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'The Ugly Truth'

by Tracey Brown, director of Sense About Science

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December 2013

All change with Celebrities and Science

So here it is. Or rather, isn’t. There will be no Celebrities and Science review of 2013. No round up of celebrities’ misleading claims and none of the usual effort by scientists to work out the underlying misconceptions that gave rise to them.

That’s not to say our file’s empty. In fact it is pretty full this year of examples people have alerted us to of silly diets and products and some more serious celebrity support for causes that fly in the face of evidence on cancer, autism, agriculture and much else. But the file is also full of responses and fuller than ever of examples of people in the public eye drawing attention to the importance of evidence on those subjects, and on others such as illegal drugs and wacky cures.

We decided not to run the review this year because of some positive changes. At Sense About Science we like change. That’s what we exist for so in every part of our work we look for the moment when we are not needed and can move to other things.

We published the Celebrities and Science review for seven years. Light hearted as they often were, the reviews have been more valuable than we ever looked for them to be...

We revisited celebrity statements and learned some things. Sometimes we didn’t know whether a celebrity statement was wrong, and if it was, why, or what the real picture was, and that was with an office full of people interested in asking. (Okay we know that large molecules can’t penetrate the skin but how small do they have to be? And we knew that Simon Cowell didn’t need intravenous vitamin injections, but were they just stupid, or dangerous?) Many lifestyle writers and broadcasters hadn’t known either. To run the review we had to find out. People used the counterpoints from scientists to go on challenging the statements themselves, which is a big hurrah!

It reached the parts that science rarely reached, especially back in 2006 when it started. The NME, Chat magazine and BBC Radio One discussed whether statements about radiation, vaccines or the dangers of drinking milk were true. That wasn’t just useful on specifics but in establishing that there is often a ‘science question’ to be asked when celebrities talk about their diets or fads. Celebrity claims circulate well beyond traditional newspaper readership; some go global. The review didn’t quite match them but it drew some of the same audience, and it went global too. By 2011 we saw well over 200 reports before we stopped counting.

Celebrities took notice. Well, agents, which is what matters. Every year we offered help and reminded people that it was just a phone call away. And increasingly they have used it, including people who were named in early reviews.

And that is one of the things that has changed. Not only are scientists a bit more plentiful in the public eye but some actors, comedians, celebrity chefs, TV stars, musicians and magicians have sought evidence and made a point of its importance to their followers. We have called on our database of specialists and research bodies to respond to requests for advice and some of those relationships now continue without our input. Our efforts aren’t alone. Many charities with celebrity patrons make a point of briefing them well – see the lovely comment below from Gaby Roslin for Breakthrough Breast Cancer. We started commenting on these better examples a few years ago, and that section of the review has grown each year. In fact if we had run the review this year the good examples would have been about equal with the bad.

Chris Morris probably also helped. Asking famous people to help beat the devastating drug ‘cake’ and champion fictional causes such as an elephant with its trunk up its backside showed that a few questions might also avoid humiliation. There have been plenty more copycats since and celebrity agents are wary of being had over.

But the most important thing is that we’re all responding in real time. Why wait for a review? Celebrities are on Twitter and Facebook. People can contact them and they (and their fans) can see what people write about them. Geeks write blogs responding to a news report and talk to celebrity followers on the same hashtag. People who write about evidence – not just us, hundreds of others – pick up examples really quickly. We no longer have clippings sent in from a celebrity mag someone ‘saw at the doctors’ (hmm): people tweet or email us links and we can respond the same day, if someone hasn’t already – there is a lot more responsive capacity too with even the most traditional organisations learning to speak in human on social media.

And that’s what our Ask for Evidence campaign is all about – thousands of people out there asking those who command attention to back up what they say. Even if we were triple the size we are at Sense About Science we wouldn’t be able to respond to everything on celebrities and science. But that campaign can do it. Read on for more about it from our campaign team, and for a little celebrity science nostalgia.

Read Celebrities and Science 2013 here.  

Should we ban electronic cigarettes? We #AskforEvidence

Update 18/12/2013: Last night the European Union reached a decision on its policy on electronic cigarettes. While they didn’t fully adopt the European Commission’s proposal to compulsorily regulate e-cigs as medicines, the decision will mean the most commonly-used (and least ‘cigarette-like’) refillable e-cigs are effectively banned, and the availability of e-cigs that are approved will be greatly reduced. This move towards heavy regulation appears to be driven by the fear that e-cigs might be harmful or act as a gateway to conventional tobacco – despite little or no evidence for either claim, as set out below.

As individual EU member states will now decide whether to regulate e-cigs as medicines, it’s even more important that the debate in the UK is informed by reliable evidence. We still haven’t heard back from the BMA about the evidence behind their position – perhaps Viscount Ridley raising our Ask for Evidence in the House of Lords yesterday might prompt a reply.


Last week we published a letter that we sent to the British Medical Association a month ago, asking them for the evidence behind their call to ban electronic cigarettes (e-cigs) in public places. The BMA has advocated a ban at football grounds, and train operating companies have cited their advice in banning e-cigs on trains and stations. We haven’t heard back from them yet – although they responded on Twitter to say they’ll ‘check what’s going on internally.’

