Sense About Science | Julia’s diary

Julia’s diary


Julia Wilson, Communications Officer, writes about what the office has been up to each week.

Friday, 23rd July 2010

This week, it’s been refreshing to see some examples in the papers where stories which have the potential to be hyped and sensationalised have been dealt with responsibly, and give the full picture.

One article on Tuesday in The Telegraph with the headline “Household cleaners can double woman’s cancer risk” looked like a classic scare story. But reading on, I saw it contained some really sensible comments from the study’s author Dr Julia Brody. The US study had questioned women about their cleaning regimes and products they used. Though the study was reported to have found that women who used a combination of cleaning products were 110% more likely to have developed breast cancer, Dr Brody explained that this could have been due to recall bias: “it may be that women with breast cancer more accurately recall their past product use or even over-estimate it.”
It was really refreshing to see this explained so well and it ties in with our new guide ‘Is there a Link’ which we’re putting together at the moment. In the guide we give advice about what to look out for when reading ‘link’stories, such as whether the study relies on anecdotal evidence or is an animal study. This particular article also made us think about another useful tip for weighing up scientific claims: to always see what the author of the study says – they will often be the most realistic about their findings (not always! But often).

Another article that caught my eye this week, as it showed someone trying to give the bigger picture was a response piece in the Guardian written by Sam Shuster, Emeritus Professor of Dermatology at Newcastle University. In this piece, Shuster argues that there is no evidence to support the reports of increased malignant melanomas. He says he dislikes the “bullying, fear-mongering campaign against sun exposure” and that almost all of the skin cancers recorded each year are benign – they do not spread or kill. His team at Newcastle has shown in a recent study that tumours are being misdiagnosed as malignant when they are in fact benign. He also says that the scares about sun beds being as dangerous as cigarettes and asbestos are absurd.

If Shuster is right about sun exposure (and I don’t know for sure if he is), his point has parallels with many other public health campaigns, where the message is one sided. It’s this idea that as long as what is being said leads to a better and safer public (i.e. people avoiding too much sun exposure), it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t give the full picture. I personally think it does matter, we should have all the information and it’s great to see researchers like Shuster standing up for the evidence.

In other news, we were thrilled to win Health Charity of the Year at the Medical Journalists’ Association Awards! It was for our work campaigning to reform the libel laws and Simon Singh was also awarded a prize. Tracey spoke at a number of events this week – at the Civil Service Fast Stream Conference she joined a panel to talk about the importance of evidence in policy making and at the Association of British Science Writers Conference
(ABSW) she discussed our work on peer review. Tracey and Ellen have also been very busy recruiting for our new Development Officer role and we’re all excited to have Tabitha Innocent joining the team in August. Tabitha already knows the scene we work in pretty well having recently interned at the Science Media Centre and the Department for Business Innovation and Skills and is currently at the Human Tissue Authority. We’re looking forward to getting her stuck into some Sense About Science projects.

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Friday, 8th July 2010

I’ve just come back from ESOF 2010 in Turin. We held two sessions, one responding to the latest results of our Peer review survey and the other on mythbusting and evidence hunting. They both went very well, we packed out the rooms and it really showed what a hunger there is internationally for these discussions. I met scientists, journalists and organisations from around the world and have developed my ideas about holding an international standing up for science congress in London.

In the ‘What’s up with Peer review?’ session our panel got the audience thinking about some of the controversies and issues surrounding the peer review process such as bias, fraud and shutting out of new ideas (you can watch the session here). Panellist Philip Campbell (editor in chief of Nature) was surprised that very few academics pass on reviews to their post-docs. He felt that post-docs should be closer to the field and they also need the experience for training – something that was confirmed when Tracey asked the audience if anyone had received reviewer training and only a couple of hands went up.


The public understanding of peer review and its use as a tool to weigh up scientific claims was debated – some of the audience felt that peer review is too complex for the scientific community to get their heads around, let alone the public. I thought Tracey made an important point that it may not be perfect but can act as a benchmark to distinguish between science and opinion and we have had many requests since for our I Don’t Know What to Believe guide. One request was from Thandi Mgwebi from the National Research Council in South Africa. It was great to speak with her about heading to South Africa in December to hold one of our VoYS Standing up for Science media workshops at a post-doc forum.

