Ben Goldacre, The Guardian, Saturday 18 December 2010
It’s been a marvellous year for bullshit. We saw quantitative evidence showing that drug adverts aimed at doctors are routinely factually inaccurate, while pharmaceutical company ghostwriters were the secret hands behind letters to the Times, and a whole series of academic papers. We saw more drug companies and even regulators withholding evidence from doctors and patients that a drug was dangerous – the most important and neglected ethical issue in modern medicine — and that whistleblowers have a rubbish life.
Bias is everywhere. Academic papers from people who get money from tobacco companies are vastly more likely to say that cigarettes prevent Alzheimer’s, and we saw the first good quantitative evidence describing how academics routinely mislead readers about their negative results in academic papers, by spinning them as positive. Dodgy facts aren’t the only reason clever people believe stupid things, as demonstrated by a gale of research on irrationality. Superstitious rituals really do improve performance.
What women musicians wear affects listeners’ assessment of their skill. Antibiotics don’t work for a sore throat, but if you’re prescribed them, you come away thinking they do. You can find mysterious alien patterns in ancient sites on a map of the UK, but you can find similar patterns in the locations of former Woolworths stores.
Newspapers continued to bravely make false claims about the efficacy of fish oils despite the negative trial data. There was the usual round of “Facebook spreads syphilis” that is barely worth still documenting, though the Sunday Times distortion of figures to claim the public sector pays more for the same job was particularly elaborate.
Many more misleading news stories torpedo themselves with a caveat hidden in paragraph 19, so we reviewed the evidence showing how few people ever read that far. The PR community delivered some traditional joy. Rentokil produced a dodgy story on “2,000 bugs in every train compartment” which turned out to be based on some foolish figures about an absurd imaginary idealised insect-breeding train compartment, which still helped build sales.
Stonewall’s dodgy survey on coming-out ages contained a mathematical quirk and really only found that on average, as people get older, they get older; and EDF’s dodgy survey found that if you first scare people with threats of unemployment then they will say yes to the offer of a local nuclear power station.
Where science meets culture, we found the weirdly inverted solipsism of brain-imaging stories that claim pain is only real if you can see it in blood flow changes; while researchers claimed that attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is caused by genes, and that knowing this will reduce stigma, when the evidence overwhelmingly shows (to my surprise as much as yours) that believing a mental health problem has a biological cause increases stigma.
Evidence-based policy remains a distant dream. We saw politicians incompetently failing to produce evidence on whether their policy of compulsory drug treatment orders worked, and sacking David Nutt as chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs when the evidence was available but the results unwelcome.
There were dodgy government figures on how many children were “saved from abuse” by some new rules, while the London mayor, Boris Johnson, announced that instead of a simple, well-conducted randomised trial to find out which of two teaching methods is best, he would answer the question with a public competition between schools that choose each method.
If you need an explanation of why that is dumb, you could work in government. Meanwhile we saw an election where data could truly inform voting decisions, although everyone changed their policies once they got in power.
Attacks on the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice) continued, because it dares to make difficult decisions. David Cameron claimed they rejected a drug which they didn’t; the Mail claimed Nice rejected 15 drugs, when 10 on their list were approved; and everyone used dodgy miracle cure anecdotes on a costly cancer drug that really isn’t all that. When Nice is neutered, resources will go to those who shout loudest in local newspapers: enjoy that.
Andrew Wakefield, the doctor at the centre of the MMR vaccine scare, was found to have behaved dishonestly and unethically. Science was messy, but pointing out flaws remains a risky enterprise. We saw the reputation car crash of chiropractors who unsuccessfully sued Dr Simon Singh over a newspaper article in which he suggested they lacked evidence to support their medical claims. Then there was the dodgy website of the medical device firm NMT, who have chased a NHS cardiologist Peter Wilmshurst through the courts for daring to make comments about their clinical trial.
Idiot-taxing cosmetics firm Rodial made legal threats against a doctor who dared to say that their breast enlargening cream was highly unlikely to work, and I was incompetently libelled, in a blast from the past, by Gillian McKeith, or to give her full medical title, Gillian McKeith.
Finally, legendary moron-baiter Martin Gardner died aged 95. He wrote a book about pseudoscience like mine, but his was published 60 years ago: nothing has changed. See you next year.