improve attention, or performance on an attention task. did you post the wrong link? this is the one you posted

    www.ajcn.org/misc/release2.dtl#mcna

    the observer piece has been deleted because it was so inaccurate but is archived here:

    deevybee.blogspot.com/2010/06/orwellian-prize-for-journalistic.html

    you say “most of the content of the article in ‘The Observer’ is consistent with the journal’s summary of the paper”. that’s really not true.

    obviously i dont know if the press release is what denis campbell read, maybe you know him and know better. i asked denis how he got the idea that the trial was about improving attention, more than once, and he declined to tell me, which is fair enough i guess if he doesn’t want to. he also, of course, initially declined to tell me which trial he was writing about at all, which i would find disappointing from any journalist on any paper in response to any reader.

    like jeremy laurance you blame prof mcnamara, and accuse him of misrepresenting his own work, which I think is irresponsible, unprofessional, and unfair. i asked prof mcnamara whether he was aware of making the claim that his study showed an improvement in attention, he says no, is concerned that his study has been misrepresented, agrees with my criticism (and supported the readers editor in correcting the piece, which has since been removed), and has sent me his slides from the press conference you mention, where again the claim about attention performance improving was not made. i think prof mcnamara is writing, or has now written, to the independent editor to complain about jeremy laurance accusing him of misleading the public about his own research. I think that’s a very unfair and odd thing for both you and laurance to do and I’d hope someone in your position would be a little more cautious.

    If the press release had been misleading, that would of course be bad. misleading press releases are problematic, and this is something i’ve written on many times, as you know, because you’ve commented when I have. However, even where press releases are misleading, we reasonably expect journalists to check their contents, otherwise we would just read press releases! i’m very surprised at the anger of people such as jeremy laurance and bob ward in arguing that a journalist cannot be expected to spend maybe 5 or 30 minutes reading a simple academic paper to check if it says what they’re planning to write it says. there’s no excuse for that, absolutely none at all, and to make excuses for it – let alone advocate for it – seems astonishing to me.

    the issue of links is an important one. i’m surprised at the insistence of people – often those in positions of power in the more traditional arms of science communication – that there is no point in linking to academic journal articles. i can only speculate that some regard this democratisation of access to knowledge as a threat to their roles, but there’s no sense in suggesting that motivation is valid for any one individual. 

    it is correct to say that the full content is often only available online for a fee outside a university (often they become free after a year, etc). the point of a link or reference is to tell people where the work is to be found, so they can check it, if they wish to expend effort. currently, anybody trying to find out more about the claims in a newspaper article would likely be stuck with a journalist like denis campbell declining even to tell them which academic paper their news story was about. that is plainly undesirable and a serious problem for the publics engagement with science, as it suggests this is all about walled cities and unaccountable claims from unreachable authority figures.

    in any case, many people reading a misleading article (a doctor or nurse or physio having it brought to them by worried patients, for example) will have access to these papers; anybody can read any paper they wish at the british library, or other libraries; people can ask friends for downloads; and people can just read the abstract, which may often be of some help (it certainly was in this case, as even the abstract made it clear that denis campbell’s article was wrong, entirely for free). i don’t understand why you would want to restrict access to this simple piece of information. 

    i’m a little surprised, lastly, at the hostility of your comments, especially when coupled with the extent to which you misrepresent the press release for the McNamara paper, accuse McNamara of misleading the public about his own research, etc, but i’m grateful to you for reminding me to reply to one that you posted on an earlier thread. i’ve no real interest in someone’s anger, but i’m sorry to say i do regard that earlier comment as “forgetful” at best, as i explain there. others may have their own views, a link is below, it was sufficiently absurd that anyone would think seriously about whether there was sense in responding to you at all in future.

    from what i’ve seen of your work at LSE communicating on climate, a lot of it seems very good, but reading your comments here on issues I know well does worry me a great deal, as it makes me think that I cannot trust your assertions and summaries about documents at face value without double checking them.

