The truth behind those mad scientist stories (14/8/2003)

If one took the article below at face value, one might just wonder why the weight of the Royal Society is about to descend on reporting in The Sun newspaper of a claim by members of a UFO cult that they had cloned the first human. One can, after all, read bizarre and fantastical stories in The Sun every day of the week that one would need a brain transplant to believe.

But, in fact, that's the point. What this Scotsman piece very cleverly does, in the name of examining science reporting by the news media as a whole, is run together coverage of the UFO-cult cloning story with the MMR vaccine scare and a loose tabloid piece about the Pusztai affair.

The implication is clear - Pusztai's findings and concerns are as credible as Raelian cloned baby claims. Later in the Scotsman piece, ironically, a member of the RS's Working Party is quoted complaining, "Problems arise when issues are confounded and put under one heading."

Equally ironically, The Scotsman piece itself, while advancing the RS's attack on media inaccuracy, misreports the Pusztai affair, getting the chronology wrong and saying, for example, that his research involved "potatoes injected with a gene to protect them against blight".

This misreporting is conmbined with Prof Harvey's expert opinions, eg "This story... says Pusztai was right, when in fact he was wrong"!

Worse, in classic RS fashion, Harvey misinforms, telling the paper, "[Pusztai] After being immediately dumped on and nobody being able to replicate his result, this [Daily Mail article] claims that an independent panel has legitimised those spurious results."

So, in the name of a call for accurate reporting of science from the RS we get a straightforward fabrication by a member of its Working Party. Scientists didn't fail to replicate Pusztai's results - there was no attempt to replicate them, while his own research team was closed down.

And since when exactly is being "immediately dumped on" - something that the RS had more than a little to do with - a sign that a scientist's results are invalid?

Isn't science supposed to be about a careful weighing up of evidence involving a questioning, uncertain and sceptical attitude? Instead we get Harvey dismissing out of hand Pusztai's "spurious results" - results that were successfully peer reviewed and published in The Lancet.

Could it just be that the problems with the misreporting of science in the media are a little more complicated than the RS are telling us?
The truth behind those mad scientist stories
The Scotsman, 14 august 2003

Frankenstein Foods, cloned babies and dangerous injections which give your children autism. Good headlines, but according to the Royal Society, very bad science.

This week, the UK's most venerable scientific institution launched a major investigation into the way scientists and media publish research. The Royal Society, established in 1660, is worried that researchers' credibility may be undermined by controversial claims about cloning, genetically modified foods and the MMR vaccine.

The central concern is that the media is over-simplifying complex issues and sometimes getting things plain wrong in the hunt for a good story.

The Scotsman took three examples of news stories similar to those which will be examined during the inquiry and asked Professor Paul Harvey, a member of the Royal Society working group, what they said to him about the news media and science reporting.

Rebel doctor proves jab children carry residues of virus; new tests "confirm the link" between MMR and autism. Sunday Express, 19 May, 2002.

The story read: "Powerful new evidence linking autism and the MMR jab has been discovered by MMR opponent Professor Andrew Wakefield.

"He is among a group of scientists who have published a study revealing that autistic children with bowel disease carry residues of the measles virus in their blood, unlike other children ... the research flies in the face of the government's insistence that the vaccine is entirely safe."

Prof Harvey, the head of Oxford University's zoology department and a member of the Royal Society working group that is investigating the issues, draws attention to the tenth paragraph of the story, which reveals that Prof Wakefield's research analysed 28 children, some of whom had bowel disease, some bowel disease and autism, and others of whom had neither.

He said: "At first sight, this is three categories analysed. However, then you have the ones with residues and those without in each of those three categories, so that sub-divides into six categories. Then you have to divide those six categories between those that have been vaccinated, and those that have not, so that makes 12 categories with a sample size of 28, which means there are two per category.

"This study, therefore, quickly breaks down to nothing, which you could get any statistical significance you wanted from."

To say that the tests "confirm the link" is, he insists, meaningless in this story. Prof Harvey adds: "This is over-claiming like mad. It is a shock tactic and when you break it down the evidence just isn't there."

Mum's given birth to first cloned baby. Sun, 28 December, 2002.

The paper reported the Raelian cult's claims to have produced the world's first cloned baby.

Eight paragraphs into the story, the reader is told: "Boisselier [the scientist who made the announcement], part of a bizarre French cult that believes life on earth was created by aliens, offered no scientific evidence for her claims - provoking accusations of a hoax."

Prof Harvey notes: "The cloning report in the Sun only says half way down that there is no scientific credibility to this story at this point, which raises serious questions about the headline.

"The point is that the claim was very unlikely to be valid, and its dubious credibility was responded to very quickly by the vast majority of the scientific community. It should be pointed out before you get half way down the story that the claim has no plausibility."

Frankenstein food fiasco. Daily Mail, 13 February, 1999.

The story followed the publication of controversial findings by Dr Arpad Pusztai, based at the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen. He claimed that potatoes injected with a gene to protect them against blight had been fed to rats and that, as a result, the rats had weakened immune systems. The debate about the safety of GM food raged for weeks after the story broke.

The second paragraph of the story claimed Tony Blair and his ministers had "rejected fresh demands for a moratorium on the 'Frankenstein foods' despite a stark warning from top scientists that millions could be at risk from cancer and killer infections".

Another paragraph read: "The heaviest blow to the government's stubborn defence of GM foods came as an international panel of experts backed [Pusztai], whose career was ruined after he sounded a warning about side-effects."

Prof Harvey says: "This story confounds two issues. On the one hand, it says Pusztai was right, when in fact he was wrong. Then it goes on to quote Jack Cunningham on whether there should be a moratorium, which has nothing to do with Pusztai.

"The panel of top scientists consulted, one of which is revealed as the past president of the British Society of Allergy and Environmental Medicine, is not what you would call 'top science'.

"After being immediately dumped on and nobody being able to replicate his result, this claims that an independent panel has legitimised those spurious results."

Prof Harvey adds: "Problems arise when issues are confounded and put under one heading, and this is worrying when public health is at stake.

"The structures that are in place need to be examined and criticised, but in a balanced way. This is nothing new to the Mail and they have done it since in reports about supposed 'Frankenstein foods'."

Professor John Eldridge, a media analyst at Glasgow University, argues that the issues involved here are not just about the media and science, but are also heavily political.

"To show an awareness of the way the politics is working rather than necessarily to be sucked into it is important here," he says. "There clearly are political dimensions to MMR and also, say, GM food or genetic engineering, because they have economic and social consequences, so there will always be a dimension which prevents it being turned into a bland, neutral scientific argument in a simplistic way. But to show an awareness of these levels of interest and concern is the task of good journalism. It is easy to understand people in the medical field referring to the great weight of serious medical evidence which points in the opposite direction, and meanwhile we are told we are on the verge of a measles epidemic [in the MMR story]."

Prof Eldridge says such stories raise crucial issues "about how they should be reported and contextualised".   He continues: "This manifestly plays on very raw fears and emotions about damaging children's health.

"We should listen to the dissenters and those that challenge the orthodoxy, but this has to be done in reference to the volume and the status of the overwhelming evidence.

"None of this means you cannot continue asking questions, but it raises concerns about serious professional journalism, which can sometimes foreground claims about particular research out of sync with what the vast majority of scientists feel."   

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