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.

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