  51. Ben Goldacre said,

    June 17, 2010 at 4:13 pm

    here is bob ward’s earlier comment. there are other examples of this from bob. don’t know if it’s just me but i find this kind of thing really, really odd.

    www.badscience.net/2009/07/steve-connor-is-getting-eggy/#comment-27115

  52. Ben Goldacre said,

    June 17, 2010 at 4:23 pm

    to help people, i’ve put the observer piece here

    it’s from here,

    deevybee.blogspot.com/2010/06/orwellian-prize-for-journalistic.html

    the square brackets are around false claims, added by prof bishop, as she was counting the errors

    * Denis Campbell
    * The Observer, Sunday 30 May 2010
    Children [can learn better at school](1) by taking [omega-3 fish oil supplements](1) which [boost their concentration](1), scientists say.
    Boys aged eight to 11 who were given doses [once or twice a day](1) of docosahexaenoic acid, an essential fatty acid known as DHA, showed [big improvements in their performance during tasks involving attention](1).
    Dr Robert McNamara, of the University of Cincinnati, who led the team of American researchers, said their findings could help pupils to study more effectively and potentially help to tackle both attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and depression. The study, reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, is important because a lack of DHA has been implicated in ADHD and other similar conditions, with poor maternal diet sometimes blamed for the child’s deficiency.
    ADHD affects an estimated 4%-8% of Britons and can seriously impair a child’s education because they have trouble concentrating and are often disruptive in class. A lack of DHA has also been associated with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
    “We found that, if you take DHA, you can enhance the function of those brain regions that are involved in paying attention, so it helps people concentrate,” said McNamara. “The benefit is that it may represent an intervention that will help children or adults with attention impairments.”
    The researchers gave 33 US schoolboys 400mg or 1,200mg doses of DHA or a placebo every day for eight weeks. [Those who had received the high doses did much better in mental tasks involving mathematical challenges](1). Brain scans showed that functional activity in their frontal cortex – which controls memory, attention and the ability to plan – increased significantly.
    The results, and fact that many people eat too little fish to get enough DHA through their diet, meant it could help all children to improve their learning, added McNamara. “The primary benefit is to treat ADHD and depression, but it could also help people with their memory, learning and attention,” he said.

  53. nlitchfield said,

    June 18, 2010 at 11:02 am

    On the not publishing the comment bit, which does look poor, many blogging platforms use anti-spam filters that interpret comments with multiple (usually 3+) links embedded as likely spam. Your comment appears to meet this criterion.

  54. paulhardy said,

    June 18, 2010 at 1:43 pm

    @Jessica — you have made significant contributions to the debates here, & many of us value your contribution, but the end of this latest post descends into a bitter self-pity. So much so in fact that I will respond in kind;

    If you feel that humanities graduates are marginalised and patronised on this board, then welcome to my goddamn world. People with a respectable amount of scientific literacy feel this disparity in ALL media, and clearly this is because it impinges on the area they know. As you seem to suggest, if I was a history grad I might rail against much that was published on the basis of what I know, but at least if I was an English grad I would be hearing the news from like graduates, who have at least some respect for the subject because they love it.

    I haven’t heard it lately (perhaps he’s been told), but I’ve lost count of the number of times John Humphreys has induced splenic rage in me whenever he discusses a scientific research topic & trots out his habitual “that’s all very interesting, but what is it FOR?” I can’t imagine anyone on the Today progamme ever asking such a thing of, say, Martin Amis, Trevor Nunn or Calixto Beite (and I wouldn’t, either).

    Bloggers like Ben feel the deficit most acutely in their area of expertise, it’s true. And this leads us to wonder what the standard is like for those fields we don’t understand. Doubtless those with an expertise in history, economics or politics feel the same. But as I said once before, the language of scientific debate is so remote to those giving out news to us, there’s a special problem in that there are no grounds for a sensible discussion on how to improve things.

  55. Bob Ward said,

    June 18, 2010 at 5:17 pm

    I’m sorry you find it so tiresome to justify your ill-founded attack.

    You say that Denis Campbell wouldn’t tell you how he had got the idea that the trial was about attention – but the press release produced by the journal says clearly: “researchers from the University of Cincinatti report the findings of a study they conducted to evaluate the effects of DHA supplementation on attention in children”.

    Your complaint about the reference to fish oil pills is rather pedantic – the study was of DHA, which is a key compound found in fish oil, as the first line of the press release states.

    You also say that I accused Dr McNamara of misrepresenting his own work. No I didn’t. I simply repeated the quote from the story, which happens to be inconsistent with the content of his paper. Maybe he was misquoted, maybe he wasn’t – I don’t think you can assume that he was. Perhaps you could post his slides from the press conference so we can obtain an idea of what he said.

