Sunday, June 20, 2010

Just Skeptics - Episode 5 - Research, media and beeeees

Episode 5 of Just Skeptics can be downloaded from here - this is a relatively new offering from Greater Manchester Skeptics , and has yours truly as guest host, blethering away on this and that, but also getting a bee in my bonnet about dubious research, on the section they call The Soapbox.

You are free to download the podcast from the link above, or in case you prefer your Soapbox in word form, here is the transcript:

I have a number of soapboxes, which come out from time on time on different matters. In a way, that was why I started writing my blog, Thinking Is Dangerous. ( Shameless plugging is not something I object to)

My major blood-pressure raiser is to do with research. Not any research, a specific kind of research. The sort of research that allows a journalist to write an article on it, but completely overstate or invent the results with the result of a grossly ill-informed public.

I’m not talking about the crazy boffins that have come up with equation for sexiest walk or the equation for the perfect Christmas dinner – they are just empty PR puffery; easy to point out and ridicule, and apart from eroding the public’s trust in science, do little damage.

No, I’m talking about the more insidious research. The little paper in the little journal with the BIG press release, that fools proper journalists – sometimes even the specialist science ones. The result is zero advancement in the knowledge, but a home win for misinformation of the public.

These are the stories where you have to go back to the original paper, and then compare it to what has come out of the science-mangler (every good news room has one). The result is usually a story with an attention-grabbing headline and narrative, all presented as fact and wonder. In some cases, but not all, the puppet-strings of PR can be seen in the shadows (usually paragraph 4) but often even these are fine and subtle, giving the impression that the marionette story is alive, dancing by virtue of its own newsworthiness.

Let me give you a few examples.

I keep bees. I own one of the estimated 80,000 beehives currently in the UK.
Bees are incredibly fascinating animals. Everything they do is interesting – for instance, They are a matriarchal society - all the worker bees are female and can sting. As the sting is a modified egg-laying organ, the male bees – or drones – can’t sting. The lucky drones manage to mate with a virgin queen, only to die quickly after as their penis and abdomen is ripped out after sex. The unlucky ones are kicked out of the hive in Autumn as they are a drain on valuable winter resources, and so become bird food. A vision of the future, laydeez?

Anyway, the bees provide mainly honey, as well as some wax, a sticky resin called propolis which the bees use to make their hive wind and waterproof and a few other smaller products. All of these products have a value and so they get marketed. And this is where things get interesting.
For two reasons;

Firstly, Bees and honey are a marketeer’s dream: a natural product with a heritage that goes back thousands of years (Judges Chapter 14 in the Biblical Old Testament tells the story of Gideon eating honey that he found in a lion’s carcass – you should read it, he goes on to murder 30 people and gives his wife to his best mate a week after the wedding – surely a sound moral tale if ever there was one?). Sorry, I digress again. Honey is a natural product with a long heritage, it is sweet, tasty, has antimicrobial properties due to the high sugar-low water content (that’s why honey never goes off, or mouldy) and has a reputation for curing all manner of ailments.
Secondly, the apocryphal quote from Albert Einstein saying that if the bee was to disappear from the earth, mankind would have less than four years to live have elevated bees to a bellweather status where everyone wants to show that their personal antichrist is what’s killing the bees (Einstein probably didn’t make the statement and it’s probably not true, but enough people think it is for it to make good copy).

So we have the natural cure all on one hand, and the apocalypse cause on the other. I’ll briefly give you an example of each.

Firstly, the life-giving curing properties of honey. Example: Life Mel Honey. An Israeli honey on sale in health food shops (and indeed Harrods!). The UK website is very restricted in what it claims – teh Cancer Act 1939 ensures that’s the case, but of course testamonials are different. A quick search on the Daily Mail website (a standard place for this type of drivel) reveals a testimonial from a poor chap who found Life Mel helped him through his chemotherapy and his cancer. The connection between honey and cancer cures is made. Next testimonial? Oh, look Kylie Minogue buys it from Harrod’s. The connection to cancer is made from previous articles and in the reader’s head, not on the page. Very cute. Of course it is clinically proven to help with chemotherapy – the webpage links to a study published in 2006, consisting of a test, where all 30 participants were given the honey (small sample, no placebo, no blinding) and as a result showed it helped patients avoid neutropenia, a complication of chemotherapy. In 2008 I spoke to David Fox, MD of HolyWell Health the main importers of Life Mel honey into the UK, who assured me that a secondary large scale trial would be published imminently and will no doubt show its magical effects. No research has been since been published, that I’m aware of. But that doesn’t matter, it already has a name for itself, with Kylie leading the charge. Those going through the tough times of chemotherapy are encouraged to relieve themselves of their money., with no real discernable benefit.

The second example was published more recently in The Telegraph and other newspapers that Mobile Phones are Responsible for the disappearance of bees. Firstly, we don’t really have a problem with the disappearance of bees in this country – in the US there do seem to be issues, but here in the UK we’ve above average losses for a few years, but that appears to be back on the decline (regression to the mean, if you will). 10% of bee colonies die out during winter due to food issues, disease, predators etc . We have increased instances of varroa mite, a nasty little blighter that can be destructive, but is treatable. Still, there is a section of the press that for some reason want scientific proof that modernity is bad – science, electrosmog and mobile phones versus the natural bees whose life is endangered by our advancement. As it turns out, the research was done on 4 hives by strapping a mobile phone to it and ringing it every so often. Any beekeeper would have laughed his beehat off at that – you can treat 4 hives exactly the same and get 4 entirely different colonies; bees are far too interesting and complex to demonstrate homogenous behaviour.

The research was completely pointless, and indeed Ian Douglas (Science writer at the Telegraph) blogged about how this story from his own paper was non-research. No matter, the damage was done and round the UK and further afield, a new cohort of people now think that mobile phones kill bees. The problem is, they may, but this silly research does absolutely nothing to find out whether they do. Just misinform.

For the summary, I’ll give you Ian Douglas’ final line:
“Panicked flapping around and hasty surveys masquerading as genuine, deliberate, reasoned science won’t get us anywhere.”

He’s right – and there’s probably some research to prove it.

Links for the story:

The Bee Stories:

Life Mel Honey - wiki page - My blogpost

Telegraph article on phones & beehives(by general correspondent)

Rebuttal by Telegraph blogger Ian Douglas