Evidence Check: parliament being… good

August 4th, 2009 by Ben Goldacre in bad science | 31 Comments »

Select committees are pretty much the only place in parliament where MPs do what you’d naively hope they do all the time: sit down, hear a lot of evidence on an important issue, and then have a good hard think about it. In February the Department for Innovations, Universities, Science and Skills asked you what they should be looking at. Now they’ve identified a few key areas, and have formally requested government to report back on what evidence they have to underpin their activities in each one. Subjects include regulations for synthetic biology, the teaching of ‘pseudoscience’ at universities (which I suggested last time!), screening, the licensing of homeopathic products by the MHRA, the use of offender data, and more. They’re asking you for more, and you should give them your suggestion, instructions and email below.

Evidence based policy is really important, and it’s definitely worth getting involved in this kind of thing, especially since it looks like a few of the subjects they’re already looking at are drawn from the suggestions sent in by you and archived in the comments here:


Now go forth, my fellow nerds, and participate!

Select Committee Announcement
3 August 2009

Evidence Check
In preparation for the creation of the Science and Technology Committee on 1 October, the IUSS Committee is commissioning work to assess the Government’s use of evidence in policy-making. The Committee has written to the Government on a number of topics and asked two questions: (1) What is the policy? (2) On what evidence is the policy based?

The topics are:
-        the licensing of homeopathic products by the MHRA
-        the diagnosis and management of dyslexia
-        swine flu vaccinations
-        literacy and numeracy interventions
-        the teaching of ‘pseudoscience’ at universities
-        health checks for over 40s
-        measuring the benefits of publicly-funding research
-        the future of genetic modification (GM) technologies
-        the regulation of synthetic biology
-        the use of offender data.

The Committee will review the Government’s response in October.

Additionally, the Committee is calling on the public to identify other areas of government policy that require an ‘evidence check’ and be subject to the two questions above. Topics must be within the remit of the new Committee-to look at all matters within the responsibility of the Government Office for Science, including cross-departmental responsibility for scientific and engineering advice-and should also:
-        be capable of being covered in a maximum of two oral evidence sessions if the Committee decides to follow up the initial evidence check (each of which could involve two or three sets of witnesses)
-        be timely
-        not relate to individual cases/matters before Courts or Tribunals.

Please send us, in 750 words or fewer:
-        your suggested topic
-        why it should be evidence checked in late 2009/early 2010
-        your suggested witnesses, should an oral evidence session/sessions take place.

You should also declare any interests you have in making the suggestion.

Please email your suggestions to iuscomm@parliament.uk by 1 October 2009.

Previous press notices and publications are available on our website.

Committee Membership is as follows:
Mr Phil Willis (Liberal Democrat, Harrogate and Knaresborough)(Chairman)
Dr Roberta Blackman-Woods (Labour, City of Durham)
Mr Tim Boswell (Conservative, Daventry)
Mr Ian Cawsey (Labour, Brigg & Goole)
Mrs Nadine Dorries (Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire)
Dr Evan Harris (Liberal Democrat, Oxford West & Abingdon)
Dr Brian Iddon (Labour, Bolton South East)
Mr Gordon Marsden (Labour, Blackpool South)
Dr Bob Spink (UK Independence Party, Castle Point)
Ian Stewart (Labour, Eccles)
Mr Graham Stringer (Labour, Manchester, Blackley)
Dr Desmond Turner (Labour, Brighton Kemptown)
Mr Rob Wilson (Conservative, Reading East)

Committee Website:

Watch committees and parliamentary debates online:

Select committee calendar:

Rebecca Jones
House of Commons Select Committee Media Officer
Children, Schools & Families; Health; Innovation, Universities, Science & Skills; Northern Ireland; Scotland; Wales

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

31 Responses

  1. FelixO said,

    August 4, 2009 at 11:44 pm

    As Ben and the TAM crowd have taught me the following would be worthwhile topics:
    1. The creation of a register for all medical trials in the UK to help counteract publication bias.

    2. The requiremnt for research papers to be open access.

    3. The use of Bayesian statistics (i.e. prior probability) in the evaluation of evidence.

    However they may not fit within the remit of this request, therefore I suggest:

    The maintenance of standards in university degree courses:-
    If a degree is to be worth working for 3+ years and being tens of thousands of pounds in debt for then the ‘customer’ should have the confidence that the value of there investment will e maintained over time.