    But the biggest problem of all, Ben, is your assumption that the only legitimate source of information is a scientific paper itself. As you know, scientific papers are notwritten in a style that communciates clearly to a broad audience. Journalists have the job of identifying and conveying the most important information to their audiences, and they do that by working from a variety of sources, not by spending hours poring over a scientific paper. In this case, the paper and the press release were simply additional sources of information, the primary being Dr McNamara’s own words.

    So instead of always holding journalists single-handedly responsible for every inaccurate report, you might want to have a long hard look at the the role that researchers and journals play. Maybe that won’t be as easy and as fun as sticking the boot in on journalists, but at least it would have the virtue of being close to the truth.

  56. Ben Goldacre said,

    June 18, 2010 at 5:34 pm

    hi bob

    you can selectively quote from that press release all you like

    www.ajcn.org/misc/release2.dtl#mcna

    but there is simply no way that it claims that omega-3 supplements improve attention task performance, the central false claim made by denis campbell.

    www.ajcn.org/misc/release2.dtl#mcna

    i agree the fish oil issue is small print. that’s why i said so when i mentioned it in passing, 4th par of my column on it:

    www.badscience.net/2010/06/the-return-of-a-2bn-fishy-friend/

    i’ve asked prof mcnamara if i can post his slides, and his correspondence with the readers editor.

    i’ve frequently written about dodgy press releases, and research into the dodginess of press releases, as you know

    www.badscience.net/2009/07/steve-connor-is-getting-eggy/#comment-27115

    at a quick audit, i believe i’ve written 6 times in 2010 about a journalist getting something wrong, and 13 times in the last 12 months. i don’t think it’s “putting the boot in”, nor do i think that represents a disproportionate amount of attention given the damage caused by irresponsible and misleading journalism.

  57. Krisztian Paczari said,

    June 20, 2010 at 10:42 am

    A solution is to separate easy to write, sometimes funny articles from in depth trustable ones. This is done at index.hu, where articles like “scientists have measured the ideal length of women skirts” are in a dedicated column

  58. cycas said,

    June 21, 2010 at 10:28 am

    +1 to the ‘your comment triggered a filter’. Even if it was being manually reviewed in realtime, a delay of a few hours on publishing a long, complex critical comment is not an insult, it’s not even rude. It could, in fact, be evidence of taking time to check things and think them through, which is exactly what you are accusing them of not doing!

  59. JimLee said,

    June 22, 2010 at 1:36 am

    @Daibhid
    Er no, that’s commonly known as re-writing history. The Obs shouldn’t just pull an article with no explanation; they should have printed/posted a correction/retraction.

    Let me explain what I mean by symbiotic in terms you might understand.. The Badscience column in the Cardigan criticising a column in the Observer is in my view the journalistic equivalent of a reacharound. Apologies if you find that crude, I thought it was pretty obvious what I meant by symbiotic.. hey ho.

    Interestingly, I don’t see a single blog post on here about a poor Guradian article, surely shome mistake?

  60. maninalift said,

    June 22, 2010 at 9:02 pm

    As for journalists not having the time to check facts, what do they have the time for? I absolutely not interested in journalists who feel their first priority is to write a good story, good stories are tiresome, clearly reported information is interesting

  61. maninalift said,

    June 22, 2010 at 9:13 pm

    For me the solution is for all journalists (not just science journalists) to report clearly their sources, and be clear about what is supposition, inference etc (rather than intentionally fudging these things together and using weasel words to hide the weaknesses in the “story”).

    This does not directly imply more work for the journalists as they are free to cite poor references or state that they come from anonymous sources etc, so long as they are explicit about the source of any claims.

    People do use misleading or false citations in order to make their claims seem stronger but I think in general the pressure of the transparency in ones sources is likely to lead to a higher standard of journalism.

  62. AlanCrombie said,

    April 14, 2013 at 11:09 pm

    “Second, reporters are messengers – their job is to tell, as accurately as they can, what has been said, with the benefit of such insight as their experience allows them to bring, not to second guess whether what is said is right.”

    So the Ref. says “Goal!”
    The Manager says ” The boys done good!”

    End of discussion on “that” (non-)goal – no consideration of off-side or diving or even goal line technology ?

    “But third, reporters are also under pressure”.

    Is a Science correspondent under as much time pressure as a Sports Correspondent?

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