Now, public health officials in Wales are using many of the same arguments in pushing for a ban, and the European Commission is proposing to regulate them so heavily as to effectively ban the most widely used e-cigs.

We asked the BMA for evidence because there is a great deal at stake – any effective means to reduce the harm from smoking should be promoted given that an estimated 100,000 people die from tobacco-related illness in the UK alone each year; 165,000 children die from passive smoking around the world; and these deaths are amongst the 600,000 annual deaths attributed to second-hand smoke.

Of course if there is evidence that e-cigs pose a significant threat to human health, they should be proportionately regulated – since this is a question of evidence, we asked the BMA on what grounds they sought a ban in public places. We await their response.

In the meantime we have asked academics and politicians to help us understand how the evidence on the health impact of e-cigs can inform public policy. The concerns of public health academics and officials appear to fall into two categories – that electronic cigarettes may cause (as-yet unidentified) harm, and that they may ‘glamourise’ or ‘re-normalise’ smoking behaviour. These concerns should be seen in the context of emerging evidence of their efficacy as a quit smoking tool.

In terms of the harmful effects of e-cigs, the BMA makes a great deal of ‘passive vaping’ – second-hand exposure to vapour that is presumed to be harmful. Studies the BMA cite themselves show that only a small fraction of the compounds found in cigarette smoke are present in e-cig vapour, and that too at far lower concentrations – low enough for one study to conclude that there is “no apparent risk to human health from e-cigarette emissions based on the compounds analysed.” The NHS advises people that “research to date has not shown the vapour to be harmful – it largely consists of water.” The lack of tar in e-cigs mean that if current smokers switched to e-cigs, the harms to by-standers from tar could also be significantly reduced.

What about undoing the ‘quit smoking’ messaging of public health campaigns: can e-cigs ‘re-normalise’ smoking behaviour? We couldn’t find any evidence that e-cigs act as a gateway to conventional tobacco cigarettes – there is survey evidence that those who have never smoked aren’t attracted to e-cigs, and nor are children.

As such, it appears there is currently very little evidence to support a ban on e-cigs in public. If this is the case, heavy regulation of the sort proposed by the European Commission could in fact inhibit access to products that may play a useful role in reducing the substantial harms from smoking tobacco cigarettes.

Students 4 Best Evidence should Ask for Evidence

Guest blog by Lucy Homer, University of Liverpool medical student and a member of the Student 4 Best Evidence network

Students 4 Best EvidenceEvidence-based medicine requires a considered use of the best available clinically relevant, ideally patient-centred research. Tracking the evidence down from a wide range of published and unpublished sources, to retrieve potentially relevant trial and other types of data is challenging; once found these data are synthesised and evaluated to aid informed decision-making so that we can offer the best possible treatment or diagnostic pathways for our patients. As future and current healthcare professionals we have a duty of care to our patients, primum non nocere, first do no harm. Over the past decade at least, the media has taken a particular interest in scientific developments in health care from cancer treatments to autism and much more, but, what is most concerning is a lack of evidence and robust scientific testing surrounding some research, tests and treatments, which can result in serious harm and even death in our patients. We strongly believe we should all be asking, “what is your evidence for this?” Especially, when it comes to healthcare choices.

A UK-based charitable trust, Sense about Science, seeks to equip people to make sense of science and encourages an evidence-based approach to scientific and technological developments. Its latest campaign Ask for Evidence’ is encouraging us all to contribute. Like Sense about Science, we believe that evidence for claims about healthcare interventions should be more widely available and the ‘Ask for Evidence’ campaign is just the beginning. We are interested in how to tackle the evidence once identified. What are the next steps in appraising this work? How do we know the work is valid? How do we act on the evidence? This is where we at Students 4 Best Evidence (S4BE) can help.

S4BE are a growing global network of students from school-age to University who are interested in learning more about evidence-based health care. We assimilate resources from across the Internet into one interactive space for discussion and learning. We evaluate resources to enable the best literature to be identified, provide tutorials on crucial principles of evidence-based medicine and we blog about articles and recommendations and the rationale behind them. From our work, we aim to empower readers to continue to learn about formulating research questions, searching the literature and critical appraisal so that they can make the best choices for the future care that they may provide or receive.

While our work mainly focuses on developing students’ knowledge, we believe that through collaboration with Sense about Science, we combine areas of expertise and seek to enable students and early career researchers to find the evidence relevant to their work and patients and identify areas of uncertainty in science and health care that need further investigation. By doing this, we can be more confident that the future choices we make in our care of others, in their choice of preferences and ultimately in our own health care, will be based on the best available evidence.

You can learn more about S4BE by liking us on Facebook or following us on Twitter (@Students4BE). If you want to get involved with blogging and reviewing resources for other students then contact us on [email protected]. Students 4 Best Evidence supports the ‘Ask for Evidence’ Campaign, do you?