Archive for the ‘ Media ’ Category

Celebrity skeptics

I wrote this ages ago, and just got prompted into thinking about it by a recent news story. I meant to read it and edit it, but haven’t bothered. I can’t even remember if it was finished.

First up, I would like to get my little nerdgasm out of the way. This week I met a some geeky heroes of mine, and had a great couple of nights out. I saw the night of 200 billion stars, or Uncaged Monkeys, at Manchester Apollo on Tuesday, and hosted Simon Perry at Lancaster Skeptics in the Pub. A wonderfully geeky couple of days, and as nice a set of people as you could hope to meet. However, it did get me thinking a little about the role of ‘celebrity’, and especially in skepticism.

It seems that the common usage of celebrity now refers to anyone who appears or has appeared on TV, for whatever reason. I have no interest in the vast majority of this – I don’t care whether you qualified from tool academy, vajjazzled a princess, or slept with more than one footballer at once. For this discussion I am talking about people in and around science and skepticism who have become known by either doing science well, communicating science well, or debunking pseudoscience. All of these things should be celebrated, and with the advent of The Skeptic Awards, hopefully will be.

I have not been around very long, but it seems to me like the skeptical movement is making some real headway – there have been big wins in the advertising of alternative healthcare, live popular science shows are selling out large venues, and more and more blogs that give good scientific analysis of complex issues are springing up. Science TV shows and radio programmes are consistently among the highest consumed. It’s rarely, if at all, that science and critical thinking have had a bigger presence.

However, I am a little concerned that skepticism is developing a celebrity culture, in which people who are of note are not given the challenge the sometimes deserve. People are often led by the people they most respect, and there is a strong reason for this. If a particular source has shown over time to be reliable, honest and correct, it makes sense that you should tend to guardedly agree with them when talking about a topic you don’t understand or know enough about. However, this does not mean they are correct, just that the caveated assumption that they are correct is a reasonable working position until more information is known.

The reason I am mentioning any of this is because I have, over the last couple of weeks, noticed myself changing my mind without the evidence or arguments that I would expect myself to require. Recently, the Conservative government announced the plans to make public data available to pharmaceutical companies. My immediate reaction is to be distrustful of most things this government does, and especially around bringing private enterprise into public services. I was aware that I was being biased, but I disliked the proposal on instinct.

Then Ben Goldacre said something in praise of the move on Twitter. Immediately my perception of the situation changed. Admittedly this just shows that I have a bias toward believing Ben in addition to my bias toward disbelieving the Conservatives, but it is the bias at I am a little more concerned with. Tending to disbelieve until given adequate evidence is a safer position logically than tending to believe unquestioned, and it is this approach that is at the heart of skepticism.

I doubt very much that I am alone in this, but I think there is a potentially dangerous tendency to treat the most noteable skeptics as reverentially as religious groups do. Of course, our celebrities tend to have earned the right to have their positions respected by being involved somehow in science or science communication, but no more so than anyone else who has the equivalent expertise in the relevant area.

One of my main concerns is the unbalance that we see in the representation of science in the mainstream. There is a tendency to use a limited number of sources that you see approached in the media – if there is a hard physics breakthrough talk to Brian Cox, if there is interesting biology ask Attenborough, for medicine talk to Ben Goldacre, and so on. What I would like to see more of, and this is a point I have heard Neill DeGrass Tyson make, is the original researcher. Name and promote the people who do the work. This helps to make sure that the work is properly represented, as well as ensuring that too much credibility isn’t placed into one source.

Overall I am happy with the level of attention our best skeptics get, and think they do a good job, but I fear that we all get defined by a small number, and that we risk building our beliefs on them too much. I’m not sure this is a massive problem, and have tended to find that the skeptical community is quite happy to challenge itself, but it’s something I am aware of affecting my own views, and I’m sure subconsciously affects others too.

Thatcher – just a Walkman

Did you cry or rejoice when the Walkman died? It was a world-changing device, created in 1979, overthrown by a series of newcomers that it fundamentally influenced, that continued to be dragged out beyond the point where it had relevance until its surprisingly recent demise. I didn’t. I was indifferent.

An old lady died today, apparently upset and confused through much of her later years and with little contact with her children. I can’t bring myself to be happy about this. I dislike unnecessary suffering wherever it is, and it seems she had a shitty time of it toward the end. Clearly lots of other people had a shitty time of it because of her, during and since her reign as Prime Minister, and I understand the joy and grief that people are pouring out. But she’s not important, and hasn’t been for years.

Maggie is a Walkman. I’m not thinking about Walkmans anymore, I’m concerned about the move from mp3s to streaming – the fact that the tape was the medium that revolutionised music consumption, and was the first usable and affordable portable device doesn’t matter to me one bit when I can store all of my music on Google Play and stream it on any device. It’s worth remembering and learning from history, but not at the expense of the present.