  2. underblog said,

    August 5, 2009 at 12:21 am

    This isn’t really Government being good, it’s Parliament being good.

  3. Ben Goldacre said,

    August 5, 2009 at 12:31 am


  4. theonlyrick said,

    August 5, 2009 at 10:39 am

    That’s *P*arliament being good, not parliament being good…

    Committees is where the good stuff of democracy happens, rather than what goes on in the hectoring, childish point-scoring pantomime of the main chamber.

  5. Statto said,

    August 5, 2009 at 10:53 am

    Ben; sorry to be a double-pedant, but it’s terribly bad form to change a link without redirecting from the old one. I awoke to e-mails and comments accusing me of having a broken link! Honestly.

  6. Synchronium said,

    August 5, 2009 at 11:08 am

    While they might be behaving themselves this time, scientists are still pissed off: www.mapinc.org/drugnews/v09/n763/a07.html

  7. metherton said,

    August 5, 2009 at 1:05 pm

    In February it wasn’t the Department for IUSS which asked for suggestions, but the Select Committee for IUSS, which following the dissolution of the Department is now being reborn as the Science and Technology Committee.

  8. BobP said,

    August 5, 2009 at 1:16 pm

    Drugs policy?

  9. Statto said,

    August 5, 2009 at 2:55 pm

    I changed my links to the new one and now the new one doesn’t work any more! Is this just an excuse to make me tweet this over and over again? 😛

    Cool URIs don’t change, man! If you accidentally disseminate one which needs changing, use the ‘better’ one but be sure to redirect the old one with a line in your .htaccess file like this:

    Redirect 301 /2009/08/evidence-check-government-being-good/ http://www.badscience.net/evidence-check-parliament-being-good/

    Easy-peasy. (And evidently not widely enough known.) 🙂

  10. Skimmer said,

    August 5, 2009 at 2:58 pm

    Hi guys,

    This is important and I’d like to get involved.

    I think it merit’s it’s own section on the website so people can post their submissions in an effort to assist other to frame their own contribution.


  11. Jut said,

    August 5, 2009 at 2:59 pm

    I’d like to see something looking at intervention in schools (i.e. Brain gym, fish oil “trial”) and the evidence surrounding them. All too often inset consists of some bint e.g. Jenny Mosley comming along and telling us rubbish like “85% of stale air is in the stomach and this can affect learning”, followed by some breathing exercise.

  12. maizie said,

    August 5, 2009 at 3:20 pm

    Interesting to see ‘dyslexia’ and ‘literacy interventions’ on that list. The two are closely related. I suggested to Ben a couple of years ago that a particular, poorly evidenced, literacy intervention, into which the govt has poured an astounding amount of money, would make a good ‘Bad Science’ topic. He pooh poohed it at the time (seemed to think there was nothing scientific about methods of teaching of reading)but it seems that members of the IUSS Select Committee are on the ball.

    Paras 43 – 47

    I still can’t see why you don’t think the teaching of reading is not science based, Ben. It’s all to do with activating and strengthening the correct neural networks. I think that’s pretty scientific…

  13. masonjason said,

    August 5, 2009 at 4:32 pm

    This is an encouraging step, but the presence of Nadine Dorries on the committee doesn’t fill me with euphoria.

  14. mobfant said,

    August 5, 2009 at 4:51 pm

    drugs policy has to be in there, will definitely email them about that, although it doesn’t fill me with hope

  15. duncautumnstore said,

    August 5, 2009 at 7:07 pm

    We could get all meta on this. What about examining the evidence on the impact of Select Committee reports 🙂

  16. FelixO said,

    August 5, 2009 at 7:21 pm

    It would be great if evidence based drugs policy was discussed but that it not going to happen, is it?

    What about a discussion of risk associated with certain ‘life style choices’ including horse riding and taking ecstasy?

