If the media were actuarial about drawing our attention to the causes of avoidable death, your newspapers would be filled with diarrhoea, Aids, and cigarettes every day. In reality we know this is an absurd idea. For those interested in the scale of our fascination with rarity, one piece of research looked at a 3 month period in 2002 and found that 8,571 people had to die from smoking to generate one story on the subject from the BBC, while there were 3 stories for every death from vCJD. Read the rest of this entry »
Last month I had a debate at the Royal Institution with Lord Drayson, the Science Minister, in which he argued that I was too harsh on British science coverage, which is the best in the world. During this event our chairman (bizarrely and excellently Simon Mayo) pulled out a health front page from the Express, and asked what we thought about it. I said the article might well be accurate, but it’s also quite likely to be a work of fantasy, and as a serious matter of public health I would urge people to be extremely sceptical about health information on the front page of the Express. Lord Drayson thought this was cynical and unfair. He warmly encouraged us to trust this newspaper. Read the rest of this entry »
This is something that came up on the Five Live discussion with Lord Drayson at lunchtime today. Simon Mayo pulled out a front page story from the Express about a breakthrough cancer drug, and asked us what we’d make of it. Having not read it, I said I’d regard it with caution, because it might be true, but being on the front page of the Express is not necessarily a reliable predictor of something being true, as this story would attest, to choose just one example. Lord Drayson felt that was unfair, and that people can decide for themselves if a story is good or bad.
I think that’s optimistic, but we can certainly do something productive to give people a fighting chance. People often ask “how can I spot bad science in a newspaper article?” as if there were a list of easy answers, and it can be very difficult – given the lengths newspapers go to in distorting evidence, and witholding facts – but here is an excellent set of pointers. Read the rest of this entry »
Why would you listen to a government health message, or your GP practise nurse, when the Sunday Telegraph has much more exciting news? “Health warning: exercise makes you fat” is the kind of full-width headline you want to see across a broadsheet page: it’s affirmative, it’s reassuring, and it gives you clear permission to sit on your arse all day. “Re-programming body fat is the key to weight loss, not working out.” Praise be. “Is it possible that all that exercise is doing nothing to make us slimmer?” Please let the answer be yes.
A couple of months ago the science minister Lord Drayson was saying that British science journalism is fabulous, the lessons from MMR had been learnt, and so on. I disagreed, and after a bit of chat on twitter I’m very pleased to say that the minister’s office have organised a public discussion on the topic, together with Times Higher and the RI, details below, tickets may go swiftly so I would recommend booking now on 020 7409 2992 or online at www.rigb.org
Update: Just got an email from Sophia Shaw, the MSc student in question: “I am happy that they have made an apology , but I am very aware that a number of other mistakes were made that were not acknowledge in their statement. Sophia”
The media is a game-like world of blurry truths, where the vague narrative shape of a story matters more than clarity, accuracy and evidence. Three weeks ago the Daily Telegraph published an unpleasant article headlined “Women who dress provocatively more likely to be raped, claim scientists”. It was based on the unpublished and unfinished dissertation of a masters student and got the story entirely wrong. The title of the press release for the same research was “Promiscuous men more likely to rape”, which gives you some small clue as to how weirdly this story was distorted by the newspaper. I wrote about this two weeks ago here, documenting all of their errors in detail. Read the rest of this entry »
There’s nothing like science for giving that objective, white-coat flavoured legitimacy to your prejudices, so it must have been a great day for Telegraph readers when they came across the headline “Women who dress provocatively more likely to be raped, claim scientists”. Ah, scientists. “Women who drink alcohol, wear short skirts and are outgoing are more likely to be raped, claim scientists at the University of Leicester.” Well there you go. Oddly, though, the title of the press release for the same research was “Promiscuous men more likely to rape”.