Friday, 29 October 2010

Science Journos shouldn't fear for the future

Recently proposed cuts to science funding fuelled by the recession are causing for concern for many young scientists looking for work, but should science writers also be worried?

Dr John Cokley, a Visiting Research Fellow at Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, believes not. He spoke to us today about his vision for the future and gave some brief advice on how to avoid the various pitfalls a successful science writer must negotiate.

As science moves from an industry focussed on innovation to one centred on commercialisation, John feels that the role of the science journalist will become more important in helping the public to not only keep up with scientific progress but also to understand and critically evaluate it.

The role of the scientific journalist, according to John, is to understand new science, interpret and communicate it effectively to a public who may not have the requisite knowledge to appreciate the potential implications.

This is more complicated than it sounds. The science journalist will likely have an intrinsic interest in all things relating to science and so any new and exciting developments will capture their attention, but it is unlikely that this will be true for the majority of their readers.

John reiterates that the best way to get people interested is to know your audience inside out. Researching the demographic statistics for your readership will give you invaluable information on what issues they are likely to take in interest in and more importantly, how to frame your report in a way that will make them take an interest.

The most important question to ask when writing any report, scientific or otherwise, is ‘Why would my reader care?’ If you can answer this and write with it in mind, you will produce a piece that your readers will be far more likely to read and engage with.
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Saturday, 16 October 2010

MMR, Autism and Poor Science Reporting

The Australian Vaccination Network have this week tweeted that evidence supporting Andrew Wakefield and his discredited Autism/MMR study had been published.

In fact, the article being touted by the AVN as new information is a four year old story published in the Mail on Sunday.  Not only is it four years out of date, but the research on which the article is based does not relate to a link between autism and the MMR, but because of sloppy journalism, you could be forgiven for believing it did.

With the title "Scientists fear MMR link to autism", Sally Beck, whose work includes other autism related stories, such as "I helped my son beat Autism by giving up Weetabix", illustrates just how badly science journalism can be done.

The immediate problem that I spotted was that the article was the claim that:

    "New American research shows that there could be a link between the controversial MMR triple vaccine and autism and bowel disease in children. The study appears to confirm the findings of British doctor Andrew Wakefield, who caused a storm in 1998 by suggesting a possible link."

When in fact, what the scientist, Dr Walker was quoted as saying was:

   "[Wakefield's] study didn’t draw any conclusions about specifically what it means to find measles virus in the gut, but the implication is it may be coming from the MMR vaccine. If that’s the case, and this live virus is residing in the gastrointestinal tract of some children, and then they have GI inflammation and other problems, it may be related to the MMR"

The way in which Ms Beck has written, suggests that the link is between the MMR triple vaccine and autism, as well as bowel disease. In fact, what has been claimed is that there is a possible link between the MMR and gastrointestinal problems, in children with autism.  This may seem pedantic, but many readers may not be able to make that distinction.

In many cases this would be a trivial error, but in this case it has far reaching, dangerous repercussions.  This article has been linked to and referenced on numerous websites, used to defend Wakefield and to spread the message that vaccines are unsafe.

Ms Beck's poor choice of sentence structure aside, the interpretation of the research seems flawed.  After searching for more information, the only available source which seemed to relate to the article is a poster submitted in 2006 to the International Meeting for Autism Research.

As the AVN were linking to this article as new information, it appeared that Ms Beck had not only misinterpretated research, she had used work that was four years old.

Dr Walker, the quoted scientist, when asked if there was some as yet unpublished work that this article was based on, replied saying:

    Chas,

    This story is not current. It was written by Sally in 2006 following a presentation of an abstract that I did at IMFAR (International Meeting for Autism Research) in Montreal. The final peer-reviewed article has not been written, mainly due to an inability to get appropriate control samples to complete the study. And you are exactly right - we were thinking the data might be indicative of a possible link between MMR and gut problems, not MMR and autism.

    Hope that helps.

    best regards,
    Steve

 The science was in fact current in 2006 - when the article was published.  It was only by looking at the comments attached to the article that it became apparent the Mail on Sunday did not display the date the article was published.  Is this responsible journalism?  This leads anyone who reads the article and does not look past the page on which it is displayed, to believe the article was current, as I did.

The Australian Vaccination Network claim to aim to help parents make informed choices, yet they are disseminating information which is four years out of date and inaccurate. An organisation claiming to inform parents about vaccines has a responsibility to check the information they give out, and should be held to account when the quality of the information they disseminate is poor.  I contacted the AVN for comment, but they have not responded.

The funny thing is the research in question is actually suggesting a detrimental effect of the triple MMR vaccine.  Completed and published, it will be interesting to see if this research does show a significant effect.

Judging from their twitter feed, the AVN appear to be more interested in presenting any piece of information that supports their anti-vaccination position, rather than finding and informing people of the truth.  So if this research does come out in favour of vaccinations, will the AVN will be as quick to correct itself as it was to demand Wakefield’s exoneration? 

