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Bad Science and Ben Goldacre

di Redazione FGB [1], 17 Settembre 2010

In this posting I would like to take a look at the work of Ben Goldacre, author, doctor, blogger and columnist for The Guardian UK newspaper. Certain aspects of his work such as the reporting of science in the press have been addressed in several other recent posts and I hope to draw some parallels and open a wider discussion of this problem.

Bad science is the title of Ben Goldacre's website [2] as well as his first book, available both in English [3] and Italian [4] and it represents a fine starting point for anyone interested in critically analyzing scientific experiment procedures and their reporting.

The author states that one of the aims of his book is to educate its reader in medical research methodology so that they will be better equipped to critically interpret all types of published results including statistical analysis. In this he excels, offering numerous examples of how to cook your own results to suit your aims. He takes apart the claims made by homeopathy and nutritionists through a critique of their scientific practices and PR techniques, as well as describing how large pharmaceutical companies hide negative data. Economic factors run throughout these arguments, but we should remember at this point that we are talking about medicine and publications that are likely to influence a doctor in their choice of medicines to prescribe.

And in one of these economic factors lies a serious problem. Drugs trials are very expensive and the pressure to show positive results is an economic and not merely ethical problem. See my previous article entitled 'Drugs for People, Not for Profit' [5]on this website for a broadening of this discussion. The author also cites plenty of examples of trials that have resulted in very positive published findings that are later discredited or rebuked by further trials, leading in some cases to the withdrawal of the product after serious and proven health risks have been discovered. He argues that the initial positive results are produced through the methodology and analysis of the procedures, manipulated in order to maximize positive findings and minimize those negative.

But the underlying message of the book is not really that drug companies are bad, but that the public does not receive the information they need in order to make make an informed decision about their own choices and actions. Part of the problem lies in the question of who provides information, how, through which medium and why, and this leads to an analysis of scientific reporting in the mainstream press.

In his analysis Goldacre argues that a great deal of scientific reporting is completely bogus, the so called science does not exist or that the claims made by journalists do not represent those made by scientists.

This is a problem that Robert Winston also addresses in his latest book that was recently reviewed on this site [6]. He states that he wants to promote dialogue between scientists and society but argues that scientific reporting in the press has no depth, that it has become a series of sound-bites, a communicational language problem. He argues that the reporting of scientific discoveries in the press is a political act, that is used to affect, change or strengthen a public belief in the name of giving advantage to a certain group. He states that possible positive aspects of any discovery will be exaggerated, and goes into great detail about the mis-reporting of the genome debate and what he sees as exaggerated claims about its possibility of curing mankind's ails. The obvious problem is that when the press makes incredible claims about future possibilities to cure pathologies, people suffering from these problems may be unjustly given hope of a cure.

Goldacre confirms this hypothesis and in particular condemns the newspapers' use of scientists to back up an argument even though in some cases the description of their professional roles and qualifications does not in effect bear witness to their actual positions or credentials. He also argues that many published news stories are little more than press releases furnished by promotions companies. These are very same promotions companies that sometimes offer money to academics for endorsements of their claims, and he goes as far as to claim that the media deliberately misrepresents science in order to make it seem like something that an ordinary person cannot understand, thus maintaining their privileged position of information provider and enabling them to ridicule scientists and science at will.

A piece in The Columbia journalism Review [7] supports Goldacre's claims about the non-critical publication of press releases, stating that the copying and publishing of press releases is now commonplace even though they may come directly from PR companies and might be at best a marketing interpretation of published findings.

Goldacre also addresses the problem of editorial choice in assigning non scientific based journalists to science stories in order to sex them up for the general public.

Winston argues that the possible benefits of any discovery will be exaggerated by scientists and that this problem could also be exacerbated by the choice of reporter as outlined above, with non specialist reporters favoured over their more scientifically trained coleagues because they know how to make a scientific story more exciting for the general reader. This week for example I learned from the UK press that the genome mapping of wheat is going to cure the problem of world hunger, although I personally feel that Winston would place this claim in the category of exaggeration or partial misrepresentation of findings.

