Tag Archives: Ben Goldacre

Illustrating correlation and causation

8 Aug


I’ve written before about an alleged relationship between computer use and various psychological problems and a newspaper article I read this week made me think about that idea again. The newspaper story straightforwardly reports a paper demonstrating that children on the autistic spectrum spend twice as long playing video games as typically developing children. This seems like a really nice illustration for students that just because two things are related it doesn’t necessarily mean that one causes the other. I suspect that most students will rapidly see the idea that essentially solitary video gaming might be an obviously appealing recreation for autistic children.

What is depressing is that I suspect that those peddling a link between computer use and psychological problems (Aric Sigman, Baroness Susan Greenfield) will latch on to studies like this and claim that they support their theory. Much has been written elsewhere about Greenfield unsubstantiated claims about autism and computer use, (Ben Goldacre is particularly good on Greenfield’s strange claims) but I do wonder whether I should be pleased or depressed that my students can spot something that seems to be difficult for ’eminent’ scientists !

Things like this are always really useful for teaching. I find that the idea that they are developing a skill that others (who they think are cleverer) lack is really appealing to students.



All the warning about the MMR vaccination turn into reality

5 Apr

A few years ago I used to regularly use the great UK MMR vaccination fiasco and the discredited work of  ‘Dr’ Andrew Wakefield as an example in my rational thinking classes. If you are interested in the whole MMR issue Ben Goldacre (as ever) has a very accessible summary. Over the last couple of years I’ve dropped it as a topic, as I rather naively assumed that with Wakefield work being so publicly discredited it was a piece of ‘history’ and not necessarily something that would engage students.

In recent months we’ve seen a very strange case of an Italian Court deciding that all the science is wrong, and now in the UK we have a major measles outbreak.


In the South Wales city of Swansea 588 measles cases have now been reported. This seems like both the ‘perfect’ ending for a new lecture on the MMR fiasco, and also a very good way to get students to think about complex ideas about what happens when ‘herd immunity’ drops. South Wales appears to be something of a blackspot for immunisation, with 1 in 6 children not vaccinated.


This graphic from America’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious diseases is a nice introduction to the idea of ‘herd immunity’. I’ve also found this website which has a series of online simulations of various disease scenarios (including the ‘Swansea’ situation with a blackspot of low immunisation).


All things considered, the MMR lecture will definitely be making a comeback in October with an ‘all new’ section on herd immunity. As a postscript to this blog I’ve just searched for ‘Swansea measles’ on the Daily Mail website. The top three responses (see image below) are illuminating !


In ten years we seem to have ‘progressed’ from 75% of the public wanting an inquiry to ‘measles can kill’. If only we’d had more rational thinking in 2002 !!!

Blondes have more fun and David Cameron has a successful ‘political face’ !!

26 Jan

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Doing what I do, I read a lot of weird news stories but I came across something this week that was the strangest thing I’ve seen in some time. At first glance the story seemed like standard fayre, suggesting that facial traits are related to success and leadership. It goes no to say that women with dark hair are more successful in business than those with blonde hair (somewhat surprisingly illustrating successful business women with pictures of Kim Kardashian and Pippa Middlleton !!), and suggesting that men with squarer jawlines are better leaders (illustrated with a picture of David Cameron).

I was just about to move on, dismissing the story as too silly to think about, when two points peaked my interested. Firstly, the study on which the story is based seems to have been written by a respectable academic, Dr Chris Solomon from the University of Kent, and secondly his study was funded by the UK TV channel ‘Dave’, which is now for its  re-runs of comedy shows. This reminded me of a case from a few years ago, where headlines such as ‘All men will have big willies‘ were prompted by a report written by Dr Oliver Curry of the LSE, and funded by the TV channel ‘Bravo’.

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This link made me dig a little further, and I came across a couple of very strange things.

17th November 2008 ‘Fresh faced Cameron beats sunken-eyed Brown on ‘face you can trust’ issue’, based on Dr Solomon’s research funded by TV channel ‘Alibi’

6th November 2010 ‘How Cheryl Cole and David Beckham have ‘perfect faces” based on Dr Solomon’s research funded for the launch of ‘Beauty and the Beast ‘ on Blu-Ray disc

13th July 2009 ‘Scientists unveil the face of ‘the perfect boss’ based on Dr Solomon’s research funded by Vauxhall Motors for the launch of their Insignia model

Now, I haven’t been able to track down the research on which any of these four articles are based, and thus it’s difficult for me to draw firm conclusions, but at the very least it seems like a good way of getting students to think about where the border between science and public-relations lays !!

Are fish oils good for you or not ???

20 Nov

I was very impressed last week by a story in the Daily Mail finally accepting that fish oils weren’t a magical cure for any number of health problems. This made me think about ways of getting students to understand the reliability of any particular source of information. After all, reading this one article would make you think that the Mail was a useful source !

