I've been complaining for years about bad science writing in the popular press, and occasionally I've even made (futile) suggestions for improvement. This morning, though, I've realized that there's a cure.
But first, the disease.
Here's what a professional science writer in a leading newspaper wrote:
Children can learn better at school by taking omega-3 fish oil supplements which boost their concentration, scientists say.
Boys aged eight to 11 who were given doses once or twice a day of docosahexaenoic acid, an essential fatty acid known as DHA, showed big improvements in their performance during tasks involving attention.
Here's what the scientific study under discussion actually said:
At baseline, there were no significant group differences for percentage correct, commission errors, discriminability, or reaction time. At 8 wk, there were no significant group differences in percentage correct, commission errors, discriminability, or reaction time. The time x dose interaction was not significant for percentage correct, commission errors, discriminability, or reaction time.
In fact, taking DHA supplements (from algae, not fish) had no discernable effect on any performance measures in the study, except that across the study as a whole, higher measured blood levels of DHA were associated with lower reaction times:
Among all subjects (n = 33), erythrocyte DHA composition was inversely correlated with reaction time at baseline (r = –0.43, P = 0.01) and endpoint (r = –0.41, P = 0.02), but was not correlated with other performance measures.
The science writer was Denis Campbell, health correspondent for the Guardian and the Observer. His article was "Fish oil helps schoolchildren to concentrate: US academics discover high doses of omega-3 fish oil combat hyperactivity and attention deficit disorder", published in The Observer, 5/30/2010. And the scientific study in question was Robert K McNamara et al., "Docosahexaenoic acid supplementation increases prefrontal cortex activation during sustained attention in healthy boys: a placebo-controlled, dose-ranging, functional magnetic resonance imaging study", American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 91:1060-1067, 2/3/2010.
So how can the "health correspondent" for a serious intellectual newspaper be so incredibly careless? And why hasn't he been fired, or at least transferred to the sports desk? (On reflection, that would be a bad idea, since readers of sports news tend to get very annoyed if you report basic results backwards.)
As usual, I'm at a loss to explain why science writing in the mass media is often so spectacularly bad, and why spectacular failures of this kind seem to have so little effect on the reputations and careers of the guilty parties.
But Mr. Campbell didn't escape censure in this case, since Ben Goldacre devoted his latest Bad Science column to Campbell's article ("Omega-3 lesson: Not so much brain boost as fishy research: One tiny brain-imaging study of fatty acids has been used to endorse fish oil as education's magic pill", 6/5/2010. Goldacre point
“Fish oil helps schoolchildren to concentrate” was the headline in the Observer. Regular readers will remember the omega-3 fish oil pill issue, as the entire British news media has been claiming for several years now that there are trials showing it improves school performance and behaviour in mainstream children, despite the fact that no such trial has ever been published. There is something very attractive about the idea that solutions to complex problems in education can be found in a pill.
Goldacre goes on to put Campbell's story in its place:
Oddly enough, someone has now finally conducted a proper trial of fish oil pills, in mainstream children, to see if they work: a well-conducted, randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, in 450 children aged 8–10 years from a mainstream school population. It was published in full this year
Meanwhile, Euromonitor estimates global sales for fish oil pills to be at $2bn, having doubled in five years, with sales projected to reach $2.5bn by 2012. The pills are now the single best-selling product in the UK food supplement market. This has only been possible with the kind assistance of the British media, and their eagerness for stories about the magic intelligence pill. – and the researchers found no improvement. Show me the news headlines about that paper.
But here's the beauty part: since Bad Science is published by the same publishing company that employs Mr. Campbell, there's now a link to Goldacre's refutation at the top of Campbell's article.
So that's the foundation of my modest proposal. Any newspaper or magazine that has a Science writer should also have a Bad Science writer, whose job would be act as a sort of intellectual ombudsman, to practice what Ben Goldacre in another post called "The noble and ancient tradition of moron-baiting".
You'd think that on a publication with a Bad Science writer, the Science writers would soon shape up — though the current case suggests that this thought is a naive one. But even if Bad Science writers should manage to work themselves out of a job in terms of criticizing their own publication's Science writers, there will still be plenty of work for them to do, riding herd on the politicians, the celebrities, and those publications that haven't yet hired their own Bad Science specialists.