The Method Section: Bad Science – Timestamps

00:00 – Introduction

01:10 – The importance of fighting bad science

04:16 – Who’s fault is this?

05:23 – What bad science leads to -> Anti-vaxx movement

11:18 – How bad science started the Anti-Vaxx movement

13:55 – The fault of scientific journals

18:33 – Takeaways and conclusions

19:38 – Ending and Outro


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This week on The Method Section, Tom is combatting bad science. He explores who is at fault when it comes down to performing and publishing bad science and the effects that it has on both the scientific and public worlds. Bad science led to the worst public health crisis scene in over a hundred years… anti-vaccination groups, find out how this started and how we can combat it. Music by: Joakim Karud –

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Tom:                      Hello ladies and gentlemen and welcome. I am your host Tom Jenks and today I’m going to be talking about combating bad science. Why it’s so important. Who do we hold responsible and where we end up as a result of it, all that and more coming up. Stay tuned to the method section.

Tom:                      Yes, that’s right. Welcome to the Method Section, a short form podcast aimed at scientists old and new. Today I am aiming to combat bad science and shed light on the plague that rips through this community. And that’s exactly what it is because the implications it has to the real world and the media are just huge. So firstly, you know, why do we need to fight it? Why is this important and why is it worth talking about? More and more in this day and age, we are in this post truth era and I covered this before, but if you’re not sure what that is, it’s where evidence comes second to what we believe and feel because we’d much rather just believe anecdotes that reaffirm our own values. Than piles of documents that are behind the veil of information and jargon and text. For the average person is just not the way to consume information. The way that they do consume information is through the media and we all know that the media will grab anything and everything to make a story, especially with science. An example of that is The Mail. Here is a newspaper here in the US and the UK I think and it said coffee causes cancer and then literally a month later or even less than that, it said it prevented it so you can, you can tell there is no scientific backing to most of the claims that these tabloids and media outlets make.

Tom:                      The consequence of this and not that this is the only source, but people are losing their faith in science. Maybe faith is quite an ironic term to use for science, but I don’t think it’s that incorrect to be honest. And this kind of makes sense. You know, look at Chernobyl, weapons of mass destruction, chemical warfare, all of these kinds of things. It just, people are losing their faith in the technology and the way science works. However, that’s not a strictly inherently bad thing because it forces people to ask more questions, search for proof, search for evidence, and this is exactly what they should be doing. However, this is where they turn to media and the fake news and post truth era comes into effect. People will not accept what science says to them because it’s not accessible and they have grown distrustful of the media, big Pharma companies and the government. excellent example of this was to do with medicine and you know, kind of even vaccinations in this sense really, but I’ll come onto this more later, is the fear that they are harmful. So people go a lot into alternative medicines and they do nothing. There’ve been scientific studies to say that they do nothing other than maybe change the color of your pee, and yet we spend billions a year on them, especially in the US and or the UK here. And in South Africa, this actually got to such a bad point where 400,000 people died because they were convinced that beetroot, garlic and lemon oil was better for treating AIDS than antiretroviral drugs. This is why we need to fight bad science. This is why we need to fight misinformation. Now they’re not inherently linked. However, in this case they, they slightly are and in some of the cases I will talk about.

Tom:                      So something that I spoke about in the intro is who we should be blaming. And it’s two sides of the coin. You’ve got science on an individual or group level. This is the actual scientists conducting the research. You need to start conducting science on a good level to a high standard. You need to build reliable, repeatable results and not be caught out trying to make data look good or do experiments that produce sexy results as they say. You need to try and avoid this publication bias. Now this is something very important I’ll come onto later, but it does start with the individuals, with the scientists conducting the research and the test. Without your change the base level of this pyramid of trust that we need to build up and factual evidence. That’s where its going to come from. That’s why we need it to come from there.