  17. rwf098 said,

    August 5, 2009 at 9:14 pm

    What is everyone’s view on something like:

    Criteria for assessing effectiveness (in particular, effects on rates of re – offending), prior to and after adoption, of Offending Behaviour Programmes (particularly group based cognitive skills interventions)by the National Offender Management Service

  18. FelixO said,

    August 5, 2009 at 10:59 pm

    Here is the IUSS Committee page with the request for suggestions:


  19. FelixO said,

    August 5, 2009 at 11:09 pm

    Since this time around the committee are looking at the licensing of homeopathic products by the MHRA, would it be to much to ask that next time they look at the recent NICE guidance on lower back pian which gave succour to acupuncturists and chiropractors?

    see here: www.dcscience.net/?p=1516

  20. Jut said,

    August 6, 2009 at 6:51 am

    That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about, stupid damn initiatives that are based on woo and commonsense, or are just plain wrong.
    Case example: we are all told to teach incorporating different types of learners. Pupils are pigeonholed into Visual, Auditory or Kinesthetic learners regardless of the fact that experimental evidence does not support this policy.

  21. relativitydrive said,

    August 6, 2009 at 3:08 pm

    This seems like the best place for our current cause celebre (?) Simon Singh to get in and get some real action on the Chiropractic problem. Anyone know if he’s aware of this, or even better, already sent in his 750 word response?

  22. prescott said,

    August 6, 2009 at 4:03 pm

    parkinson`s diseaseis caused by deterioration or death of certain neurons in a brain area known as substance nigra. These neurons produce dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for transmitting the signals between the substance nigra and the corpus striatum, upon a good muscle activity.
    The decrease in dopamine production in patients causes an inability to direct or control their movements as normal, due to lack of nerve cells in the striatum. Studies that findrxonline has shown that Parkinson’s patients have a loss of 80% or more of dopamine-producing cells in the substance nigra. The cause of this cell death or damage is unknown.

  23. prescott said,

    August 6, 2009 at 4:05 pm

    Hopefully that will improve health for all on this, the government must give force to the health sector, as there are many people who suffer from chronic illnesses and who need help to cover expenses stronger as fibromyalgia, cancer, producing a series very heavy cost to those who suffer as they must take powerful drugs such as oxycodone, Vicodin, Lortab, drugs that are highly controlled indicate that opioids are very strong and anxiolytics do not know if that can be given life-threatening that consumes, that is why many times the costs are too high to be able to obtain and soothe the intense pain.

  24. T said,

    August 7, 2009 at 2:34 pm

    I’m not filled with great confidence by this at first glance. Graham Stringer MP has said that dyslexia does not exist and that it’s a cruel fiction to label children dyslexic. He’s insulted every dyslexic adult and child in this country.

  25. SteveGJ said,

    August 7, 2009 at 5:21 pm

    Dyslexia is always likely to be controversial. There is no doubt that it exists in the sense of a series of diagnostic symptoms. Unfortunately, it’s rather like other spectral disorders, being essentially defined by symptoms without hard limits. There are very broad estimates on what proportion of the population as affected by the condition. It’s fairly easy to demonstrate that somebody is definitively short-sighted in an unambiguous way – rather less so with dyslexia where there are bound to be grey areas.

    It’s an interesting, but perhaps not very helpful, philosophical debate about whether it is truly a disorder in the sense it might just be part of the normal spectrum of human abilities. Perhaps like some people being highly musical and others being tone deaf. Before the invention of reading and writing it may have been of little consequence. However, we don’t live in such a society – we are in one where written communication is of huge importance. Whether you view dyslexia as a medical disorder or just part of the range of human abilities (or some mixture of the two), then it seems to me the important thing is to provide the means by which people can deal with it and function in society. Unfortunately it looks like there are a lot of theories and positions in this area, some of which seem close to dogma.

    As is often the case, people seem to feel happier with something being put down as a diagnosed medical disorder rather than it being seen as just part of what you are and which needs coping strategies.

    However, it would be particularly interesting if it was found that certain styles of teaching language and reading has some effects on this. From what I can gather, of the multifarious theories that have been expounded on the subject, those that put it mostly down to a visual perception defect are now less favoured. There does, apparently, seem quite a lot of evidence towards phonetics playing a major part. It’s interesting that the teaching of reading has now rather gone back to the way that I was taught back in the 1960s. Unfortunately, it is going to be a bit tricky for make comparisons across time as many conditions, of which dyslexia is just one, were hardly, recognised at that time, but it’s not inconceivable that theories and practices of teaching language has played a part.

