Tag Archives: Daily Mail

Lots of sexual partners is apparently good for you !

5 Nov

Even by the standards of the British media this is a very strange bit of reporting. Last week a number of usually fairly conservative parts of the British press reported on a study suggesting that having more that twenty sexual partners could reduce a males chances of developing prostate cancer !


Each of these newspaper stories is reporting a paper by Spence, Rousseau and Parent called ‘Sexual partners, sexually transmitted infections, and prostate cancer risk’ published in the journal  Cancer Epidemiology.

As a teaching example, this story has two great things going for it. First, as I’ve previously written about, ‘sex’ stories are a great way of engaging undergraduate students, and second you don’t have to be a urology expert to start demolishing this story. A moments thought about what hypothesis might be being tested here is worthwhile. Initially you might imaging some sort of ‘exercise’ theory, but of course we’re not talking here about frequency of sexual intercourse, but number of sexual partners (one could have had 21 sexual partners and only had sex 21 times, or one sexual partner and sex many hundreds of times !), which leaves me to think that we might be talking about a ‘promiscuous personality’ in some way inoculates against prostate cancer. As you might imagine, what you actually find is only post-hoc theorising about causality !

When you actually delve into the paper itself two things emerge, firstly that the 19% reduction in cancer risk reported in the newspaper stories wasn’t statistically significant, and secondly that the effect reported only appeared with 20+ sexual partners, 19 partners made no difference at all.

As the wonderful NHS Choices websites speculates, you do wonder if this isn’t an example of just recycling the press release, rather than actually reading the original paper, and whether those writing these stories have and ‘science’ knowledge to back up their work. I shall try this out with my students next week, and report back on the impact !


The continuing saga of ‘drinkable suncream’

22 May

A couple of days ago I wrote about a laughably ludicroius story in the Daily Mail about drinkable suncream, that worked by making your molecules vibrate.  I’ve just read a wonderful blog post, that delves more into the story, and exposes that the ‘Doctor’ that runs the company involved might not be a ‘doctor’ in the tradional sense at all.

This new evidence makes it an even more compelling teaching example. It seems now like a really good illustration of Nick Davies’ point that so much of the media’s output is, in fact’ jsu rehashed press releases

Drinkable sun cream that makes your molecules vibrate !

20 May

As previous readers will know, The Daily Mail (A UK tabloid mid-range newspaper) is a great source of teaching material for me, and this morning has produced a particularly good example.



You might imagine that the headline alone, including the phrase ‘drinkable sun cream’, would be sufficient to prevent anyone reading further, but I was particularly taken by the line a few sentences into the story  ‘”Once ingested, the product’s liquid molecules vibrate on the skin, cancelling out 97 per cent of UVA and UVB rays”untitled2.

A visit to the manufacturer’s website makes for even more interesting reading. It appears that the produced is water than has had its ‘frequency enhanced’. It seems depending on the ‘enhanced frequency’ this water can be used for anything from hair loss to bowel irregularity.

Given the extravagant claim on the website, its ‘odd’ to see a disclaimer (in very small print) saying ‘These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease’.

This looks like a lovely example for initially getting students to be discerning consumers of information, but also looks like it might be useful as an intro into a discuss of the reliability of the press in general. After all, I can only think of three possible explanations for this story:

1) The Mail believe it

2) The Mail don’t believe it but think their readers will

3) The Mail were paid to publish it as an advert in the guise of a news story

Each of these options are worrying in their own way !!

On a separate note, I wonder if homeopathy ought to sue the suppliers of this product, after all it seems like they’ve adopted the ‘it’s water’ idea and taken it to it’s logical conclusion 😉



More on the benefits (or otherwise) of coffee

13 Jan


Coffee, or more specifically caffeine, crops up in a lot of places in my teaching. The Daily Mail has a strange obsession with things that cause or prevent cancer, and over the years coffee has been placed in both the ’cause’ and ‘prevent’ categories. Equally, one of my favourite Daily Express headlines ‘Two cups of coffee a day stops Alzheimer” was based solely on a study in mice. It is, however, slightly depressing when this overzealous reporting of caffeine -related stories begins to infect the BBC.

