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I, Too, Have Revisionbrain

May 19, 2010

However, I’ve got that version of revisionbrain that says that, since I study statistics, reading or listening to anything that mentions statistics, even in passing, counts as revision. Even though my first exam is on NonLinear Maths, which is something entirely different. Anyway. Have the audio and transcript of Ben Goldacre talking about statistics and journalism on the Now Show, which – according to the University of Youtube, first aired on Radio 4 on 7th August 2009. This mentions research on rape and sexual assault, but is not graphic. I’ve included links in the transcript; the first links to the Daily Mail, so if you’re low on sanity points, avoid that one.

Transcript below the cut:

Ben Goldacre: So, swine flu: will we all die, or will none of us die? It can only be a one or the other outcome. But I find myself in a difficult position here, after years of campaigning for journalists to stop making stuff up about science, which feels like a fairly modest request, suddenly they’re calling me up as one of Britain’s leading D-list public intellectuals and asking me to say that Swine flu is all stuff and nonsense, only weirdly, this time, it’s not…

Female journalist: Oh, hi, yah, I’m just calling up, yeah, about swine flu, right, to get the other side, you know, the balance and the science, yeah, so it’s all made up and overblown like the MMR vaccine scare, yah?

Ben Goldacre: Er… no, no it’s not… swine flu might – might really kick off…

Female journalist: Oh… My… Gawd! We’re all going to DIE!!!

Ben Goldacre: And I’m not just saying that to be sadistic. But it’s not surprising the press have lost their way on science and health because they spend so long firing off stories about miracle cures and sinister health scares, entirely at random, that they’ve lost all sense of right and wrong, and this behaviour reaches its ultimate expression in the Daily Mail’s bizarre ongoing philosophical project to divide all the inanimate objects in the world into the ones that either cause or cure cancer.

This is now so well evolved that a friend of mine started a website, the Daily Mail Oncological Ontology blog to dilligently document this important research. In the past month alone, things that cause cancer include divorce, WiFi, toiletries, and coffee, while the things that prevent cancer are crusts, tea spray, red pepper, liquorice and coffee, so you’ll notice [laughter] that coffee both causes and cures cancer this month.

And you’d be mistaken if you thought this was all stuff and nonsense. People really do base what nerds like me call their health-risk behaviour decisions on what they read in papers. In a recent survey commisioned by the World Cancer Research Front, half of all respondents said they thought scientists and doctors were constantly changing their minds about healthy living advice, even though in reality healthy living advice hasn’t changed for at least a decade; don’t smoke, do some exercise, eat more fresh fruit and veg. And a quarter of all respondents said that because scientists keep changing their minds, you might as well eat whatever you want, because it won’t make any difference anyway. Oh, those scientists, they can’t make up their minds – have another pastry, it’s got vitamin E in it – that cures aids.

But it’s the story of vaccines that takes this ridiculousness to an entirely new level. The media’s MMR vaccine hoax, as it will surely come to be known, has created genuine health problems, but the Daily Mail’s coverage of the new cervical cancer vaccine tells the clearest story. In England, where the vaccine is available and the government is giving it to teenage girls right now, the Daily Mail don’t like that at all.

Male voice reading headline: Revealed: the serious health concerns about the cervical cancer jab

Female voice reading headline: Twelve year old girl paralysed after being given the cervical cancer jab

Male voice reading headline: How safe is the cervical cancer jab? Five teenagers reveal their alarming stories!

Ben Goldacre: Facts. But then, in Ireland, where the government refuse to fund the vaccine and it is not available, the Daily Mail are campaigning vigourously in favour of the jab. Apparently, it’s life-saving.

Male voice reading headline: Join the Irish Daily Mail cervical cancer vaccination campaign TODAY!

Male voice reading headline: Europe will shame Government into providing life-saving cervical cancer jabs.

Male voice reading headline: Ditching cancer vaccine is a big step back, says expert.

Ben Goldacre: As far as I can tell, and I must stress that this is only my interpretation of the available evidence, they just find something they disapprove of politically and then they pretend it gives you cancer.

In fact, earlier this summer, in the same week as a headline about a radioactive paedophile – and I didn’t make
that up – the Daily Mail ran with the headline “Facebook Causes Cancer”.

But the most chilling example of this came in The Telegraph recently, with a story headlined…

Male voice reading headline: Women who dress provocatively more likely to be raped, claim scientists.

Ben Goldacre: Ah. Scientists.

Male voice reading headline: Women who drink alcohol, wear short skirts and are outgoing are more likely to be raped, claim scientists at the University of Leicester.

Ben Goldacre: Right, scientists said that. Not the Telegraph. Scientists. Although weirdly enough, the press release for the same research was titled

Male voice reading headline: Promiscuous men more likely to rape.

Ben Goldacre: So, I’m an inquisitive person, it is strange – I rang the expert scientists at the University of Leicester and spoke to Sophia Shaw, who was a bit surprised to have been presented in a national newspaper as an expert scientist, since she’s… an MSc student, and this is her masters’ exam finals dissertation project, and it’s not even finished, and every single one of those statements made by the Telegraph is a fat, unabiguous, factually incorrect misrepresentation of her findings.
She found NO evidence that women who are more outgoing are likely to be raped. This is completely false! The alcohol thing is also wrong. If anything, men in her study said they were more willing to go further with women who were sober. And scientists didn’t say that women who dress provocatively are more likely to be raped. The Telegraph did. Not scientists, not even this masters’ student, who was more than slightly gutted and above all baffled to see that her work exploring the risk factors for violent sexual assualt could be so revoltingly twisted. This is rape we’re talking about, not crusts preventing cancer. No wonder they don’t know what to think about swine flu. Thank you for letting me shout at you.

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