When the time comes, you can expect a follow up article evaluating the findings and the AVN’s response.  But unlike the AVN’s approach to research and Ms Beck and the Mail’s approach to science journalism, whether it says good things about vaccines or bad, it will be reported on this blog with an open mind, with clear language and without sensationalist claims.
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Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Learning to Communicate

My undergraduate degree from Aston University was in Sociology and Politics, but being a science geek at heart when I spotted an MSc at Cardiff University in Science, Media and Communication I thought it was worth a look. My A-levels were all science; Maths, Chem, Biology, Physics, Environmental Sicence, Geogrpahy and ICT but because I was lazy and ill in an unfortunate combination, I didn't do well enough to study science at a higher level. I'm almost glad; Sociology was something I feel into but something I excelled at.


The main building of Cardiff UniversityImage via Wikipedia

People are fascinating subjects to study and the way they operate en mass is even more interesting as it is so predictable but utterly random at the same time. I've slowly built up a regular list of science-based podcasts, newspaper columns and books that I consume constantly and my growing twitter addiction is fuelling further interest in all things sciencey. So the opportunity presented by this masters course to learn how to bridge the gap between people and science was one I couldn't resist.

Having started the course, I am thrilled that it is everything I hope for and more (so far), given me the opportunity to work with children at Techniquest, inspiring young mnds to get interested in science, whilst providing me with usuable tools in science journalism so I can get involved at higher levels and hopefully make some money out of it (I have to pay the bills at some point).

I've decided to interject this blog on science-things-I-think-are-interesting with personal entries on how my course is going and what I am learning. So far, I haven't got a huge following, lol, but I'm hoping if I can keep this going, some people mihgt be interested to hear what is being taught to science communicators of the future.

So for this first course-based blog, I thought I'd set out what I want to learn from this course, you might not be interested, but it will be interesting to me to come back to this in a year and see if I have achieved any of it.

Firstly, I want to learn how to inspire people to take an interest in science. I admire hugely people who are making a career out of doing this but have a sneaking suspicion its something you've either naturally got, or haven't.

Secondly, I want to learn how to critically, sceptically but fairly evaluate scientific claims and communicate my opinions to a wider audience.

Thirdly, I want to learn how to entertain whilst educate, because no one likes a boring teacher.

Fourthly, and finally I want to contribute something positive to the field of science communication. I'm doing this course because I want to make a career out of this, but I want to be able to do something good whilst paying the rent.

So they're very quickly thought up goals, as with all my blog posts I tend to blog-on-the-fly so I will probably amend and add to them later.

Like I said, this is more for my own records, so I can evaluate my progress and my achievements when I come to the end of my course, but maybe you'll be interested in reading it. Maybe not.
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Friday, 8 October 2010

It's a miracle! No. It isn't.

The logo of The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe
I was directed today to a facebook page advertsing "Miricle Mineral Solution" of MMS also known as Miracle Mineral Supplement by a fantastic your twitterer #rhysmorgan. I first heard of Rhys and MMS when he was being interviewed on the Skeptics Guide to the Universe Podcast. He was talking about MMS and
the disgusting treatment he had recieved whilst participating in online forums where he dared criticise the product and inform others of the FDA warnings relating to the product.


MMS is a solution containing 28% sodium chlorite, a chemical used widely in paper manufacturing to generate chlorine dioxide, an industial strength bleach. Chlorine dioxide is so volatile that it is deemed unsafe for transport, which is why users of MMS will mix the sodium chlorite solution with an activator, usually citric acid or vinegar to generate the bleach on-site.

Now I'm no chemist, but it doesn't take one to realise that ingesting industrial strength bleach is not going to be beneficial, let alone treat cancer, HIV, malaria or the common cold as some websites claim. What it can do is make you nautious, vomit, give you diarrhea and produce symptoms of extreme dehydration.

The FDA has issued warnings that drinking MMS can cause serious harm (http://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/ucm220747.htm) and yet here it is, cropping up on websites and facebook sites for sale in the UK.

Jim Humble, the man claiming to have discovered and developed this 'miracle' has a website (http://www.mmsmiraclemineralsolution.co.uk/#Miracle_Mineral_DVD_)which provides numerous ways for you to buy the product, but almost no information about what the product is, what it does, any evidence of efficacy or safety - apart from that it is GMP certified, meaning it has been manufactured to a particular standard. He does plug his books and DVD's, but don't worry all the profits go to him, not big Pharma, so your doing a little bit of good whilst you poison yourself.

It is understandable that people who suffer from chronic or terminal illnesses will look for solutions wherever they can find them, but the purpose of this blog entry is to beg you, if you are reading this and you're thinking of trying a new treatment, research the product you are buying, find out what's in it, find out if there are medical warnings in other countries and stay away from anything with the word 'miracle' on the label!

Always remember the old saying - if it's too good to be true... they're probably trying to steal your money whilst you continue to suffer.
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