Cherry picking research. Screens of any sort (and Facebook) may be killing you, or at least your children !!!

14 Oct

In my lecture this week I was covering the idea of cherry picking research findings to match a particular view of a research question, as as luck would have it two days before the British press was covered with the ‘news’ that watching TV (or indeed screens of any sort) was seriously damaging children’s health. This story was based on the latest work of Dr. Aric Sigman, who has previously been involved in Putting baby in nursery ‘could raise its risk of heart disease’ and How using Facebook could raise your risk of cancer. I’m particularly interested in the work of Dr. Sigman as he received his PhD from the institution at which I now work (from the same department).

In my lecture I showed the students a TED lecture from Ben Goldacre on the questionable practices of the pharmaceutical industry in cherry picking research results to support there latest product (excellently detailed in his new book ‘Bad Pharma’). I moved on to show them the psychologists could be equally guilty of this, illustrated with the Facebook/cancer story mentioned above. Aric Sigman’s habit of cherry picking the literature has been extensively detailed, but what I find particularly surprising is that he openly admits to selectively reporting evidence to support his own point of view. All of this from someone who’s academic credentials on the surface seem exemplary . Aric Sigman’s own website lists him as a Chartered Biologist, Fellow of the Society of Biology, Chartered Psychologist, Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society, a recipient of the Chartered Scientist award from the Science Council and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine. Interestingly, true experts in the fields Sigman writes about, such as Dorothy Bishop (Oxford Professor of Developmental Neuropsychology) have regular criticised his writings (but have had little media impact). Indeed, Bishop has written a great piece on how to become a media science expert, where you suspect she may have had Aric Sigman in mind.

On the surface all of this could be quite depressing for someone trying to teach students to think rationally, in that it questions the value of science’s much-revired peer-review process (Sigman’s work has been regularly published in the peer-reviewed ‘The Biologist’. However, as a vehicle for encouraging students to question everything they are presented with even if it comes from a peer-reviewed sources an an apparently highly qualified author, it is second to none.

On a more cheerful note, my lecture did produce one gem that I will recycle for years to come. The Daily Mail’s article suggesting Facebook could raise your risk of cancer has a very interesting addition an the bottom, a button to post the story to Facebook and a counter showing that 4565 readers have ‘liked’ the story on Facebook !

One of my students spotted this particular gem of irony, so perhaps what I am teaching is worthwhile !


3 Responses to “Cherry picking research. Screens of any sort (and Facebook) may be killing you, or at least your children !!!”


  1. Reflections on teaching the ‘Psychology of conspiracy theories’ | Teaching Rational Thinking - March 8, 2013

    […] I written before about the habit of some ‘scientists’ of cherry-picking evidence to suit…, and conspiracy theories seem like a great way of getting students to see that you have to consider ALL of the available evidence. […]

  2. Watching TV will do your children no harm, or possibly turn them into monsters !! | Teaching Rational Thinking - March 27, 2013

    […] final point of interest this that some months ago I wrote about Aric Sigman’s widely reported view that any form of ‘screen time’ for children was…. Even the most biases reading of this really interesting study would conclude that it provided very […]

  3. Are ‘screens’ really damaging our children ? I’m not convinced | Teaching Rational Thinking - August 26, 2014

    […] I’ve written before about the idea that electronic devices are damaging children’s devel…, and this week has seen the reporting of another study that seems to suggest that electronic devices are cause harm to our children. Uhls etal report in a study published in ‘Computers in Human Behaviour’ that depriving children of interaction with electronic devices improves their ability to read facial emotions. […]

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