Saturday, 18 February 2017

Talk : Sense about Science

Nottingham Cafe Sci recently hosted Leah Fitzsimmons from the University of Birmingham who gave a talk as an Ask For Evidence Ambassador for Sense About Science on the importance of asking for evidence. @Gav Squires was there and has kindly written this guest post summarising the event.

Sense About Science was formed thirteen years ago because they were sick of the ridiculous news headlines about science. It's based around the idea of putting science and evidence in the hands of the public. They have run a number of campaigns:

- For The Record
- AllTrials
- Don't Destroy Research
- Evidence Matters
- Libel Reform
- Understanding Health Research

Of these, the AllTrials campaign has probably been the largest. It's all about transparency. Dr Ben Goldacre was involved with setting it up and its goal is to see every single clinical trial registered and every single outcome reported. It has resulted in the creation of an automatic trial tracker.

Sense About Science also deals with education. They run workshops and produce publications such as the "I Don't Know What To Believe" leaflet, which had been downloaded more than 500,000 times. They also aim to connect experts with the public through initiatives such as "Voice of Young Science", online public Q & A sessions and "Ask For Evidence"

Ask For Evidence is built around three questions:

What is evidence?
Is it good evidence?
What does the evidence mean?

The idea is that the public can take any claim, for example something they've seen in an advert or something from government policy, and Sense Abut Science will find an expert in that field and find evidence relating to that claim. Here are some of the things that they've looked into so far:

Ann Summers claimed that Buzz Fresh wipes would help users prevent infection. However, they later admitted that things could be as clean and hygienic using water alone.

Vision Express said that their most expensive contact lenses helped to preserve eyesight the best. However, they admitted that it was a sales ploy and agreed to retrain their staff.

Holland & Barrett said that their detox tea was proven to help reduce weight and provided some research to back it up. Unfortunately, the research was about the effect of green tea on people who are morbidly obese - Holland & Barret's tea didn't contain green tea though, it contained Oolong.

Wireless Armour claimed to protect your "assets" from radiation. The research they cited didn't actually test the product claims and the Advertising Standards Agency ruled that there was "insufficient evidence" and so the claims had to be dropped.

How does Ronseal's "anti-microbial" paint work? When Sense About Science asked, they were informed that Ronseal couldn't tell them as it would "breach confidentiality"

An article in The Sun suggest that frequent gadget use put kids at higher risk of autism. But the research presented only showed a correlation not a causal link.

Are old festival wristbands an illness causing health alert? Not according to the research involved. Yes, they do contain bacteria but a lot less than other things such as toilet handles.

Speaking of festivals, are those reusable cups that they have, and that are used at several sporting events, actually improving the eco-credentials of these events? Several studies have shown that they are actually better than biodegradable ones. This was even true when they were first introduced and had to be shipped back to France in order to be washed.

The Ask For Evidence campaign also looks at helping turn speculation into evidence. For example, Network Rail were looking at installing blue lights at all train stations as a way to combat suicides. Research has shown that blue lights have an effect on mice but would that translate to humans? So, now Network Rail are carrying out a study. Had they just gone ahead and installed the blue lights, it would have been impossible to tell whether any fluctuation in suicide numbers was down to the lights or was just coincidence.

When Sense About Science was looking into whether investment in alcohol treatment can recoup five times the cost in savings as claimed, DrugsScope tweeted a reply and links to detailed evidence within 8 minutes.

Understanding evidence makes us a more empowered society but noone can critique every bit of research. While there is no magic bullet for transparency, by not asking or evidence, we're letting science off the hook. So, if you've seen a claim, ask for evidence!

Café Sci returns to The Vat & Fiddle at 8:00pm on the 13th of February where Dr Thomas Sotiriou from the University of Nottingham comes t talk about "Gravitational Waves and Black Holes - Einstein's Amazing Legacy" For more information, visit the Café Sci Meet Up site:

Leah and Sense About Science

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