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'The Ugly Truth'

by Tracey Brown, director of Sense About Science

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There Goes The Science Bit...

A guide to standing up for science.

TGTSB...From food that doesn’t contain chemicals to a spray that shields against EMF, young scientists have been contacting organisations – manufacturers, distributors, retailers – to ask for more evidence for such claims. This is their dossier of extracts from their experiences.

The Voice of Young Science Network hope their work will encourage more people from all walks of life to question claims and ask for evidence. 

This project is brought to you by:

Ramla Ali, David Armstrong, Harriet Ball, Elizabeth Barry, Kevin Chetty, Matthew Child, Anne Corbett, Maria Cruz, Eric de Silva, Frances Downey, Caroline Grainger, Evelyn Harvey, Catherine Jones, Ian Kellar, Johnny Kelsey Amelia Lake, Jennifer Lardge, Sabina Michnowicz, Luke Norton, Kate Oliver, Nicola Powles-Glover, Aarathi Prasad, Fiona Randall, Mark Reuter, Nathan Robertson, Kehinde Ross, Helena Seth-Smith, Tom Sheldon, Frank Swain, Samantha Tang, Carolyn Tregidgo, Alice Tuff, Debbie Wake, Roni Wright and Neil Young

What we did

TGTSBWe swapped examples of offending claims. Some of us started making a few phone calls to customer helplines and manufacturers to hunt down the evidence. Some people we spoke to disavowed responsibility or insisted they were responding to consumer concern. Others were able to link their claims to science, albeit from a galaxy far far away. They seemed completely unprepared for our questions and no-one was able to provide solid evidence.

So others of us had a go — and got others to have a go — and we started tackling the pile of examples (which was swelling rapidly as word got out about what we were up to). Yet more of us did the hard graft of transcribing some very long conversations and tracking down the meanings of words like ‘optimise’ and ‘scientifically proven’, editing and proofing.

Ultimately, there was far too much material to publish on the tiny budget that Sense About Science was able to give us. After a few pub gatherings and lots of emails we agreed on the following extracts and examples. We hope they won’t just be interesting but will also be useful experiences for other people who want to hunt down the evidence.

There are no qualifications needed to do this — just an inquisitive mind and the tenacity to keep asking questions. Sometimes people make genuine errors or don’t appreciate the effects of exaggeration, but if no–one is probing these mistakes, they will go uncorrected.

The lack of evidence and ridiculous answers we were given made us realise how important it is to ask these questions. We hope 'There Goes the Science Bit...' will inspire you to do the same.

So what do senior scientists make of it all?

Professor Sir Paul Nurse, 2001 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine: “There Goes the Science Bit… is a refreshing and amusing look at the extraordinary claims being made by commercial producers and retailers to try and make us buy their products. Their lack of science is mercilessly exposed by intelligent young scientists prepared to spend their time unmasking the empty pseudo-science of so many of these claims. Well done, Voice of Young Science, what you are doing is important so keep it up!”

Professor Peter Atkins, (Emeritus) University of Oxford: “The public is well served by scientists who are prepared to spend time exposing scientific nonsense, and it is particularly pleasing for young scientists to know they have an effective channel of communication. They should be applauded for acting as warriors against claptrap.”

Dr Simon Singh, science writer and broadcaster: “These young scientists have set a tremendous example for others to follow. It is all too easy to sit back and do nothing, but it is the duty of scientists to complain if they see perverted science being used to mislead the public so it is great that these scientists have started to set the record straight by making a nuisance of themselves.”

Dr Adam Hart-Davis, science TV presenter: “I too am maddened by pseudo-scientific claims that are often absurd and sometimes harmfully misleading. The examples your team has investigated are typical of the way marketing people deliberately target anxious people and unload expensive rubbish on them.”

Comments on There Goes the Science Bit…

Tom Sheldon, Contributor: “We were tempted to dismiss some of the more ludicrous examples of ads on the web — until we saw that the companies’ turnovers were quite substantial and that many of the products are being advertised through chatrooms for people suffering from medical conditions.”

Alice Tuff, Co-editor: “The danger of misleading science claims hit me last year when I worked as a volunteer with the Sense About Science trust, investigating the sale of homeopathic anti-malarial pills. I joined the staff there this year and found the files full of examples people send in, like the spray to protect against artificial electromagnetic radiation and patches to draw out toxins. We are all let down by misinformation — sometimes it can be dangerous — and I wanted to do something about it.”

Frank Swain, Co-editor: “I’d been writing about the good, the bad and the ugly of science on my website challenging the scientific credentials of dodgy products. I got involved in the Voice of Young Science (VoYS) group that came out of media workshops run by Sense About Science. The groups were discussing what to do about dodgy claims and I thought we should act on Alice’s idea of a concerted effort to debunk them. You don’t have to wait til you’re running a lab to pick up the phone and ask for evidence — anyone can do it.”

Jennifer Lardge, Contributor: “We weren’t testing the scientific credentials of the people answering the phone — we wanted some evidence and clarification, but it was tough to get. I was passed from a UK distributor to a miner in Pakistan and back to a UK website, but ended up little wiser about the health benefits of salt lamps.”

Frances Downey, Contributor: “These organisations seem to think they can say anything they want — to a public that’s none-the-wiser, to worried parents, to health conscious teenagers or playing to the fears of people seeking medical relief. Well, they promote these ‘customer carelines’ so it’s about time they heard from a few customers who care about evidence.”

Tracey Brown, Director of Sense About Science: “We were a little squeamish at first but after seeing the commitment and the infectiousness of what they are doing, and the dedication of Alice and Frank, we gave them some server space for a forum and then printing for enough copies to supply about 0.2% of the PhDs and post-docs in the UK! They’re a counterblast to cynicism in science.”

Media Coverage for There Goes the Science Bit...

New Scientist “Dubious health products debunked”

The Guardian “Food and health firms taken to task over sales pitches by science’s ‘warriors against claptrap’”

The Scientist “Calling all charlatans” 

BMJ “Scientists challenge companies’ dubious marketing claims” 

Daily Telegraph “Food firms ‘serve up a cocktail of nonsense’”

Guardian Blog “There Goes the Science Bit” & “Warriors against claptrap”

UCL Bookshelf “There Goes the Science Bit…”

Guardian Science Podcast “The Empiricists Strike Back” 

Richard Craig's Blog “How shoppers ‘are blinded by shoddy science of firms” 

Poor Pothecary “There Goes the Science Bit”

VoYS pinboard

  • Top tip 1: Ask for Evidence. If you’re being sold a product or asked to believe a claim then you deserve to know whether it’s based on evidence – or imagination.

  • Top tip 2: Detox. It’s a marketing myth – our body does it without pricey potions and detox diets.

  • Top tip 3: Superfood. There is no such thing, just foods that are high in some nutrients.

  • Top tip 4: Cleansing. You shouldn’t be trying to cleanse anything other than your skin or hair.

  • Top tip 5: If it sounds too good to be true… it probably is.

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