To the battlefield, my fellow dweebs!

May 23rd, 2009 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, evidence, media | 24 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
The Guardian
Saturday 23 May, 2009

So last week the papers were filled with more quirky, prejudice-affirming, untrue science news. Here is just one. “Man flu: it really does exist, girls” said the Daily Star. “Man flu is not a myth: Female hormones give women stronger immune systems” said the Daily Mail. The Daily Telegraph palmed this fantastical assertion off onto “scientists”, saying: “Men succumb to manflu because women have stronger immune systems, claim scientists”. “Women ‘fight off disease better’” said the BBC.

Now, before we get to the details, here is a question: what if the media was no longer the public’s key source of information on health? The NHS Choices website gets about 6 million unique visitors a month, with no publicity. There you will find Behind the Headlines (around 200,000 visitors), a service I played a tiny role in helping set up: they take the biggest health news stories each day, find the real scientific evidence behind them, and precis it, clearly, for a lay audience. Essentially they do the same thing as this column, but without the knob jokes. What’s amazing is that there is a need for this service, and so much material.

Here is what they said about man flu coverage: “The research this story is based on did not look at infection with flu viruses, and cannot prove whether ‘man flu’ exists or not. In addition, the study was in genetically engineered mice, so the results are not necessarily applicable to humans.”

It gets worse, as they explain. These mice were given the active human form of a gene called caspase-12, which can reduce the body’s immune response to certain bacteria (not viruses, like flu). But most people don’t even have a functioning version of this gene: only people of African descent do, generally, and only 20% of them, at that. These mice were then given the Listeria monocytogenes bacteria. This causes a serious form of food poisoning called listeriosis, which again has nothing to do with flu.

The man flu experiment, as the media described it, has so little to do with either flu or men that to continue with the details would be to miss the point. And this story wasn’t a one off.

Smarter girls have far better sex lives” said the Sun, the Mirror, and the Mail, who went on to claim that this new research on intelligence could also “lead to new ways of counselling the 40% of women who find it difficult or impossible to enjoy sex fully”. But BtH link to, and precis, the actual research: these weren’t women with sexual problems, the study didn’t look at ways to improve sexual problems, and it didn’t measure intelligence, it measured something the researchers called “emotional intelligence”, which makes this all a much less surprising finding.

Sunshine can add years to your life” said the Daily Express. “Elderly need more ‘sun vitamin’” said the BBC. “Sunshine ‘can help you live longer by cutting risk of heart disease and diabetes’” said the Daily Telegraph. NHS Choices describe the actual research: it’s a Chinese study, and it did not assess exposure to sunlight. It simply found that people with low vitamin D blood levels in an old-ish population also had a combination of conditions that would subsequently increase their risk of diabetes and heart disease. This could have many explanations: perhaps less sunlight (which makes vitamin D); perhaps poor diet (you can eat it too); perhaps being fat causes low vitamin D and higher risk of heart disease; perhaps something you’ve not thought of yet caused this correlation.

Around half of all science stories these days are medical. People are interested in finding out about this stuff, for their own interest, and their own health, and yet they are routinely fed nonsense by the media. When you mention the internet to journalists, they pretend it’s full of angry bloggers making stuff up. In reality there are medical research charities, academics, universities’ own press releases, NHS Choices, and more. These organisations might want to think more confidently, and much bigger: because with figures like 6 million visitors a month, they are now credible publishers, on a subject where information really matters.

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! ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

24 Responses

  1. peterd102 said,

    May 23, 2009 at 2:16 am

    One of the troubles I have with these sorts of stories is that they seem to promote the idea that you can use science to back up any point you see fit. You wan’t ‘Man Flu’ to exist to vindicate your sick days? – Fine, no problem. New technology confuses you? Well here some quote from an abstract of an article in an obscure publication that says Wi-Fi could damage DNA – ergo kill you by cancer.

    Theres very little Mass Media does to encourage the potential Geeks and Nerds. Everyone knows Geeks and Nerds cant breed, we have to recruit from the general public. With Mass Media as it is we may be missing the few that might have been interested in science but ended up going into…. shudder… Humanities. Because the whole perception of science is distorted. The Internet might be a good way of reaching out to them but we all know is clogged with stuff even the Daily Mail would find too bizzare to print. It might only be chance that they stumble onto; this site, XKCD or the like, read, laugh, and then think – OMG I’m a nerd!