On the 12th Jan 2014 the BBC website reported a story headlines “Caffeine pill ‘could boost memory'”. The story reports a study of 160 participants, whose memory for images, over a 24 hour period, improved when given a 200 milligram caffeine tablet. The study comes from a very reputable source, and I have no reason to doubt the validity of the science involved, but I am intrigued that the BBC’s reporting of the story seem to fall half way between the extremes of the Mail and Express and actually applying some rational thinking. For example, the BBC report includes the line ‘The Johns Hopkins University study involved people who did not regularly eat or drink caffeinated products’, but makes no further comment on why this might be significant. Now, a sample of American participants who don’t drink tea, coffee or cola seems like it might be less that representative.

To give the BBC some credit, they do include ‘a voice of reason’ at the end of the story ( and I really pleased that in this case it was Dr. Ashok Jansari, a colleague from my own department).  Ash rightly points out the potential negative effect of caffeine, but what I find slightly odd about this is the apparent need to ‘contract out’ rational thinking, as if it isn’t something we should expect from the journalists reporting the story. After all you only need to type ‘caffeine’ into the search box of the BBC website to find a whole range of stories about the possible negative effects of caffeine including the idea of a ban on highly caffeinated drinks for under 16s.

All in all, this seems like a nice story to get students thinking rational at science (i.e. what’s the ecological validity of the original study) but also about the reporting of science and the idea that by learning some simple skills they can seemingly do the sort of thinking that BBC journalists seem to be avoiding. It’s also worth noting that ‘caffeine pill could boost memory’ is a story that is likely to be very appealing to students facing exams, and anything that gets across the message that cans of Red Bull may not be the answer to good exams results can only be a good thing 😉

Once the media create a myth can it ever be ‘uncreated’ ?

9 Jan


I regularly use the MMR vaccination fiasco as an example of the way in which media misinterpretation of scientific material can lead to ‘myths’ being established in the public consciousness. In particular I find it intriguing that even long after evidence has been produced to conclusively refute media created ‘myths’ (and the media have moved on to a new story) the myth remains firmly established in the public consciousness. Every time I teach this session I wonder about simpler examples of the phenomena that I could use as an introductory example.  Over the Christmas break I was reminded of a story that I will begin next year’s lecture with.

Back in the winter of 1997 Birmingham city council in the UK were looking at ways of producing a coherent marketing strategy for the wide range of events that took place in the city centre over the mid-winter period. The Head of events was looking for a ‘generic banner’ that could encompass all of the events and thus allow him to do things like seeks a single corporate sponsor. Eventually he came up with the seemingly inoffensive term ‘Winterval’, a simple contraction of ‘Winter’ and ‘Festival’.

The media reaction to ‘Winterval’, when it first appeared in November 1998 was extraordinary. The media reported ‘Winterval’ as a ‘rebranding’ of Christmas to avoid offending ethic and religious minorities. Even the Bishop of Birmingham bought into the media interpretation of the story  and condemned ‘Winterval’ as political correctness. What is unusual about this case is that ‘Winterval’ very rapidly became a synonym for ‘political correctness’, even though the council pointed out immediately that the promotional material for ‘Winterval’ included images of Angels ans Carol singers, and thus was hardly ‘politically correct.

What’s intriguing is that the ‘Winterval’ myth lasted for over a decade, and it was only in 2011 that the Daily Mail printed a tiny retraction confirming that the whole thing had been a myth. In the intervening decade hundreds of newspaper articles appeared citing ‘Winterval’ as the height of political correctness. I’m going to start trying to compile a list of these types of media myth. The obvious starting point would be the various EU scare-stories that regularly appear in the UK press i.e. Bananas are going to have to be straight, hedgehog crisps will be band etcetera. but is would be nice to come up with a list of less obviously comic stories.

