Hard News by Russell Brown

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Hard News: Bad journalism, old stories

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  • adiko,

    I think an issue here is that the report is on an "unpublished study" Although the journal system is not without it flaws, having a study accepted for publication means it has been subjected to peer review and scrutinised, and often a commentary accompanies it. Many researchers are rejected or are made to strengthen studies before they are accepted for publciation. An "unpublished" study is meaningless, and part of the problem is the lack of knowledge about how research studies are run. Even published studies need to be read carefully.
    Having worked in a newsroom, most journalists can't even work out gst percentages let along understand a statistical analysis, and then the news editor will slant it to whatever is the most sensational story.

    Since Jun 2007 • 3 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown,

    While I think the MMR/mercury/autism thing is epically epically bad, and I don't agree with Stott, I would rather like to emphasise that psychologists are typically far better trained in statistics and methodological rigour than man, many others.

    And to be fair, that is very much where her expertise seems to lie. It's just a shame she's hitched up to a bunch of people who think the answer is conducting unnecessary colonoscopies on autistic children.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 22839 posts Report Reply

  • Andrew Wilson,

    I'm sympathetic to the 'mercury mums'. I've met lots of parents of ASD kids while researching here and they are all, in general, lovely people desperate to know what happened to their child. They just want something to blame, and MMR etc was a convenient scapegoat.

    But that's the kicker - this sort of story distorts the picture and misrepresents what science actually has to say. It's partly our own fault - scientists aren't good with the media and that's a failing. But these sensational stories do nothing but sell newspapers to worried parents who mean well for their children.

    Baron-Cohen may be big into theory of mind but in general he's done a lot of good work in autism. It's a shame his name's getting recruited by this bandwagon.

    Aberdeen, UK • Since Nov 2006 • 13 posts Report Reply

  • Paul Litterick,

    I expect the red tops will refer to him as Borat's boffin cousin.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 1000 posts Report Reply

  • rodgerd,

    BreakSpa for Kids also links to your story as part of its discussion of the topic.

    There's a certain irony that one of the first terms of abuse to be rolled out by vaccination flat-earthers in these debates is often the idea that 'pill-pushers' are on the payroll of 'big pharma', yet in the case of the autism scares, it turns out that the people most financially compromised are the ones whose work is being used to decry vaccination.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 512 posts Report Reply

  • Neil Morrison,

    ...I would rather like to emphasise that psychologists are typically far better trained in statistics and methodological rigour than man, many others. Including the kind of people who are experts on the gut, immmunlogy and genetics, who will receive a far more token nod to study design and statistics than a psychology graduate. It's something medical schools are attempting to address, but I think there is some kind of fundamental conflict between what has been the massive rote-learning of knowledge by medical students, and the much more subtle information integration that is really now required of doctors and researchers.

    I think you're confusing two different types of training. Practicing medics are one thing, medical research scientists are another. The latter are highly skilled in epidemiological/statistical techniques. And even if they weren't its normal practice to have professional statistical input into any health study.

    Also, I think the "the massive rote-learning" as opposed to "more subtle information integration" is a false dichotomy. Being a doctor is essentially about pattern recognition which does need to rely on having a lot of facts at hand, hence all that rote learning.

    Since Nov 2006 • 932 posts Report Reply

  • Craig Ranapia,

    Andrew Wilson wrote:

    I'm sympathetic to the 'mercury mums'. I've met lots of parents of ASD kids while researching here and they are all, in general, lovely people desperate to know what happened to their child. They just want something to blame, and MMR etc was a convenient scapegoat.

    Well, so do I - and I don't expect journalists to be freaking pod people. But they also have an ethical and professional responsibility to value truth above scaring the shit out of people - while playing on their sentimentality - for fun and profit. The enormous sympathy I felt for the family of Folole Muliaga doesn't change the fact that I was nauseated by the media/political lynch mob that formed up with indecent haste.

    And I know this isn't what you meant, but I'm quite happy if scientists don't pick up the ability to speak fluent soundbite when discussing their work, and it's not their responsibility to do so. I'm more interested in the media learning to treat science intelligently and accurately.

    Rodgerd wrote:

    There's a certain irony that one of the first terms of abuse to be rolled out by vaccination flat-earthers in these debates is often the idea that 'pill-pushers' are on the payroll of 'big pharma', yet in the case of the autism scares, it turns out that the people most financially compromised are the ones whose work is being used to decry vaccination

    Well, as Ben Goldacre says just look at the data:

    We live in troubled times, where scientific research - at least in popular forums like newspapers - is only ever critiqued by ad hominem attacks on the person who did it. Evidence showing that MMR is safe was rubbished, because some researchers once accepted a drug company pen; and similarly, when the MMR scare died in the popular imagination, it wasn’t because of the evidence, but because Andrew Wakefield was shown to have personally profited from legal cases and applied for potentially lucrative patents for the alternatives to MMR. It would have been less complicated if everyone had just looked at the data.

    But how bad would someone have to be for you to completely disregard the findings from their research, simply on the grounds of who they were? An adulterer? A recipient of private consulting fees? How about a cold-blooded racist, homophobic mass murderer?

    This Sunday a smoking ban comes into force. In 1950 Richard Doll and Austin Bradford Hill published a preliminary “case-control study” - where you gather cases of lung cancer, and find similar people who don’t have the disease, and compare the lifestyle risk factors between the groups - which showed a strong relationship with smoking. The British Doctors Study in 1954, looking at 40,000 people, confirmed the finding.

    You wouldn’t know it, but the Nazis beat them to it.

    Keep reading...

    North Shore, Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 12370 posts Report Reply

  • Robert Fox,

    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/health/article2060575.ece

    Nice to se this is linked from the Times Online homepage

    Since Nov 2006 • 114 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown,

    Nice to se this is linked from the Times Online homepage.

    Indeed. But the Times has long been pretty good on this. It was where Brian Deer started investigating Wakefield et al in the first place.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 22839 posts Report Reply

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