    Its a shame really, we really should answer Ben’s Rallying Cry and try to do something about this…. ooh a video of a homemade electrolysis machine.

  2. Daniel Rutter said,

    May 23, 2009 at 2:29 am

    Another fine example of the Science News Cycle:

  3. jesroddy said,

    May 23, 2009 at 5:12 am

    So, they are doing experiments on mice to see if manflu is worse than birdflu! Sounds a bit Mickey Mouse.

  4. David Colquhoun said,

    May 23, 2009 at 6:22 am

    On the other hand, Richard Tomkins does quite a nice job in the FT magazine today
    True, it was largely based on bloggers, but who’s grumbling?

  5. regordane said,

    May 23, 2009 at 7:57 am


    <blockquote.Everyone knows Geeks and Nerds cant breed

    Speak for yourself, sunshine.

  6. T said,

    May 23, 2009 at 8:28 am

    naturopathy will give you 60 points for a visa application for emigration to austrialia. Im not sure what message thats giving me, its 10 points more than you would get for being a chemist.

  7. boldautomatic said,

    May 23, 2009 at 8:46 am

    Sorry to type with my mouth full, but I’ve been eating curry non-stop for the last 3 days because according to the mail I will lose weight.

  8. gregpye said,

    May 23, 2009 at 9:33 am

    I’ve long wondered how to get the equivalent of a Cochrane status on news items, and to get the public to care enough to know what the status was when the read the article, to the point where a news feed needed to publish it at eth same time. Aim being to keep it really simple and comprehensible to all, like the Beaufort scale. People could then read stuff knowing whether it was complete PR/journalism fluff (I have my doubts about whether there was ever a B52 on the moon for example, but then so did everyone else), or whether it was based on sensible data. Only challenge might be that you might need a reverse scale for things like MMR, for articles that were positively AGAINST the science.

  9. atomsplicer said,

    May 23, 2009 at 9:48 am

    By way of introduction…great book and site. Loved the Scary Mary chapter just put in too.

    None of the above exaples surprise me, but what really bites my bunions is the BBC doing it!!! I’m off to check out the NHS site, I’m a little surprised they are sticking there neck out to be honest, but its groovy by me.

    Paul McCue

  10. atomsplicer said,

    May 23, 2009 at 9:49 am

    I really should use a spellcheck 🙂

  11. naomimc said,

    May 23, 2009 at 12:25 pm

    Also, let’s look at the gender component of these stories and particularly those science stories in places like the Daily Mail that ‘prove’ that women can’t read maps, ‘prove’ that women wearing trousers will make their ovaries drop off and ‘prove’ that women like pink. Stupid stories, no scientific basis so why? Because this perpetuates tired sexual stereotypes.

    If our population is not scientifically literate, papers use lazy ‘common-sense’ explanations for issues, e.g. my child was fine, had the MMR jab, now is diagnosed with autism, ergo etc. Similarly, fairly undramatic science story about possible oestrogen mechanism and journalists use lazy gender stereotyping and common sense mythology to write up the story.

    Yeah, so ‘man-flu’ isn’t that important in the grand scheme of female oppression. But it is part of the spectrum of ‘evidence’ that papers present that exaggerate sex difference and importantly, instill a hierarchy.

  12. Skeptico said,

    May 23, 2009 at 3:11 pm

    The NHS Choices website is not without its problems. It also reported Acupuncture ‘relieves back pain’:

    This well designed and conducted study has shown that acupuncture can improve ability to function in people with chronic low back pain compared to (sic) usual care…

    It went on to say that the strengths of this study include a usual care control group. However, as Orac, Steven Novella and I wrote, the usual care group was not a control, and the study showed that acupuncture is just a placebo, not that acupuncture can relieve back pain.

  13. fontwell said,

    May 23, 2009 at 5:10 pm

    Ben, you have hit on the winning formula. I don’t read newspapers because they are full of made up stuff and opinion (and I can get that on the Today program for free) but I very rarely go to BtH either because its, erm, a bit dull. However I am a regular reader here due to the heady mix of facts and lighthearted writing style.

    I think entertainment is a factor in why a lot of people do buy newspapers, so what we need is nerd entrepreneur to start a whole new newspaper based on the philosophy of “Facts and nob jokes.”

  14. said,

    May 23, 2009 at 8:07 pm

    I’m very excited to find out about this site. It’s sad that we have to go through a cycle of journalists misreporting the news before it gets reported correctly, but to have the government actively out there correcting the record is great.