Tom:                      The most well known group then that is kind of in denial I guess there’s three majors, there’s climate change denial, but we know that’s on the decline. Flat Earthers, but unfortunately there’s just no hope there and anti-vaxxers and that’s what I want to kind of focus on a bit today because it is important to see why bad science led to this. So first of all, I mean it’s hard for us to understand people who don’t vaccinate their kids. Surely we can say, you know, this is only going to good and if you kind of love your kids you, it’s hard to see why you wouldn’t. However, as I said ii’s all misinformation. They’re not inherently bad parents, bad people or stupid people because actually there is a higher refusal rate correlated with higher education levels, so I don’t know what that tells you, but yeah, that’s worrying. However, obviously the most common way this kind of happens is when people surround themselves in an environment with people who think alike whether physically or maybe on social media. This is very, very easy on Facebook nowadays you can join anti-vax groups and you end up just talking to people who have the same opinions as you and you’re just reaffirming each other’s ideas, this pack mentality. Then when you go and speak with someone who disagrees with you and you go back to that community and talk with them again, your ideas are reinforced even more. Something I’ve seen on Tumblr, Facebook and social media quite a lot actually is something that made me laugh it’s become a bit of a meme and it’s basically says something along the lines of if you mixed mercury, aluminium phosphate, ammonium sulfate and formaldehyde with viruses, it is gonna end badly. And you know, why would you let doctors do that? Educate yourself. Is basically what it says. And one of the replies to that was yes, if YOU mixed mercury, aluminium phosphate, ammonium sulfate and formaldehyde with viruses, YOU would cause problems. But we have been using vaccines for so long now and people are trained professionals, they’ve been working on these for years and we know they help. So at some point there is ignorance and this is with the extremes as you get in every kind of scenario. However, we do need to realize that even on this side of the fence, when we look over, most people are very close to the fence. They’re not extremists. Most people are just worried about what they want to do. And there was a really great ted talk by Danielle Stringer. She grew up in a anti-vax home or vaccine hesitant as she called it, and she wanted to be a pediatric nurse, and during her master’s thesis she was like, oh this is a perfect opportunity for me to research and give a voice to why vaccines are harmful. So she did all the research and she was writing her masters thesis on this and she found out she was wrong. She could not find hardly any evidence that was supported over and repeatable and reliable to, to say that it was really bad compared to the thousands and thousands of papers that said, yeah, actually vaccines are really good. And this exactly underpins the anti-vax community’s existence. People are misinformed. The information is spread by media and confined social media groups. And okay, for sure we can’t expect everyone to do research or statistically analyze thousands of papers because of course not, not everyone is capable to do that time or ability wise, whatever.

Tom:                      So I think the easiest way to do it is just to look at the risks versus the benefits. Because at the end of the day, most of these people are just parents who are scared and nervous and want to do the best things for their children. So we need to treat them as such. It’s not that they’re stupid, it’s that they just need a bit of guidance. It seems like, away from this misinformation. So if you look at the risks then of taking a vaccine and compare it to some other things, 1,600 children die a year in car accidents in America. One in 12,000 are struck by lightning globally and one in 1 million experience, a strong reaction to vaccines. And that doesn’t always mean death even. But the benefits then it saves 6 million children globally a year and you don’t see the benefits because they cause normality. They cause the absence of illness. So we need to realize that the benefits of a vaccine is you not seeing anything. You don’t have to see your child ill. You don’t have to watch your child suffer from something completely preventable. To add onto this, then we can do a quick thought experiment. This is from the Kurzgesagt youtube channel and is a very good example, and they did a great, great video on vaccines. So they said, hypothetically, let’s take 10 million unvaccinated children. Two and a half million of them, one quarter will get severe cases of measles, now that’s severe, I think it was, 80% of them would get measles. 20,000 children will die. Then if you take 10 million vaccinated children, 120 of them will experience a side effect to some degree from mild fever to, to something a bit more complex than that. However, there’ll be none dead.

Tom:                      So where did this all start? Why am I talking about this when I’m talking about bad science? Because it is important to understand where this is going to get us where we will end up if we don’t combat it. Now, this is just one example. So this all started kind of around 1998 and a man named Andrew Wakefield with 12 coauthor’s published a paper about a link between autism and the MMR vaccine. That’s measles, mumps, and rubella. In this study, they looked at 12 separate cases and for those scientists out there listening, you should already know that that is a horrendous sample size, far too small to get any proper data from. They claimed that six of these children had aggressive autism, nonspecific collitus and symptoms showed days after the vaccines. Later on, some studies were done and it was looked into. Investigations happened and it was revealed that none of that were true. None of the symptoms documented in this paper ever occurred. Without that knowledge though studies were done constantly over the time period, even up to now and maybe one or very few outliers found any kind of link, but thousands upon thousands upon thousands. How found no link in 2004 it was revealed that Andrew Wakefield had been paid by lawyers to change the results because they wanted to sue vaccine manufacturers for the parents of autistic children. In 2010 the paper was revoked from the Lancet, which is the journal it was published in and Wakefield was banned from practice in medicine in the UK. So that just shows you whilst you know we think a science is really pure breeding ground, people will pay people to change results and look at the impact that has had for the last 20 years and how many children have died or been impacted seriously by this and how many families have had to go through that because one person wanted a bit of money.

