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The hidden side of clinical trials

Watch the AllTrials TEDx talk on YouTube

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Evidence matters to the public

Join us on 1st November at Parliament to make the case

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Plant Science Panel

Insecticides, biofuels, GMOs …

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'The Ugly Truth'

by Tracey Brown, director of Sense About Science

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August 2011

Thanks for the wheelie big effort...

Lauren Taylor is an editor and illustrator, writes for Mad Art Lab on the Skepchick network and is part of the British Humanist Association's choir. Here she describes her fundraising efforts for our new 'ask for evidence' campaign.

 "On Sunday 14 August I joined 1300 skaters for Goodwood motor racing circuit's annual roller-skating marathon: 4 hours, 11 laps, 26 miles around the circuit but the real journey began a year ago.

I trained everywhere from sunlit mornings along the Serpentine river to damp, grey evenings around a deserted Tesco's carpark. I've clocked up over 200 miles of skating, numerous bruises of spectacular colours and sizes, and thigh muscles to rival Britain's Strongest Man. Before this, I hadn't sported a pair of skates since I was 7 years old and my favourite form of exercise was walking to buy lunch.

Lauren skatingFast forward and - accumulating an adoration for roller skating along the way - the actual event was spectacular. The sky was blue, the sun was shining and I had a small but tenaciously lively crowd screaming for me on the sidelines. On each lap you could make a new friend, with grown men dressed as fairies, skaters with sound systems strapped to their backs, roller-derby girls with gruesome stories to regale and speed skaters whizzing past at over 20 miles an hour. I would never want to deter anyone from doing it, but the fact is marathons are ridiculously hard work - but why would anyone have sponsored me otherwise? The adrenaline of the event saw me through the first 17 miles. The stamina I had trained to conjure up when the going was tough got me to 22 miles. I have no idea how I completed the last 4 miles, but I did, and for the last 1/2 mile I had the biggest smile on my face.

Lauren's teamIt must have been the year of training - what a waste of all those weekends! It must have been my friends and family there to motivate me - imagine if I had dragged them on this 2 hour trek to Sussex only to fail! It also must have been my investment in Sense About Science and the heart-warming support that they provided through this crazy mission - imagine contacting them to say that, sorry, I didn't manage to do it after all. I've done a few things for charity in my life, but it has never felt so appreciated. The Sense About Science team really were with me for every roll of the way.

I am not from a science background. Critical thinking does not come naturally to me. Like many people, I have been a victim of bad science, specifically the kind that serves only to escalate anxiety and panic around health, social and environmental issues. An understanding of the value of scientific evidence is the key to combating this needless form of anxiety and ignorance, and equipping the public with the tools to resist the effects of bad science is the first step. Without belief and without credibility, the advocates for bad science have no power at all. These skills are easily learned and will serve us for a lifetime. I would happily roller skate any distance to see these goals achieved. After all, blisters and sore legs are a small price to pay for knowledge."

Let's always ask for evidence

David Aaronovitch’s warning against bad science strikes a chord with us...

This week's papers reported that watching TV can cut your life expectancy. In The Times today David Aaronovitch warns of the dangers of bad science and talks about what the study behind these reports might actually be telling us. Our upcoming guide Is There a Link? is focused on exactly this problem, asking how you can cut through the hype of news reporting to look at the evidence behind scientific claims. His warning that bad science can have serious consequences really resonates with us. We see it in our work with patient groups, who tell us about all kinds of miracle cures people are prepared to try even when there is no evidence that they work; and when the frustration amongst young scientists about clinics promoting homeopathy for serious diseases in Africa prompted an international VoYS campaign.

Everyone can ask questions about the status of evidence, for instance is the research peer reviewed or has it been replicated? The best way to immunise ourselves against bad science is always being prepared to ask for the evidence. 

Making sense of the screening debate

Volunteer Samantha Cheung and I have been following the recent debate about breast cancer screening.

On 28th July 2011, the BMJ published research suggesting that breast cancer screening programmes are unlikely to have directly influenced the current decline in breast cancer mortality rates in Europe. Instead, “improvements in treatment and in the efficiency of healthcare systems may be more plausible explanations.” This research was widely reported (e.g. in the Daily Mail, The Telegraph and The Sun) and has prompted lots of debate on the issue in the media: some experts called for the screening programme to be scrapped; campaign groups urged women to continue attending for screening; doctors told women to weigh up the pros and cons for themselves; and newspapers printed letters from individual women who have benefitted from screening and others who had not.

The different debates going on amongst experts and between individual women make it hard for people to make sense of screening. In 2009 there was a similar discussion about cervical cancer screening with two slightly different debates going on – individual women and campaign groups were talking about how screening saved them or let them down, while scientists and policy makers debated the merits of population wide screening programmes. We got experts together then to help us make sense of the debate. These are the insights that we found most helpful:

  • Screening programmes are designed to identify the majority of people who have a disease but cannot prevent disease.
  • Some false positives and false negatives are an unavoidable cost of screening people who don’t have symptoms of a disease. The potential harms and benefits must be balanced.
  • Screening cannot provide a definitive yes/no answer. An “all clear” does not mean that you will never develop the disease.
  • Screening rarely benefits all sections of a population so it needs to be targeted at those most likely to benefit.

Download Making Sense of Screening.