After a little thought I typed ‘fish oil’ into the search box on the Mail’s home page and came up with a whole range of ‘interesting stories, a selection of which are listed below:

11 September 2012 “Fish oil supplements ‘do NOT cut risk of heart attacks and strokes”

28 July 2012 “Are you hooked on fish oil yet? The natural wonder drug proven to treat a range of conditions”

13 June 2012 “Elderly warned that taking fish oil pills ‘does not prevent brain decline'” 

31 January 2012 “Taking fish oil during pregnancy ‘protects babies from eczema'”

28 February 2012 “New proof daily dose of fish oil does help keep your brain young”

3 January 2012 “Fish oil may hold key to leukaemia cure”

26 October 2011 “Fish oil supplements ‘can slow growth of prostate cancer cells in just four weeks'”

31 May 2011 “Fish oil could curb binge drinking by reducing desire for alcohol”

8 July 2010 “Fish oil may cut breast cancer risk ‘by a third’ 

24 May 2010 “Health news: Why pregnant women should drink more milk, tackle knee pain with sound waves and could fish oil reduce asthma?”

20 January 2010 “Is fish oil the elixir of life ?”

11 August 2009 “Could a fish oil pill add years to your life?”

22 May 2007 “Heart attack victims should take fish oil pill daily”

15 May 2006 “Fish oil ‘boosts pupil performance'”

I’m not particular interested in the research underlying all of this, (If you are there is an excellent chapter on the ‘fish oil and brain power’ story in Ben Goldacre’s book ‘Bad Science’). However this seems like a great illustration that students do not have to be experts in a particular subject to see that fish oils are unlikely to be the cure for all of these ills. It may well be, once all the research has been conducted, that fish oil does have valuable health properties but that is very different from the panacea presented above !

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 !

Do academic journals hamper rational thinking ?

21 Sep

Earlier this week I came across a news report of a study by Dr. Jeremy Osborn of the Albion College Michigan Department of Communication Studies entitled “When TV and Marriage Meet: A Social Exchange Analysis of the Impact of Television Viewing on Marital Satisfaction and Commitment”.

The news report suggests that Dr. Osborn’s paper proposes a link between belief in TV postrayals of romantic relationships and difficulties in individual’s own romantic relationships. As you might imaging this peeked my skeptical antenna, and so I set off to do exactly what I try and teach, and find and read the original paper.

As others (Ben Goldacre !) have often complained about, this story appears in many media outlets, but very few of them reference the original paper, and even fewer link to the original source. Eventually I discovered that the paper appeared in the September 2012 issue of ‘Mass Communication and Society’, and so off I went to my institution’s Library Catalogue to find the original paper. This is where the trouble started.

I work in a reasonably well-resourced UK higher education institution, and thus I have access to a huge range of academic journals straight from the computer in my office. I was delighted to find that we has a subscription to ‘Mass Communication and Society’, but then I discovered that the e-sunbscription has an eighteen month publication lag. I was half way through filling out a British Library request form when it occured to me that it’s not an option easily available to my students and even more difficult for a member of the general public.

All of this got me to thinking about how ‘the man in the street’ could think rationally about this paper. If you can’t access the source material you can only rely on third parties (i.e,. the popular media) who are less than reliable. This makes me think about the irony that academic journals, with their elaborate paywalls are actually actively hampering rational thinking. So, there are some limits to rational thinking, and ironically thay are being mainatined by the very people who ought to be breaking them down !

I’m off now to e-mail the journalist that wrote the original story to ask if they have access to the paper. Surely a member of the British press wouldn’t have written a story just froma university press release !! (You might want to look at Nick Davies’s excellent ‘Flat Earth News’  for a measure of the likelihood of this )

The ethics of being a skeptic

28 Aug

One of the questions that often comes up in my classes is ‘are they doing any harm ?’. More specifically, students ask if we have any right to get involved if adults want to spend their money on consulting Sally Morgan ( the UK’s ‘best-loved’ psychic) or on buying very expensive bottles of sugar pills to ‘cure’ any number of ailments. I’ve always combated this argument with examples of homeopaths prescribing ‘remedies’ for life threatening diseases (i.e. Malaria) and thus incurring potential expense for the NHS, which we all pay for.

I was drawn to think about this when I read a recent story about a church in the north of England peddling a highly questionable cancer ‘cure’. The same church had previously been fined £25,000 by OFCOM, the UK’s broadcasting regulator, for broadcasting cancer ‘cure’ claims on their TV channel Believe TV. Religion is always a topic I’ve avoided directly addressing when teaching, using the defence that faith is inherently unfalsifiable , and thus not amenable to scientific enquiry. Of course, this defence itself has raised questions from students since Richard Dawkins published his book ‘The God Delusion’. However, I’m left with the conundrum that I’d happily talk about someone peddling olive oil and Ribena as a ‘cancer’ cure in lectures but I avoid discussion of prayer curing cancer. This particular case interested me, as Ben Goldacre tweeted about it suggesting that those involved in purchasing the Ribena and Olive Oil cure need to take responsibility for their own actions. I’m not sure I agree with that view completely, in that I think skeptics ought to warn against such things.

All of this makes me think about where the limits of skepticism lay. Should we comment on everything, or are there points where we should step back and say ‘if you fell for that it’s your own fault ?’. Equally, is my decision not to discuss religious faith in class a rational one, or just me avoiding a controversial topic. I don’t really have and answer to either of these questions, so I’d love to hear what others think. Please feel free to leave comments below.

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