Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Poor fact-checking and shoddy research - an everyday story of the BBC's health reporting


Others have posted about the BBC's embarrassment at Panorama's dodgy statistics on the impact of minimum pricing:

It's quite incredible that Panorama's fact-checkers are so shoddy that they didn't see that claiming 50,000 old people dying is quite laughable when their source has previously declared - experts as they are - only 3,060 in the entire population!

There are two aspects of this story that I find disturbing and a third that begs a question about the value of retractions.

The first aspect is the utter credulity of BBC researchers and programme-makers when faced with information from "academic" sources. The 50,000 figure was so obviously inaccurate yet no-one on the Panorama team saw fit to ask for it checking. Indeed it became the hook around which the scare-mongering story was constructed. Even to the point of getting one of their favourites - Joan Bakewell - to front up the delivery of this punchline. That this figure is so completely inaccurate beggars belief but its ready acceptance by Panorama's producers underlines the core problem with public health reporting - the lies of the campaigners are almost always taken without question, without any challenge.

The second disturbing aspect of the story is the way in which researchers - in this case at Sheffield University - circumvent any peer challenge. Indeed, when a researcher from Panorama rang them with the programme idea the School of Health and Related Research at the University of Sheffield jumped at the opportunity to push their work by appearing on a prime time TV documentary. The "research" commissioned by Panorama reaches the ears and eyes of the SoHRR team's audience - public health professionals, political decision-makers and the concerned public - without the pesky process of peer review. The BBC may now have corrected the error but SoHRR remain unchallenged as the leading proponent of minimum pricing for alcohol as a public health tool.

Wherever we look the public health fanatics appear to be more-or-less making stuff up - third-hand tobacco smoke, fizzy drinks making you fat, e-cigarettes being carcinogenic and minimum pricing for alcohol saving lives while not affecting the drinking pleasure of anyone. As Chris Snowden puts it:

It is garbage. Not just the usual 'this sounds like a bad guess' garbage, but full-on 'no amount of squirming can get us out of this, we're going to have to retract it and re-edit the programme' garbage. The figure is more than four times larger than their dubious methodology can allow—a difference of some 38,500 lives—and thanks to the efforts of one of Dick Puddlecote's readers, the Sheffield University team have confessed to "human error". Take this with as much salt as you like, but they claim that someone accidentally put the wrong figures into the computer when Panorama commissioned the research. Truly a case of garbage in, garbage out.

As to that human error - it strikes me that this is poppycock. The SoHRR team were so cock-a-hoop at the Panorama request that they bunged out the more sensational, headline-grabbing research without bothering to test, check, cross-reference or apply the most basic of common-sense. And they did this knowing that Panorama would swallow any set of spurious "facts" they sent through. Perhaps we need to get in touch with Sheffield University's grandees and ask them to look into this "error". Although, if the University of Sterling are a guide, the reaction will be to use every means to prevent full public disclosure.

Finally we should ask what gain will come from the BBC's correction? Hundreds of thousands watched a Panorama documentary founded on a lie. A few hundred of those people will see the retraction or will watch the new version of Joan Bakewell's endpiece. Add to this those who saw the reference on the BBC main news, read articles in the Daily Mail, Guardian and Daily Telegraph and we can see that the BBC's quiet little correction represents a victory for the liars in our public health industry. I fully expect variations of the 50,000 figure to crop up in reports, documents, advice leaflets and a host of other sources. And for the medical mafia to roll it out verbally - without any challenge - again and again.


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