Goldacre's analysis of the press promoted MMR scare is no less full of such suppositions made by non scientifically trained editorial staff.

Another author to have expressed an interest in this argument is Lennard Davis. Recently the foundation hosted Davis for a round-table discussion about his work and one of the things to come out of the discussion was the author's interest in scientific communication. See Margherita Fronte's summary of the discussion for further analysis in English [8] or Italian [9].

The author explained thet one of the aims of his book 'Go Ask You Father' [10] is to teach his readership about the technicalities of DNA and its analysis and possible uses and failings. Although the book is an autobiographical account of the author trying to find out who his father was through DNA testing it contains a wealth of information about the possibilities and problems that such an analysis offers.

Goldacre's aim is similar although the book very different, as through a series of critiques he hopes to lead the reader into taking a more critical stance when reading newspaper reports of so called medical breakthroughs.

The need to educate the public into the field of science and give them the proper tools for an analysis of published finding runs through the work of all 3 authors here mentioned. Goldacre actually argues that school children (and their parents) are subject to nonsensical biological claims of how to improve their performance through so called 'brain gym' and various vitamin supplements, and that this lays them open to a lifetime of exploitation.
Winston argues for more and better science teaching in school, aiming to produce an educated public that is able to made an educated choice.

This does not however alleviate the problem of information. Many of us take our scientific education from the newspapers or TV. If the aim of the information presented as science is to form public opinion, sell products and not really educate as Goldacre argues, are we all able to see the wood for the trees? Many political decisions are made based upon what we think we know about science.

Whilst researching this piece I was pleased to discover that the internet hosts a great many sites that address the problem of scientific reporting. An example can be found on the sciencebrainwaves website and describes a recently held event in the UK in which members of the group met to discuss the problem of science reporting in the press. The group included a journalist as well as scientists and other interested people and a short report [11]can be found on their website.

Also worth a look is the EU Overview of Science Reporting [12]. This document is a list of science publications and places where science is reported divided by country. Newspapers are listed along with small but telling pieces of information regarding scientific editorial staff (no specialist science reporter for example) and gives websites and outlines of many different publications.

Bad Science by Ben Goldacre is published by Harper Collins in London, 370 pages and costs £8.99 and his Guardian back catalogue is available through their website. [13]

La Cattiva Scienza by Ben Goldacre [14] is published in italian by Mondadori.

Mostra/Nascondi i link citati nell'articolo

Link citati nell'articolo:

  1. 1] /schedabiografica/Redazione FGB
  2. 2] http://www.badscience.net/
  3. 3] http://www.harpercollins.co.uk/Titles/36492/bad-science-ben-goldacre-9780007284870
  4. 4] http://www.wired.it/news/archivio/2009-05/12/la-scienza-cattiva-del-dottor-ben-goldacre.aspx
  5. 5] /en/focus/2009/09/drugs_for_people_not_for_profi.html
  6. 6] /it/rassegna/2010/07/bad_ideas_a_history_of_discove.html
  7. 7] http://www.cjr.org/the_observatory/science_reporting_by_press_rel.php
  8. 8] /en/focus/2010/07/a_man_his_history_and_his_dna.html
  9. 9] /it/focus/2010/06/un_uomo_la_sua_storia_e_il_suo.html
  10. 10] /it/rassegna/2010/02/go_ask_your_father_about_dna.html
  11. 11] http://sciencebrainwaves.com/blogs/brainwaves/?tag=/Science-reporting
  12. 12] http://ec.europa.eu/research/conferences/2007/bcn2007/overview_of_science_reporting_eu_en.pdf
  13. 13] http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/series/badscience
  14. 14] http://www.ibs.it/code/9788861593039/goldacre-ben/cattiva-scienza.html
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