Saturday, 23 May 2009

Pill solves complex social problem

Ok, I admit I borrowed my blog title from a chapter in Ben Goldacre's excellent book Bad Science (which I fully recommend everyone to read). He also has his own web site called Bad Science.

We've probably all read the headline grabbing stories whereby some new potion or pill is reported to cure or solve some social problem. "Omega-3 increases attention and behaviour in children", "Scientists have discovered fat gene", "New pill to aid weight loss". All of this sounding very familiar?

There are several things wrong with this level of reporting. Firstly, most of it is quite simply wrong, and is not based on any evidence. What evidence there may be, may simply show that there is a relationship between certain factors, but the underlying cause may not be known. What has been confused is what the study was measuring, with the conclusions of the scientists who undertook the study. For example, compare these two sentences: 'Research has shown that black children in America tend to perform less well in IQ tests than white children', and 'Research has shown that black people are less intelligent than white people'. The first sentence tells you what the research found - the evidence. The second tells you the hypothesis - the interpretation. They are very different.

Newspapers and magazines are in the business of maximising their circulation to as wide an audience as possible. Attention grabbing headlines such as those above certainly help. Why let something like the truth get in the way of selling a few more copies.

Secondly, stories such as this hide the solutions that may actually provide real benefit. Social problems such as obesity, problem behaviour in children and so on, are complex. Instead of focusing in on gimmicks such as quick fix pills and potions, we should instead be looking at parenting skills, teacher recruitment and retention, social exclusion, classroom size, social inequality and the widening income gap. None of these solutions however are going to grab any one's attention in the media. Finding a quick fix pill is much more like a 'proper' news story, than anything as boring as a parenting programme.

Thirdly, stories such as this do science no favours. As many of these stories are not based on clinical trials (which should have been double-blinded, randomised, tested against placebo, and their methods, measurements and results published in the public domain for closer scrutiny), then is it any wonder people have come to have completely unrealistic expectations of both the role of science, and what science can achieve.

Fourthly, they do the general public no favours. They feed our growing fixation for quick fixes. Rather than implement societal change and parenting programmes, we'll simply develop a pill instead - it takes far less effort. So real change is never forthcoming, and the problem never goes away.

The media (propped up by their PR machines), with their focus on maximising copy, are responsible for circulating vast quantities of mis-information and bullshit. If you are genuinely interested in science, and what a study may reveal, or what possible benefits a study may have on society, then read a proper science book, magazine or journal. I fully recommend New Scientist. Do not rely on getting your science information from the tabloids, broadsheets, daytime TV and the like. If you do, fully expect to be manipulated and lied to.

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