Yesterday, I was fortunate enough to attend a highly entertaining seminar held by the University of Sheffield's very own Science in Policy group. The speaker was Dr Chris Peters, Scientific Liaison at 'Sense about Science'.
Every day we face a barrage of claims designed to make us spend money, change our behaviour or support a particular policy. But how can we tell if these are true? What is to stop me from inventing my own smoothie concoction, perhaps using some of my surplus Arabidopsis plants, and claiming that it increases concentration by 20% and improves life expectancy by 3.5 years? In short, not a lot. It isn't illegal to make such claims and the Advertising Standards Agency, whilst powerful, is only a small organisation that can barely keep up with the unending flow of wonderful promises.
Ten years ago, a group of scientists led by Lord Taverne and Tracey Brown decided this wasn't quite right and set up 'Sense about Science'. This has since grown to a current network of over 5,000 scientists encompassing the entire breadth of expertise, from Nobel prize winners to PhD students and early career scientists. The main aim, in particular for the 'Ask for Evidence' campaign, is to hold companies to account for the promises they make about their products and policies. It involves, quite simply, asking where the evidence behind their claim comes from. The beauty of this camping is its simplicity, which enables anyone, scientist or not, to take part.
Once you start asking where the evidence is, you'll find yourself questioning all sorts of things. In one case, the campaign questioned a bold claim by the Daily Telegraph that wind turbines could 'knock tens of thousands of pounds off the value of nearby homes' and that a nearby turbine could 'knock eight per cent off average home value'. After a bit of digging, it turned out that this very precise figure was merely based on a single estate agent's opinion. During his talk, Chris also outlined the case of a mother of two children who challenged her local leisure centre's policy that children under the age of eight had to be supervised in a 1:1 ratio. This strict rule, taken up by a number of facilities, was brought into being simply because the management 'thought it sounded good'! Other examples have seen products pulled off the shelves and have debunked claims about health- enhancing properties. It is largely thanks to their work that newspaper articles do now usually provide a reference for their story.
Further successes can be found on the website:
But Chris is keen for more people to be involved. So if you spot an unqualified claim, why not challenge it? Send the company a letter, give their head office a ring or download the online 'Ask for Evidence' tool which allows you to upload photographs of the (potentially bogus) claim. Just think what you can expose and how satisfying it would be to protect the public from misinformation. On a serious note, the 'All Trials' campaign also seeks to improve the registering and reporting of clinical trials so that drugs companies cannot simply select the most favourable trial results when promoting their product. This is vital to ensure that patients don't pin their hopes and spend a fortune on a flawed treatment. As an example, the UK Government spent £424 million pounds stockpiling the Tamiflu drug as a precaution against Swineflu, even though it is now thought that paracetamol is just as effective. In such cases, a lack of evidence can cost a fortune, and even lives.
So next time you suspect that someone is trying to pull the wool over your eyes, remember that it is in your power to act! Check out the website at http://www.senseaboutscience.org/pages/a4e.html
As for me, I have been led along by the claim that green tea can help prevent Alzheimer's. But DOES IT? I think it is time to... ask for evidence! Watch this space!
By Caroline Wood
PhD student in the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences at the University of Sheffield
See more of Caroline's work on her blog http://scienceasadestiny.blogspot.co.uk/