Award winning doctor and journalist Ben Goldacre had his audience enthralled and entertained last week as he gave his frank evaluation on the state of UK science reporting, its impact on public health and perceptions of science, and possible ways forward. The University welcomed hundreds of enthusiasts ranging from University Professors to keen sixth-form students as Goldacre gave his lecture, ‘When Journalists Kill’ last week.
With a weekly Bad Science column in The Guardian, Goldacre has long has been a figure of controversy with his satirical criticisms of scientific inaccuracy, health scares, pseudoscience, quackery and the use of complementary and alternative medicine in the UK.
Following an introduction from the Vice-Chancellor, Goldacre launched into his merciless tirade on the media’s promotion of the publics’ misunderstanding of evidence. His combination of hard-hitting facts mixed with sharp humour was a winning one as he had the whole audience captivated throughout.
He began by addressing the issue of what gets covered in the media – ‘wacky stories’, ‘miracle cures’, ‘hidden scares’ and ‘breakthrough stories’. Referring to those who work in newspapers as “people who don’t know real science”, Goldacre coined the term “churnalism” to criticise those journalists who simply rewrite press releases resulting in inaccurate reporting.
Goldacre went on to describe how the media assume the population is split into those who don’t know anything about science versus those who are scientific specialists, thus alienating a huge percent of people across the country.
Using material from his book Bad Science, Goldacre told the audience of the Durham fish oil 'trial' which he referred to as “possibly the greatest example of scientific incompetence ever documented from a local authority.” He condemned the trial which linked consumption of fish oil tablets to GCSE performance. Similarly, the same applied to the observational study which suggests using olive oil can help decrease the appearance of wrinkles.
The columnist went on to give his controversial views on MRSA telling the audience about Dr Chris Malyszewicz, the disgraced MRSA “expert” with his mail order PhD responsible for every single MRSA “undercover” swab scare in the tabloids despite his lack of microbiology training and questionable qualifications.
As the lecture came to end, Goldacre explored the supposed link between MMR and Autism. He described how the two are rare linked variables, based on poor scientific evidence and created by so-called “experts”. The story left the audience contemplating whether in fact the link between MMR and Autism was a huge fabrication, and with parents leaving their children unvaccinated, Goldacre pointed out that ‘Bad Science’ really is something that deserves greater attention.
He concluded the lecture by pointing out that such bad science reporting undermines confidence in real research and depoliticises the true causes of ill health. Whether the audience were in agreement or disagreement with what he was saying, all were in consensus to having enjoyed a highly entertaining, thought-provoking lecture.
Words by Munira Jasat