I remember my first portable music device. It wasn’t an official Walkman because we weren’t rich, and it chewed up my tapes about every fifth use. Even those that didn’t get chewed up stretched over time, and as the batteries ran out the music would slowly grind to a halt. These problems were unique to the tape era, much as the poll tax, the miners strike and removal of milk were unique to Maggies government.

What Thatcher fundamentally changed was the fact that music could be personal and portable for the first time, and the Walkman opened up free markets in a new way, with the real beginnings of a project to roll back the state, undermine collectivist movements and monetise every aspect of life.

Later came Blair with his shininess, magnetism and apparent indestructibility. I guess he must be the CD in this story – the fundamental principles are very similar to the previous, and in many ways it’s a much better, pleasanter and more reliable version of it’s predecessor.

Brown is the Minidisc – technically actually quite good, but everyone had invested heavily in CDs and didn’t want to replace the whole lot, and then along came MP3s before he could really get dug in. Both Brown and the Minidisc were a victim of poor timing and circumstance.

And MP3s should really be the modern Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties – They almost sound, to the untrained ear, like music, but they lack depth, range and substance. We have a new set of problems with MP3s, and these are largely different to those of tapes. So when the tape Walkman finally stopped getting produced (in 2010) people were too busy cursing iTunes for being surprisingly difficult to use and worrying about DRM, rather than mourning it’s passing.

And this is exactly what we should be doing now. The Coalition government is carrying on some of the ideological work of Thatcherism, but this is often in brand new ways. Worrying about the death of one lost old woman is distracting, and no kind of victory. This is the month that many of the welfare and healthcare changes came into force, and we absolutely must not forget that or allow this to be submerged in misguided and misspent wrath.

We should turn our attention to the next stages of the development. Rather than singing about the wicked Walkman being dead, we need to work out how we can ensure the cloud can be a freer, fairer and more equitable solution than personal possession of musical hardware has ever been. I really hope Play turns out to be some sort of progressive liberal socialists, but I’m scared it will be something much more like a sinister clown.

NHS, more fury, the media and activism

Oh dear, I’ve gotten quite angry again.

These last ten or so days have seen some massive stories – let’s just describe a few of them.

Look at all that. That’s just the stuff I thought of while eating my noodles at lunchtime, and each one is massive.

And what have been the two stories of the week? VAT got standardised to include pasties, and there isn’t a strike happening. That’s right, 20p on a £1 food item and people going about their regular job is bigger than everything above.

I have seen it suggested that the pasty tax accounts for somewhere between 0.02% and 0.03% of the economy, which, given the recent budget and the cost of healthcare is peanuts. We know that Cameron either lied or got confused about eating a Cornish pasty at Leeds. I can easily imagine misremembering where and when I ate a pasty, so I’m happy to be charitable on that. Hell, even if he lied I’m not particularly bothered as it’s so inconsequential, and we know he lies about much more important things already.

The strike that was discussed was, on the face of it, horrifically handled, initially by Francis Maude ably supported by the tabloid press. Telling people to top up and to keep some in a jerry can at home, to be on the safe side, is the equivalent of shouting fire in a crowded theatre – the only predictable outcome was massive queues and empty petrol stations, and sadly people getting hurt. And after all that, the strike isn’t even going ahead. Without wanting to sound like a conspiracy theorist, the boost to a weak economic quarter may well be a good thing for the government when those first quarter financial figures get announced. However, this story is one of poor politics and mismanagement. On the grand scheme, the fact a strike was discussed does not warrant higher billing than the stories I mentioned up front.

So, why have these two relatively minor stories won the day? Why have we largely ignored the damage being done to those most in need in favour of those with the greatest privilege, with the whiff of corruption looming?

I don’t know, but the mainstream media certainly has a role. The rolling and allotted news programs seem to focus on really simple, easy to tell stories, spending ever more time telling us ever less news. There is also an expected turnover period, meaning that once a story has been told there isn’t space for going into the same area in more depth – I noticed a tweet (sorry, I’ve lost the source) that said a BBC staffer preparing the audience for BBC Question Time said, this week, that the questions had to be topical, and so the NHS shouldn’t be raised. This in the week the Risk Register was leaked.

I sat and watched the ITN News while I was folding letters for the NHS pledge campaign. I saw politicians of all flavours trying to look comfortable and natural while ordering pasties and sausage rolls, while clearly bullshitting about how many they have each week. I saw government ministers telling people to top up their cars and keep jerry cans in the garage. I saw fearmongering about the pace at which drilling technology is being implemented. Nothing about the Risk Register, the economy or increasing social inequality.