Tom:                      But that brings up an extremely valuable point. It is obviously not just the scientists that we should be angry at. The other side of this coin is the peer reviewers, the publishers and the journals. We know there is a lot of publication bias. This is where results are published and selected that are more interesting and will generate more interest for the journal. So there is bias there in the way that just the articles that get published are picked. For example, I’ve got a couple of examples of this is obviously people cannot tell the future. This is something a consensus that most of us humans have come to, but there was one paper that said undergraduates had pre cognitive abilities. They could tell the future to a certain degree and it was published in a paper. Then quite a few different teams tried to repeat this experiment and publish it in the same journal and they were refused. Why? Because they didn’t want to repeatabilities and they didn’t want negative results. On that note of repeatability, in 2012 a study tried to repeat 63 cancer studies, but it found that only six could be repeated. Why is that? Because the freaks, the outliers, the data freaks, not people freaks are the ones that get published because they’re interesting and they show something that hasn’t been seen before. The positive results, even if you’re after a negative. So whilst yes, this was the bad practice of the scientist, it was either the even worse practice of the people who are meant to be filtering this stuff out. The people who have been in the industry and are trusted to stop the bad practices, making it through. That means we need a change in paradigm. We need to make it easy to publish negative results. We need to make it so that this isn’t seen as a bad thing. Because as I’ve said before, negative results are sometimes far more interesting. Don’t be swayed by the fact you might get a negative result as it leads to cutting corners and fudging your results.

Tom:                      There is a really important example of why we need to publish negative results. So in 1980 they were studying a drug called Lorcanoid, and this was to stop Arrhythmia in people who had had heart attacks, Arrhythmia being the inconsistent beating of the heart. So in this study in 1980 they had a hundred people sample already much better than the 12 and 50 of them. They gave the Lorcanoid of that 50, 10 people died to the other 50 they gave the placebo. This was the control group and only one of them died. They concluded that this drug was too dangerous and had to be discontinued and that was the absolute correct course of action. However, the results were not published because they were, they were negative. They didn’t show the outcome that was expected. They didn’t show not like a good outcome, but they didn’t show the outcome that was wanted. As such, the results were not published and in the following five, 10, 15 years, other companies had the same idea, but the problem with that is in those five, 10 years, 100,000 people died from antiarrhythmic drugs and this could be totally, totally avoidable if first paper on Lorcanoid had been published and they realized that it wasn’t just a fluke in the study that it was actually antiarrhythmic drugs. So there is lots of publication bias in today’s world it has being shown that positive findings are twice as likely to be published now to put that into kind of context for you. If I flipped a coin 100 times and then I took half the data away, I can make it look like that I have a coin with two heads or two tails on. I have a double sided coin when in actual fact I have a normal coin, but I’ve manipulated the data by taking half of it away from you. That’s exactly what is going on and that is why I called it a plague. At the top of the show.

Tom:                      Moving on to the takeaways and conclusions. Then I mean, as I said is not only down to individual scientists but also the people publishing the results. If you’re an individual scientist listening old or new, keep at it. Make good practice. Make repeatability. Show why you are in this industry. If you are a peer reviewer, you are a publisher, you are an editor. Be brave enough to say this isn’t done right. We will not accept it. Be brave enough to publish negative results for they are just as important as shown with the Lorcanoid study. J Michael Bishop and American immunologist and Nobel Prize winner said “science now finds itself in paradoxical strife with society. Admired but mistrusted boasting remarkable advances but criticized” and that I think is something that we need to get past together.

Tom:                      However, that is all I have time for this week. So guys, thank you so much for stopping by. If you want to check out all the latest goings on, you can head to you can find us on Facebook and Twitter by searching @ConductScience. If you want to suggest to guests, suggest a topic for either this show or the main show, please use the #ConductScience. If you are listening on iTunes, Spotify, PodBean, Stitcher, GooglePlay, wherever, drop us a follow, drop us a rating. That is so hugely important when we are starting up a podcast and I would appreciate it so much. So thank you very much guys for listening and I’ll see you guyyyssss… A next time.