    Even if they’re off by a bit on the acupuncture story, they’re at least a closer approximation of the truth than the daily mail drivel.

  15. Alexa said,

    May 25, 2009 at 4:22 am

    I also read the “smart girls have more fun” article this weekend and put it down in disgust after just a few paragraphs. The author obviously didn’t understand the difference between emotional intelligence and “general” intelligence because he or she kept making flippant remarks about their IQ and how high-powered executive women would be better at ordering their men around in bed. Good job, that’s exactly not what IE is.

    p.s. Could you add a direct link to the NHS Choices website?

  16. JustAsItSounds said,

    May 25, 2009 at 8:39 am

    Echoing peterd102: the common thread in all the execrable science journalism that abounds in the media in general is that more often than not, the science follows the headline.

    Pseudoscientists and quacks do this all the time:
    1. Make up some wacky theory
    2. Cherry-pick, fabricate, distort evidence and misquote others work to back up your pet theory
    3. Defend insane theory in the face of all evidence to the contrary.
    (4. Profit)

    This is antithetical to the scientific process, and yet this seems to be the most common misconception in the media – and it keeps getting repeated and reinforced.

  17. timbod said,

    May 25, 2009 at 10:13 am

    The following BBC article

    reports the findings that people are “wary of cancer” because “scientists are always changing their minds”. If you read down the article it does explain about single study findings being “just one piece of a jigsaw” but they glaringly omit to point out the medias role in over-hyping the bizarre cancer stories.
    Probably because the BBC are just as culpable as the rest of the media in this respect. Incidentally Radio 4’s Today Show also ran the Man Flu non-story.

  18. Bishbashbosh said,

    May 25, 2009 at 3:12 pm

    Agree with all your points Ben. I read the Caspase 12 paper and discussed it with many of my colleagues. I thought the Behind the Headlines Precis was almost spot on. One other thing I noticed in the paper and I quote

    “Therefore, estrogen exerts 2 independent effects in this model, the first enhancing the susceptibility to infection and the second repressing expression of

    As mentioned Caspase 12 is largely irrelevant in the human population, but estrogen obviously is relevant;-) Therefore doesn’t this paper actually predict most women will be more susceptible to infection (by Listeria – if they were mice etc etc)? The news stories could have quite easily been wildly opposite…

    LOL the PhDcomics sketch. I’ll add it to the ones framing my desk.

  19. Synchronium said,

    May 26, 2009 at 11:29 am

    That PhDcomics sketch was awesome. Just had a look round their site and found the following:

    Reading this entire archive can be hazardous to your research. Proceed with caution and use only in moderation.


  20. Beck Collins said,

    May 28, 2009 at 11:29 am

    I worry if I might be missing a trick here – since I finished university, academic journals are a closed book to me, since I can’t take advantage of the university’s subscriptions to countless journals! How can I check out ‘findings in the Journal of Nutrition’ without a subscription?

    Lets assume I can’t afford twenty subscriptions to different academic journals. Is there a way of looking at this research for free?

  21. frisbee said,

    May 29, 2009 at 1:21 am

    On the topic of back pain and acupuncture from the NHS site, they report that acupuncture improved back pain against usual care, but no difference compared to sham acupuncture. i.e. a placebo effect. However NHS is not just about scientific validity but also considers value for money and based upon costs acupuncture judges acupuncture to be a reasonable treatment for back pain (even if it is just placebo effect).

    Sad to recommend a treatment based on placebo effect, but until something better comes up….

  22. Hedonist Rex said,

    May 29, 2009 at 10:57 am

    I wonder how much this is a real problem. Obviously, stories like these are annoying to those of us who know and care about science, but I think (on the basis of little to no research) that most of the public who neither know nor care regard these stories quite correctly as entertainment pieces rather that attempts to inform them about science. If they thought they were attempts to inform them about science, after all, they wouldn’t be reading them.

  23. cping500 said,

    August 4, 2009 at 9:53 pm

    but Ben: on Vitamin D The Guardian carried the following story… and it wasn’t a Chinese one!

    which says the same thing as the Chinese. But no comment from you.

    Buy more interesting still is why is NHS Scotland so enthusiastic about Vitamin D and should they be? Just google for “Vitamin D NHS Scotland” for a week of reading

    I would love your Systematic Review of this area of research except I find SR’s always end up ‘not being sure’ at any level of risk, though they are good for setting up a ‘selective’ literature survey to get a grant.

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