Thursday, 31 July 2008

Science Says: Popular Science “Will Give You Cancer”

"Digressions, objections, delight in mockery, carefree mistrust are signs of health; everything unconditional belongs in pathology." -Nietzsche

How often do we pick up a newspaper to find that science has yet again warned us of the dangers of something we all like doing? Power lines cause cancer. Coffee causes strokes. Wait no, it protects against heart attacks. So does wine. But it causes liver disease. Several weeks later, it’ll be something else. Fear it. What passes for science news in the mainstream media, be it highbrow or tabloid is often understandably simplified. Maybe it is too simplified, but what is perhaps of more concern is just where this science is coming from, and whether the editors of our beloved media outlets have sufficient knowledge of the workings of science to make good calls on what is likely to represent real findings.

Take the recent (ish) example cited by Ben Goldacre in his column, Bad Science. It all started when the British newspaper the Sunday Express ran with a headline that said:

Suicides “Linked to Mobile Phone Masts”

This front page article revisited the recent epidemic of suicides in Britain, citing the opinion of a certain doctor “who sits on a government advisory committee on mobile radiation” and who has apparently discovered a link between mobile phone deflector masts and depression. The opinion was presented as a revolutionary scientific finding and doubtlessly caused many people great concern. Ever sceptical, Bad Science found out that said scientist is not part of a government advisory committee but of an independent group which interacts with the British department of health via a mediation group. They’re quite far removed from the government and have no official standing. They further found that said scientist had not published his findings via the conventional route and that the data was not readily available. To a scientist, this sort of evasiveness sets off major alarm bells. And they were justified in this case. It emerged that the same scientist has previously made the claim that AIDS is not caused by the HIV virus but by electromagnetic radiation. In scientific circles, this is roughly equivalent to holocaust denial. Not very coincidentally, this claim looks very much like the claims he is now making regarding depression in the Sunday Express. This smacks of an agenda, and an agenda was indeed found. The “scientist” has numerous books available to buy online regarding the dangers of electromagnetic radiation and the healing power of magnets. Magnet healing kits may also be purchased from him, albeit with no explicit (or legally-binding) claims of having any sort of healing power at all. To put it bluntly, The Sunday Express have given their front page to the science world’s version of Delboy.

There’s far more to the story but Ben Goldacre explains in much greater depth and with greater eloquence than I could. His website comes highly recommended.

What should the non-scientist reader believe these days? To my mind, the best way for the average Joe to approach mainstream science reporting (and all popular science in print or on TV) is with scepticism and basic knowledge of how scientific findings are published and validated. So let’s look at that process. Please? I’ve even provided a flow chart as a visual aid! See, the mainstream press is represented by a small explosion which I hope makes the flow chart exciting.

So, scientific research is conducted all over the place. It is done to varying standards and with varying bias or agenda. For a recap on how proper research is conducted check out my previous posting, First Assumptions. This research is submitted to science journals. These are like ultra specialist magazines, and they mostly will only publish raw science, fresh from the lab. Scientists don’t get paid for this. It’s a privilege to be accepted. In order for that to happen, the work has to pass through “peer review”. This means that the work is assessed by an independent group of scientists in the appropriate field. Every figure, graph and photo is scrutinised. Every turn of phrase dismantled. It’s rather like sending your work to a whole group of Simon Cowells. A lot of research gets rejected out of hand or must be brought up to scratch. Mean things are said, feelings are hurt. The best stuff, the most solid stuff, gets into the journals. Unless you are a scientist or an extreme enthusiast, don’t even think of trying to read these journals. The boredom alone may actually make you die.

If your material is particularly hot, it may well feature as a part of a review paper. These are articles that the journals publish in an attempt to summarise the current cutting-edge of a given field for easier reading. “Easier” being very much a relative word. These reviews are only likely to maim the average reader via boredom and an unforgiving learning curve.

If the research has broad appeal to the scientific community as a whole, it may get picked up by the specialist press. Publications such as Focus, Scientific American or New Scientist cater for scientists who like to read news from other fields. The Biologista, for example is a life scientist who also happens to enjoy reading about robots, dinosaurs and jetpacks. New Scientist provides, and it has pictures.

Finally, the very most relevant and exciting research with the broadest appeal possible reaches the mainstream press. Many newspapers have science supplements, many websites carry science news and some papers will go so far as to carry science-oriented stories on their front pages at times. Radio programmes will often do a round-up of the most amusing science of the week.

This system, from peer reviews through the journals and finally to the mainstream is how things would ideally work. What actually happened in the case of our Prof. Delboy is that information was passed from research of unknown quality directly to a credulous newspaper. No peer review or quality control. No vetting for relevance or, most importantly, bias or agenda. This happens a lot in the mainstream press when it comes to science. The source material appears tricky, so information is accepted on the basis of authority, rather than evidence. Newspapers rarely cite anything more than a name as a source, but that’s the starting point for critical reading, as Dr. Goldacre has ably demonstrated for us.

You don’t have to go read those tricky journals. You don’t even need to read the specialist magazines, though it helps. Just do a little digging. Google a name and look for connections to industry or lobby groups. If you want to see if a named source publishes their research much, follow the link on this blog to Google Scholar and put their name in the search box. Ask yourself, did this pass through peer review? Most importantly of all, demand more of your news source. Look for multiple opinions in science articles. Look for evidence and look for data. Demand critical coverage. Above all, be a sceptic, but reasonable. Be a scientist in your own right.

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