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