These editing decisions, not putting the NHS above the pie tax or the economy above petrol buying, on the nations main news source are either laughably incompetent or criminally biased. Sadly, although I am not a consumer of that many news sources and haven’t monitored them that closely, I understand the problem is across the board. The stories get mentioned, but have not been investigated and examined in the way they should. People should be shown, or at least have easy access to, a clear picture on the important stuff: what is happening to the health service, what is happening to the economy, and how wealth and services are distributed between those that need them and those that can afford £250k to eat with Cameron and Osborne.

In part, the politicians are at fault here. Cameron and the Conservatives should be very pleased overall, as people talking about pie tax is massively preferable to people explaining why he has taken actions that will cause people to die because they are poor, and allowed his friends and business partners to profit from it. I don’t know how the Liberal Democrat leadership should feel, but then I haven’t cared even slightly about that for a while now.

The real political culprits here are Labour. They have had a week of open goals, and there have been occasional scores, but for the Eds to spend a day out and about eating sausage rolls, rather than pointing out the damage Osborne has done and continues to do to the economy, is barmy. They should be publicly pledging to repeal the NHS Bill.
But we can’t just blame politicians or the media, they are both built to give us what we want. We just aren’t aware or interested enough. The politicians literally get their jobs through a series of popularity contests. The media outlets are set up to ensure they maximise their profits – that’s why idiots like Delingpole and Mel Phillips are around – they draw huge numbers of clicks. This means that what they give you is what they think you want. I wrote a bit about media and healthcare reporting here, which looks at the tension between profit and quality healthcare reporting, and there has been a series of articles on media regulation at So in addition to good regulation, we need to be savvy consumers if we want good media coverage of real political arguments. As a consumer, you should be demanding that you get critical analysis of the important issues.

After my rant on the day the Health and Social Care Bill was passed, lots of my Facebook friends got angry and wrote things on their walls. They largely hadn’t realised that they’d missed it, that the process had gone on for over a year, three readings in each house, and a pause for consultation. I am pleased that they felt a bit of outrage, and hope that some of them decided to do something with it; it’s just a shame they hadn’t been up to speed earlier. Writing on your Facebook page, or a blog like this unless you have a very wide readership, is useful in mobilising a small number of people, but largely it isn’t my Facebook friends or twitter followers that make the important political decisions. You need to tell MPs what you want and you have to tell media companies that you expect high quality factual reporting. When they balls it up let them know, and when they get it right let them know.

We are missing out on debate about the biggest decisions of our time, and everyone is gawping at fucking pies. I despair sometimes, I really do. Get on it people, or you will continue to get the media and debate you deserve.

Health reporting and regulation – the case for change

This post is a recreation of a post at They are working on a project to explore media regulation in light of the Leveson inquiry and the Carnegie Plan for Better Journalism. I was asked to write something to highlight the relationship between regulation and healthcare reporting. Here is my first draft. 


I am going to write about the representation of healthcare and the science that underpins it in the media, the potentially dangerous effects this can have, and highlight some of the key discussion points around regulation. There are a number of passionate journalists who are very quick to pick up on particular misleading health stories – with amateur and professional ‘skeptics’ leading the way – much better than I could, so I will stick to the systemic issues, borrowing illustrative examples. What I hope to do is demonstrate that there is a case for change to the regulation of health reporting.

As I see it, health reporting suffers from a number of key issues. Stories tend to be simplified and sensationalised, use advertorials unchallenged and are vulnerable to political agenda. At the heart of healthcare reporting there are a set of crucial, perhaps irresolvable, central conflicts which I will try to draw out.

Mainstream media outlets have minimal direct motivation to report healthcare science stories well. The primary motivation for a media organisation is to drive revenue, and healthcare reporting is a tool by which to do that. Whatever the chosen market, this tends toward creating an internal culture that values output over quality and accuracy, often to a particular template. This actively prevents even the best intentioned journalists being more thorough than the minimum required to meet the standard for their organisation.

The reality of the science that informs and underpins healthcare, and the sort of story that best sells papers, drives clicks or otherwise gets the public attention, are wildly different.

On one hand, medical science progresses by small steps, with each new result acting as just another data point in an array that should be considered as a whole. Single facts, experiments or case studies that radically alter the way we view healthcare are rare at best. The key advances in any science are complex, and there is a necessary technical language built around any given area.

On the other hand, magazines write stories weekly, newspapers create new headlines every day, and websites can’t stand still for an hour. This leads to a tendency to inflate the claims of healthcare stories in the search for something new to grab attention, to distinguish the information in this particular story from the general background understanding. Additionaly, the language and concepts must be simplified to fit the audience.