This seems like a really good way of introducing students to many of the tenets of rational thinking, particularly that they should question material they believe to be fact because it has been repeated so often ! (The academic in me is also conscious that I really need to go and read something about meme theory !)

Rational Thinking and the iPhone 5s

29 Sep

I’m always on the lookout for topical examples of rational thinking, and this week offered a lovely example. Being a huge Apple fan I stopped at my local mobile phone shop on the way to work last friday to pick up my new iPhone 5s (the one with the fingerprint sensor). When I arrived at work a colleague suggested to me that my new phone was dangerous as ‘muggers would now want to cut off my finger’ along with stealing my phone. This seemed a little melodramatic, but i did a brief internet search, and came across the newspaper story below.

Screen Shot 2013-09-29 at 19.14.46

This story floats the image of iPhone thieves cutting off the fingers of their victims, even though the story immediately says that only fingers with a pulse will work. When I presented this to students in my first lecture of the year it was interesting how rapidly that finger amputation was very unlikely. One only had to picture an image of a iPhone thief pulling his newly stolen phone from his pocket and then having to pull out a bloody amputated finger to unlock it to realise how silly this story is.

Screen Shot 2013-09-29 at 19.33.08

The Daily Mail followed up a few days later with a story that the new iPhone sensor had been ‘hacked’. Ignoring the somewhat strange use of the word ‘hacked’ , the story presents a means of bypassing the fingerprint scanner using a print copied from a photograph. Again, just by asking students to think about their image of an iPhone thief, and whether they might be capable of using the complex process the story outlined it was easy to get students to recognise just how unlikely this story was.

Sadly, this idea is only really useful over the next couple of weeks, but it did very rapidly demonstrate to new students that they were perfectly capable of seeing through a bit of poor reporting.

Is red wine really good for you ???

7 Sep

As part of the assessment for my rational thinking course I get students to work up their own example of ‘bad’ science reporting as a presentation to the general public. I try to dot my teaching with examples so that the students have something to work from when constructing their own presentations. I’m thus always on the look out for new examples, to add to things like homeopathy and the MMR vaccine that I already talk about.


My interest was piqued by a series of adverts on London’s underground system for a product called ‘Fountain’ calling itself the ‘beauty molecule food supplement’. Fountain is being promoted by the UKs leading pharmacy, Boots, and judging by the display in my local store (see picture below) they expecting to sell an awful lot of it. The ‘beauty molecule’ in question is Resveratrol, something I’ve come across before in relation to claims about the health benefits of red wine.


The idea that red wine has health benefits has become very well established in the UK over the last five years. Get a group on middle class English people around a table with a bottle of red wine and you can guarantee that someone will say that it is ‘purely medicinal’. Running my usual test what the British public think ( a search of the Daily Mail website) produced a huge range of alleged health benefits of red wine :

The anti-ageing cream that’s made from red wine: Antioxidant found in grape skins can reduce wrinkles and lines

‘Miracle ingredient’ in red wine could help people live longer and more energetic lives

New drug being developed using compound found in red wine ‘could help humans live until they are 150’

(That is just a sample of the health ‘benefits’ of red wine)

What is really intriguing about this is that the vast majority of the research that all this is based on has not been with human participants. Interestingly, even the web site of Boots is clear that “Many of the headlines about the possible anti-ageing and disease fighting possibilities for resveratrol have come from laboratory or animal studies rather than evidence from trials involving humans”. Even more damning is the idea that to get the equivalent dose of resveratrol used in some mouse studies a human would need to drink 60 litres of red wine a day !


All this alone seemed link a really nice teaching example, but I came across a really interesting thing when I looked at resveratrol studies that did use human participants.  A recent study from the University of Copenhagen (admittedly with a small sample) suggests that resveratrol supplements might actually block the health benefits of exercise in older men.

Taken together this seems like a really good demonstration for students of how fairly thin pieces of research can get picked up by the press and rapidly established in the public consciousness. I also think there is an interesting ethical discussion to be had here about what pharmacies should be able to promote. Boots of course also sell homeopathic products, criticising them here might not get very far !

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