Over 180 people came to ‘Warriors Against Claptrap: Are myth-busters the new generation of civic-scientists?’ (you can watch the session here). It was good to hear Daniella Muallem a member of VoYS describing her motivation to make a difference in society and stand up for science. I often give talks about VoYS but it’s so different to hear about it from a member’s perspective. Professor Sergio Della Sala, a neuroscientist who’s done a lot of work exposing myths about brain training, gave an entertaining talk where he raised examples of claptrap and the importance of evidence in an original way. He even had members of the audience whistling the tune to Popeye the sailor man!


We had such a positive response from the audience in this session with people from different countries coming up to us afterwards wanting to know how they can start similar schemes where they are. Chinese journalist, Albert Yuan who writes for Life Week said that they have very similar scientific misconceptions and ‘claptrap’ in China – particularly with things like detox and GMOs.

It was great to be in Italy and the ESOF social events were in some amazing venues including a castle and the tallest building of Turin! I left on Tuesday with my head buzzing with thoughts from so many conversations and think we’ve got an exciting time ahead with setting up work abroad. I am already looking forward to taking part in the next ESOF 2012 in Dublin!

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Friday, June 25th 2010

Dr Fiona Godlee, editor in chief of the BMJ spoke at our Annual Lecture on Monday at the Royal Society of Medicine. It was a wonderful evening with so many of our friends and supporters there. In her lecture, Fiona talked about conflicts of interest in medical research and the dangers of pharmaceutical companies evaluating their own products. I was particularly interested in the point that if the public were more aware that all drugs have risks and benefits it would help discussions about their safety – there would be no need to hide the risks or over-hype the results. I’ve received many emails since from members of the audience wanting to continue the discussion.

I had a team of VoYS members volunteering on the night, helping me with the running of the event as well as speaking to the guests about their latest projects. This year, for the first time, they were joined by APEN members (the trainee network for members of the Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine). It was a great chance for APEN and VoYS to meet and share experiences and ideas. I think APEN members were inspired by the VoYS network’s desire to respond to bad science. I hope we can set up a project that will bring the two groups together – perhaps looking into dodgy medical devices.

Alice left Sense About Science last week to start working at Cancer Research UK. I think we’re still getting our heads around the fact that she’s gone. We’re like a little family in the office here and we’re so used to Alice being around to answer our queries and keep us calm when the work piles up! It was sad to say goodbye to her. But we’ve got an exciting time ahead, and it will be interesting to have someone new in the office and develop our roles over the coming months.

Since the lecture the week has flown past. I’ve been busy preparing for me and Tracey’s trip to Turin next week for ESOF2010. Information about our sessions can be found here. Lord Lester presented his libel reform bill at an event at the Free Word Centre on Tuesday. This was covered in the Evening Standard on Thursday and we were all excited to see Sile’s photo in the paper! Sile was also in Reading this morning speaking to teachers about our work at the Berkshire Heads of Science Annual Conference. Many teachers came up to her afterwards amazed that they hadn’t heard about us before and saying how relevant our work is for their ’21st Century Science’ classes.

Tracey and Ellen treated us to an early finish on Wednesday to watch England play in the World Cup. Leonor has set up an incredibly complicated football sweepstake where we have four teams each from different tiers and we get different points for different teams depending on their tier etc. I don’t really understand it, but if Leonor’s behind it I’m sure it’s statistically sound, and anyway I’m winning!

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Friday, 28th May 2010

It’s been a busy week, full of meetings and events. Ellen and Leonor headed up North on Tuesday for discussions with the MRC Centre for Drug Safety Science in Liverpool. Alice was also off at the BSA Science Communication Conference on Monday. She ran a session on ‘Warriors Against Claptrap’ discussing whether myth-busters are the new generation of citizen scientists. Sounds like they had some interesting discussions and it was a good opportunity to bring up different myth-busting and evidence hunting stunts.

