How To Read A Paper – For Journalists

October 5th, 2006 by Ben Goldacre in bad science | 52 Comments »

I know a fair few of you are journalists, and I thought I would mention something that I’m in the process of planning to see if you had any thoughts.

Along with a couple of friends I am setting up a short course for journalists on how to interpret scienific research data, especially health data, focusing on clinical trials, claims for efficacy, and claims of harm. This will open covering simple issues like “what is a trial”, “what is a placebo”, “what does statistical significance mean”, and so on, but it will go on to cover much more interesting and important areas, like how to spot the classic flaws in research data, the different ways of expressing risk, and what questions to ask to get the most useful information out of researchers/press officers/companies/cranks.

We’re quite happy to do this for our own amusement, and if nobody shows up at all then all well and good (I guess that’s a story…) but what I wanted to know is, and this is for everyone and anyone:

* is there anything it would be particularly useful to cover?

*what times would be best (all day, or a few evenings)?

* do newspapers etc have a training budget for that kind of thing, and can we stiff you for enough cash to cover the costs?

Feel free to respond privately or on the blog. I ought to say we’re all quite entertaining, and it’ll be a pretty amusing course anyway.

One thing I thought might be funny would be to have a brief test at the end, to show that you definitely understood, and a kind of jokey diploma you can hang in the loo. You will not be able to get this certificate for your dead cat. I think this would be a really interesting extra exercise but it might also be a bit threatening, we could offer it as a kind of optional extra to the course I guess.

Do let me know what you think.

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

52 Responses

  1. Robert Carnegie said,

    October 10, 2006 at 5:19 pm

    I am sure there are no bad journalists – either at our national newspapers or viewing this forum – and all of you are excellent drivers, too. Who isn’t?

    As for editors, I sincerely don’t suppose that they are all monsters who would rather have a dodgy MMR or MrSA scare than fact or even blank space, although you have to wonder sometimes. But the press is not irredeemably addicted to fiction, surely?

    And statistics – I think the subject can be understood in simple terms. I just would like to know what they are. But for anyone to make a decision – including a decision in journalism – on statistical evidence, surely they have to understand the evidence!

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