Tuesday, 27 February 2007

Bad Science?

The Guardian newspaper has a regular column on “bad science”. On 24th February that column looked at a review in a medical journal of a book on autism aimed at lay people.

Why was this “bad science”? Well, the article argued that the book’s author is an “activist” who has been “highly criticised” and who has his own agenda that is not much supported by the body of medical knowledge and opinion. The review of the book, however, was “flattering” and made no mention of the author’s history.

Quite rightly the Guardian doesn’t propose censorship. After all – where would we be now in terms of scientific knowledge if it wasn’t for those over the centuries who have dissented from mainstream opinion? The Guardian argues that some background on the author would have been helpful in enabling people to make a thoughtful and balanced reading.

A journal perhaps has some duty of care towards its readers in offering some sort of background information. But it is up to each and every one of us to read with our brains switched on, to read thoughtfully, carefully and critically.

There are various resources to help you do this. CASP (Critical Appraisal Skills Programme) has tools for appraising different types of health research. For appraising websites there are various things to look out for including the HoN (Health on the Net) logo. It’s also worth checking dates showing when material was last updated and any “about” page that might show who the author is and what particular bias they might bring to information on the site. On a lighter there is a brief animated checklist, the Quality Information Checklist . It is aimed at children but covers the basics.

The other issue that this Guardian piece raises is that of newspapers picking up on stories and giving them sensationalist, and possibly misleading, headlines. It’s best always to read beyond the headline. Most health news in papers can be tracked down to a recently published scientific paper. Don’t accept the interpretation of the Sun, the Mail – or even the Times or the Telegraph. Go straight to the source and make you own mind up. Another useful source for assessing news stories is the Hitting the Headlines section on the National Library for Health website. It looks at recent health news stories and assesses the evidence behind the headline.

For further reading on all of this, why not drop into the library? We have Trisha Greenhalgh's very readable work on the subject, How to Read a Paper, now in its third edition, and many others. We can also offer more advice and guidance. All free, as ever.

Friday, 23 February 2007

Feed me, Seymour, feed me!

One of the niftiest things about this blog is the little set of news headlines to the right of the page. Go on - have a look. Good, aren’t they? They come direct from Reuters Health, which supplies the world’s media with stories. They are constantly updated. Looks like hard work, doesn’t it? But actually, since I set up the RSS feed one afternoon I’ve had to do nothing at all. Once the feed is there news simply drops down it from the Reuters site.

I’ve put the feed on this blog for you. I use about a dozen feeds on a daily basis to check over the news for the current awareness bulletins (“Supporting Excellence”) that I create. In the old days I used to have to look at a whole heap of websites individually. Now the stories I need feed into a single page where I can keep an eye on them in one click.

To do this you need two things. At one end, a web page that offers a feed service, on the other end an aggregator to pull your chosen feeds together. I currently use Google Reader and before that I used Bloglines. (Why did I change? Because for several days Bloglines just didn’t work and I couldn’t be without news for that long). There are plenty of other free aggregators out there, and they are very simple to set up.

Phil Bradley’s website is a good place to start looking for an aggregator. The site wins no prizes for looks, but it’s very handy. Spend an hour or so picking a nice aggregator, surf your favourite sites looking for feeds (look for the dinky orange square icon and the magic letters “RSS”) and you’ll never be behind the times again. You’ll be able to look at your aggregator anywhere that you have internet access.

For more information on RSS try the National Library for Health. For a more in depth look – including and history and technical stuff – try Wikipedia.

You could even run a feed from this site blog so that you can see whenever I post something new. Go on – try it. And if you get stuck why not drop into the library and ask for help.

The title of this post? You don’t mean you’ve never seen Little Shop of Horrors…for shame!

Wednesday, 7 February 2007

Count 'em!

Statistics - the world is full of them. Everybody these days, government in particular it seems, has a mania for figures. We're obsessive about counting everything. Arguably there is much in life that has great value but cannot be quantified and counted. However - that's another subject. Today I just want to suggest some places to go for numbers when you need them.

National Statistics. The official UK government site for statistics. The site has illness related figures and also lots of data on health behaviour and lifestyle. Much of the data is available in Excel spreadsheet format.

Clinical and Health Outcomes Knowledge Base. The official NHS site for all the NHS "indicators". Topics covered include admissions, deaths, cancer incidence, oral heath, BMI and abortions. Available as Excel spreadsheets.

Department of Health. Includes hospital episode statistics, health and personal social services statistics and departmental statistical publications.

Nation Master. This has a range of health stats, the difference being it covers the world. So if you want to compare numbers of beds per 1000 population in Japan with those in the Czech republic, or motor vehicle deaths in Austria with those in Australia, this is the site for you. Data is presented in graph form, as pie charts and maps.

Don't forget to check health portals like BUBL and Intute. Finally, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has figures on work-related illness.