  26. maizie said,

    August 7, 2009 at 5:28 pm

    T said, How can you possibly assert that questioning the existence of ‘dyslexia’ as a discrete physiological condition ‘insulted every dyslexic and adult child in this country’? Have you asked them all?

    What Grahmam Stringer was saying, I think, is that there is nothing that which particularly distinguishes a ‘dyslexic’ from a common or garden ‘poor reader’. If you were to look at all the definitions of ‘dyslexia’ which exist you will find that they cover such a wide range of attributes that it is extremely difficult to pin down exactly what ‘dyslexia’ is. As someone who works daily with ‘struggling readers’ I find that most are struggling because (as Graham Stringer says) they have been badly taught and that a very, very few, have an underlying (and identifiable) difficulty which makes it more difficult for them to learn.

    Are you aware that the methods of teaching reading in English speaking countries, which has been used for several decades, are completely unvalidated by scientific research? That in fact, scientific research for the last 30+ years has been amassed a body of evidence which quite clearly demonstrates that those methods have been wrong?

    The biggest fiction that has been perpetrated on those unfortunate people who bear the ‘dyslexic’ label is that their struggle to acquire literacy is somehow ‘their fault’, that there is something wrong with them, when in fact, it has been a result of the Educational Establishment (academics, teacher trainers and the DCFS) who have resolutely ignored research findings in favour of dogma and ideology.

    I wish that ‘dyslexics’ would stop directing their anger at the people who have studied the ‘evidence’ for dyslexia and found it lacking and direct their anger at the people who perpetrated the methods of teaching reading which caused most of their problems in the first place.

  27. maizie said,

    August 7, 2009 at 5:55 pm

    Hmm, SteveJG, we posted at the same time!

    You say:

    “However, it would be particularly interesting if it was found that certain styles of teaching language and reading has some effects on this.”

    I think that the (now thankfully defunct) National Literacy Strategy, which was in place from that late 1990s is evidence on a very large scale that the method of teaching reading promoted by it was faulty. Officially we have some 20% of children leaving primary school having failed to achieve the ‘required standard’ in reading. In fact, even the required standard leaves children very shaky with reading and the real percentage is probably far higher.( I base this observation on my own experience in secondary school and comments from many other practitioners in the secondary sector)) The new guidance on the initial teaching of reading (evidence based, systematic, structured ‘phonics’) has now been in place since 2007. So in another 4 years the KS2 results should tell us if literacy has improved. One could say that the govt has unleashed yet another giant longitudinal study!)

    Of course, the govt. have muddied the waters by endorsing Reading Recovery, as an early intervention for struggling readers, the methods of which are completely at odds with the current guidance, being in line with the ‘old’ guidance. What is more, RR was endorsed before the Rose Review into the teaching of reading had even reported and the govt have been resolutely blind to the incompatibility between the two ‘methods’ ever since. The recent IUSS report rightly criticised them for rushing into this. The recent Singleton review into ‘specialist dyslexia teaching’ has stated strongly that RR is not an appropriate intervention for ‘dyslexics’. As there is no discernible difference between dyslexics and ‘poor readers’ we can only conclude that RR isn’t appropriate for the latter group, either.

  28. Moganero said,

    August 8, 2009 at 9:11 am

    Looks liek you’re getting spammed by someone trying to sell drugs on line – I noticed a couple of places in recent posts here e.g Precott above: “Studies that findrxonline has shown that Parkinson’s patients”

  29. SimonW said,

    August 8, 2009 at 10:49 am

    Anecdotal as the observation is, I know a first class mathematician who can not (despite an excellent education) write stuff down. So whilst I’m prepared to accept the diagnosis of Dyslexia is often fluffy and without sensible foundations, having seen a couple of people who clearly have very specific problems unrelated to education or intelligence, or other apparent cognitive deficits it does exist in some cases.

    But then the request is to look at the evidence, not an assumption that the condition doesn’t exist at all. So why would that bother anyone unless you are pedalling dyslexia woo of some sort.

    Would the current approach to medical diagnosis fall under this committees remit?

  30. T said,

    August 8, 2009 at 5:58 pm

    On a personal level I object that someone (Mr stringer) can promote himself on the news, Gmtv, the bbc news website, and my sunday newspaper just by being offensive. Which is what he did. HOW VERRRRY DARE HE.

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