Jeremy Laurance: Dr Goldacre doesn't make everything better

Medical Life

Tuesday 08 June 2010 00:00
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Is Ben Goldacre, the celebrated author of Bad Science and scourge of health journalists everywhere, losing it? So accustomed has he become to swinging his fists at the media when they get a science story wrong, I fear he may one day go nuclear and take out three rows of medical correspondents with a single lungful of biting sarcasm.

He was at it again in Saturday's Guardian, pistol-whipping his Guardian and Observer colleague, health correspondent Denis Campbell, over a report he wrote about fish oil and its supposed role in improving children's intelligence.

Campbell had reported claims made at a press conference that fish oil improved mental performance in children taking supplements. His crime, however, was to fail to check the claims against the academic paper on which they were based. That showed that the fish oil "enhanced the function of those brain regions that are involved in paying attention", as revealed by a brain scanner.

Not quite the same as "improving their performance", as Goldacre rightly pointed out. Indeed the paper revealed that there had been no improvement in the children's performance. Time, then, for Goldacre to deliver his customary knee-capping. He did so because Campbell declined to help him with his inquiries. Small wonder, given it is the second occasion the hapless Campbell has found himself in Goldacre's sights.

One doesn't know whether to laugh or cry at The Guardian's eagerness to wash its dirty linen in public. It is undeniably magnificent, but – in my view – no way to run a newspaper. I wonder at the psychiatrist's bills. What does it tell us about health and science reporting? First, most disinterested observers think standards are pretty high (a report by the Department of Business last January said it was in "rude health"). Second, reporters are messengers – their job is to tell, as accurately as they can, what has been said, with the benefit of such insight as their experience allows them to bring, not to second guess whether what is said is right. But third, reporters are also under pressure. Newspaper sales are declining, staff have been cut, demands are increasing.

Goldacre is right to highlight the fact that there is too much "churnalism" – reporters turning out copy direct from press conferences and releases, without checking, to feed the insatiable news machine. This ought to be stopped. But no one, so far, has come up with a commercially realistic idea of how to stop it.

In the meantime, while raging rightly at the scientific illiteracy of the media, he might reflect when naming young, eager reporters starting out on their careers that most don't enjoy, as he does, the luxury of time, bloggers willing and able to do his spadework for him (one pointed out the flaws in Campbell's report on The Guardian website five days before Goldacre's column appeared) and membership of a profession (medicine) with guaranteed job security, a comfortable salary and gold-plated pension. If only.

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