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'The Ugly Truth'

by Tracey Brown, director of Sense About Science

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July 2010

Responsible Reporting

This week, it's been refreshing to see some examples in the papers where stories which have the potential to be hyped and sensationalised have been dealt with responsibly, and give the full picture.

One article on Tuesday in The Telegraph with the headline "Household cleaners can double woman's cancer risk" looked like a classic scare story. But reading on, I saw it contained some really sensible comments from the study's author Dr Julia Brody. The US study had questioned women about their cleaning regimes and products they used. Though the study was reported to have found that women who used a combination of cleaning products were 110% more likely to have developed breast cancer, Dr Brody explained that this could have been due to recall bias: "it may be that women with breast cancer more accurately recall their past product use or even over-estimate it." It was really refreshing to see this explained so well and it ties in with our new guide 'Is there a Link' which we're putting together at the moment. In the guide we give advice about what to look out for when reading 'link'stories, such as whether the study relies on anecdotal evidence or is an animal study. This particular article also made us think about another useful tip for weighing up scientific claims: to always see what the author of the study says - they will often be the most realistic about their findings (not always! But often).

Another article that caught my eye this week, as it showed someone trying to give the bigger picture was a response piece in the Guardian written by Sam Shuster, Emeritus Professor of Dermatology at Newcastle University. In this piece, Shuster argues that there is no evidence to support the reports of increased malignant melanomas. He says he dislikes the "bullying, fear-mongering campaign against sun exposure" and that almost all of the skin cancers recorded each year are benign - they do not spread or kill. His team at Newcastle has shown in a recent study that tumours are being misdiagnosed as malignant when they are in fact benign. He also says that the scares about sun beds being as dangerous as cigarettes and asbestos are absurd.

If Shuster is right about sun exposure (and I don't know for sure if he is), his point has parallels with many other public health campaigns, where the message is one sided. It's this idea that as long as what is being said leads to a better and safer public (i.e. people avoiding too much sun exposure), it doesn't matter if it doesn't give the full picture. I personally think it does matter, we should have all the information and it's great to see researchers like Shuster standing up for the evidence.

In other news, we were thrilled to win Health Charity of the Year at the Medical Journalists' Association Awards! It was for our work campaigning to reform the libel laws and Simon Singh was also awarded a prize. Tracey spoke at a number of events this week - at the Civil Service Fast Stream Conference she joined a panel to talk about the importance of evidence in policy making and at the Association of British Science Writers Conference (ABSW) she discussed our work on peer review. Tracey and Ellen have also been very busy recruiting for our new Development Officer role and we're all excited to have Tabitha Innocent joining the team in August. Tabitha already knows the scene we work in pretty well having recently interned at the Science Media Centre and the Department for Business Innovation and Skills and is currently at the Human Tissue Authority. We're looking forward to getting her stuck into some Sense About Science projects.

Euro Science Open Forum in Turin

I've just come back from ESOF 2010 in Turin. We held two sessions, one responding to the latest results of our Peer review survey and the other on mythbusting and evidence hunting. They both went very well, we packed out the rooms and it really showed what a hunger there is internationally for these discussions. I met scientists, journalists and organisations from around the world and have developed my ideas about holding an international standing up for science congress in London.

In the 'What's up with Peer review?' session our panel got the audience thinking about some of the controversies and issues surrounding the peer review process such as bias, fraud and shutting out of new ideas (you can watch the session here). Panellist Philip Campbell (editor in chief of Nature) was surprised that very few academics pass on reviews to their post-docs. He felt that post-docs should be closer to the field and they also need the experience for training - something that was confirmed when Tracey asked the audience if anyone had received reviewer training and only a couple of hands went up.


The public understanding of peer review and its use as a tool to weigh up scientific claims was debated - some of the audience felt that peer review is too complex for the scientific community to get their heads around, let alone the public. I thought Tracey made an important point that it may not be perfect but can act as a benchmark to distinguish between science and opinion and we have had many requests since for our I Don't Know What to Believe guide. One request was from Thandi Mgwebi from the National Research Council in South Africa. It was great to speak with her about heading to South Africa in December to hold one of our VoYS Standing up for Science media workshops at a post-doc forum.

Over 180 people came to 'Warriors Against Claptrap: Are myth-busters the new generation of civic-scientists?' (you can watch the session here). It was good to hear Daniella Muallem a member of VoYS describing her motivation to make a difference in society and stand up for science. I often give talks about VoYS but it's so different to hear about it from a member's perspective. Professor Sergio Della Sala, a neuroscientist who's done a lot of work exposing myths about brain training, gave an entertaining talk where he raised examples of claptrap and the importance of evidence in an original way. He even had members of the audience whistling the tune to Popeye the sailor man!


We had such a positive response from the audience in this session with people from different countries coming up to us afterwards wanting to know how they can start similar schemes where they are. Chinese journalist, Albert Yuan who writes for Life Week said that they have very similar scientific misconceptions and 'claptrap' in China - particularly with things like detox and GMOs.

It was great to be in Italy and the ESOF social events were in some amazing venues including a castle and the tallest building of Turin! I left on Tuesday with my head buzzing with thoughts from so many conversations and think we've got an exciting time ahead with setting up work abroad. I am already looking forward to taking part in the next ESOF 2012 in Dublin!