Promoting standing up for science and myth-busting has been on my mind a lot this week. It’s very much part of the VoYS ethos – that you shouldn’t just sit still and let things happen but take responsibility and demand answers to questions that typically go unasked. Yesterday we had an office meeting where I outlined the 5 year VoYS strategy and we all talked about what makes VoYS unique and how we’d like to take things further.

I also had a chance to promote this VoYS standing up for science ethos at the Young Life Sciences Symposium on Wednesday where Alice and I ran a lunch-time workshop. It was at South Bank University, in a great venue with views all across South West London. The delegates were early career researchers involved in asthma and allergy research, all very interested in speaking to the media and responding to bad science.

This week has seen the release of Lord Lester’s Private Members Defamation Bill. This is the first attempt in over a century to redraft the libel laws. The office felt surprisingly calm through all of this compared to some of the news frenzies we’ve had during the campaign. But we were pleased with the media’s response with coverage all over the place including The Telegraph, The Daily Mail, The Times (as a leader piece), The Seattle Times, Radio 4’s Today Programme and even discussed on the Today Programme’s Thought for the day. This level of interest from the media really shows that they realise this is an important issue for the public. Let’s now hope that the Government will take Lord Lester’s Bill into serious consideration.

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Friday, 7th May 2010

There’s a rather sombre mood in the office today after last night’s election results as the combination of MPs standing down and some losing their seats means that we’ve lost some of the great champions of science. Losing Evan Harris is particularly disappointing. There are still some very good people ‘in’ though and we look forward to getting to know them once the dust settles.

I was surprised at how inaccurate the opinion polls were. They were not nearly as predictive as expected. But the exit polls last night were fairly reflective of the results and we were all impressed to hear David Dimbleby point out the ‘margin of error’ when discussing these polls. Maybe he read our Stats guide!

So other news of the week…

We started the week a bit set back after a very rushed Friday afternoon when the news of the closure of the Prince of Wales’ Foundation for Integrated Health came out . With half the office on holiday for the long weekend, the news came in just an hour before Leonor had to leave for a flight to Spain! But we had to comment – for years the FIH has been promoting therapies not supported by evidence. And so with phone calls to Tracey and Ellen, and countless emails going around the scientists and experts in this area, we released our quote, along with a couple others, to the press . Leonor then had to dash and I finished getting everything up on the website and chasing the remaining quotes. It was well worth it in the end and we were quoted in the Financial Times, The Times, Nature and The Irish Times.

It was great to at last have Tracey back from Australia – a week and a half delayed because of the ash cloud. Ironically, as Tracey returned to the office we lost Sile to the ash cloud – delayed a day in Ireland! But it was great to finally hear Tracey’s thoughts on Making Sense of Statistics and we had a really interesting discussion in the office about the potential of the guide. About how far reaching it could be and the possibility of carrying out a programme of workshops on it.

Also this week, there’s been a surge in the number of stories about celebrities following silly diets. Not only does Cheryl Cole follow an ‘Eat right for your blood type’ diet but apparently Naomi Campbell diets exclusively on lemon and glucose for 18 weeks at a go and Jennifer Anniston is following a ‘baby food diet’! Yuk. Some great examples for our next Celebrities and Science Review. The British Dietetic Association was very well prepared to respond to these claims and it was good to see their comments in the papers. It made my job much easier!

We had other enquiries coming in from mothers concerned about the dangers of Wi-Fi, people wanting more info on GM crops and whether magnetic bracelets can relieve pain. Ellen is giving a talk to the Cosmetic Toiletry & Perfumery Association (CTPA) next week and I helped her gather together some of the recent enquiries we’ve had about chemicals. I was quite taken a back at the number of enquiries we’ve had on this subject over the past few months. It’s impressive to see that the lifestyle press is doing a lot more investigative journalism and questioning the evidence behind cosmetic and product claims.

So though a shorter week, it’s been pretty busy. Hopefully by this time next week we’ll know who the Prime Minister is, what colour(s) our government will be and the identity of the new Science minister.

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    Last updated: July 30 2010

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