However, we often see the essence of a story damaged in this simplification process. Nuance is lost around the causality of relationships, the confidence in conclusions and the distinction between relative and absolute risks. One example of both oversimplification and sensationalism, explained by Ben Goldacre, is the use of red wine to prevent breast cancer. Red wine contains resveratrol, a chemical that could indirectly reduce damage to DNA, and therefore cancers. But this is an isolated reaction between two chemicals in a lab, ignoring the complexities of the human body and the wine. The other ingredients in red wine, particularly alcohol, cause cancer. The evidence Ben cites suggest that red wine is known to cause cancer, yet because of oversimplification, people are encouraged to drink it as a cancer preventative. It is worth noting that while Ben was writing in 2008, a quick search shows equivalent ‘red wine prevents cancer’ stories still run regularly, and I am not aware of a dramatic change in the evidence base.

Due largely to the sort of output pressures described above, there is also a tendency for journalists and media sources to accept stories at face value. A well written press release by an organisation with an interest in promoting a particular idea will very quickly do the rounds at all the major news outlets, not just unchallenged, but largely unchanged. This process of converting a press release into a story without challenge relieves the pressure on a journalist, as they have effectively outsourced their job. It also means that the public is subjected to advertorial masquerading as editorial, no journalistic investigation applied to the representation the company would like you to see.

Particularly in the special case of publicly funded media, although not exclusively, there is the additional problem of false balance, whereby all views are given equal time and space to be expressed. This is done in the name of fairness, although it presents a false picture, as if the homeopath and the GP view on treatment of particular conditions are of equal value. It feels to me like this is changing, following the recent ‘BBC Trust – Review of impartiality and accuracy of the BBCs coverage of science‘ recommendations, although I would need to see a further study to see how well this has been enacted.

Finally, there is the potential for an agenda to intrude. Here there is a risk that editorial positions can be imposed on ostensibly science reporting in such a way as to mislead. A moral position can lead to particular views on, for example, birth control, and so affect the reporting of sexual health stories. A prior view on the effectiveness and appropriateness of the free market, for example, can lead to misrepresentation of healthcare outcomes under different healthcare delivery systems.

These factors, and more, mean that the healthcare reporting we see in mainstream media is regularly inaccurate. We hope that the inaccuracies are trivial and understandable, in that a process is simplified without loss of meaning. More commonly, there is exaggeration and sensationalism such that the media representation is potentially dangerous. Much has been written on the persistent misleading reporting in the Wakefield and MMR case, largely uncovered by Brian Deer, and there have been outbreaks of measles in recent years, likely as a result. There is also an ongoing controversy around the clinic of Dr. Burzynski in the USA, where unevidenced claims were supported in the national press, prompting charitable donations for children to be sent at great expense to America for treatment that has not been shown to work.

It is important to note that these sorts of reporting problems are found in all mainstream media channels I am acquainted with. There is a tendency to mock the onoing ‘ontological oncological’ project of the Daily Mail, to divide every item into something that causes cancer, cures cancer, or both. The Daily Mail is indeed a regular for poor health science reporting, but is by no means alone – above Ben Goldacre is talking about an article in The Telegraph, and The Observer was involved in the Burzynski controversy. Basically every media outlet was guilty of dangerous misinformation during the MMR crisis. Every mainstream media outlet suffers these problems to a degree.

We have identified some of the main concerns in health reporting, and it is clear that each of these can lead to harm to the public. However, little has been done to rectify these innacurate stories, and those those dangerous reports go largely unchecked. The PCC as it has been is an inappropriate body to take on this role for a number of reasons that become clear when we think of what a regulator should look like.

The key discussion should be around which of these interests we should expect a regulatory system to serve, and how we would expect those to be served. The interests of the public are in having media coverage that is accurate, accessible, complete and relevant. It is through this sort of coverage that people decide to make the best evidence based lifestyle and healthcare decisions.

Given these aims I think a few of the key considerations for the formation of a regulatory body should be:

  • Degree of empowerment to impose sanctions that decrease likelihood of inappropriate activity, including financial penalties
  • Degree of empowerment to impose sanctions that rectify damage – corrections and clarifications in at least as obvious a manner as the original misguiding information
  • Independance from the media sector to reduce conflict of interests
  • Transparency in and public accountability for decision making
  • Magnitude and impact of misrepresentation required for action
  • Simplicity of and mechanism for reporting (perhaps a browser plugin that reports abuses like Fishbarrel does to the ASA)

I don’t pretend to have the answers to the above, but with due consideration, I think a body could be designed that is considerably more effective at protecting the public from harm and promoting quality healthcare science reporting than the current PCC. If this isn’t done, people will continue to be harmed by poor health reporting.