Scientists told to enlighten the confused

November 4, 2005

Scientists were warned to be "ready with answers" this week, as a UK-wide campaign was launched to help people decide which research results they can - and can't - trust.

The lobbying body Sense about Science has found that doctors and charities are being deluged with questions from people who are anxious or prematurely hopeful after reading about poor or unpublished science.

More and more time is being spent trying to correct misleading claims found by members of the public on the internet and elsewhere.

The charity this week sent a guide explaining the peer-review system to doctors, pharmacists, patient helplines, politicians and teachers. By explaining how academics scrutinise new research, it aims to show what questions people should ask about the latest finding that worries or interests them, equipping them to assess whether other scientists would regard it as valid and significant.

Tracey Brown, director of Sense about Science, said that while the academic community had been asked repeatedly to explain the system of peer review to the public, very little imaginative attention had been given to the task.

Dr Brown said that the groups they had worked with were "very fired up"

about encouraging non-scientists to ask questions about the status of research. She added: "I just hope the scientists are ready with some answers."

Michael Mabe, director of academic relations at the scientific publisher Elsevier, said: "Peer review is fundamental to scientific and scholarly communication. But it is also its best-kept secret. Outside the scientific community very few people know what it means or how it works."

Linda Partridge, director of family services at the charity Wellchild, said: "We had a mother calling who wanted to know if she should stockpile the avian flu vaccine for her children. She had absorbed everything she had read in her tabloid newspaper."

She added: "The explosion of the internet has heightened people's anxiety.

How does a lay person know what is credible and what is not?"

Curious cures and living in hope

* A member of the public recently telephoned the Meningitis Foundation asking whether gargling with lemon juice would kill the meningoccocal bacterium. Another caller had come across the idea that the infection could be influenced by the type of clothing a person wore.

"We get people coming through with all sorts of different theories," a spokesperson for the charity said. "If someone reads that a piece of research has been done into x , y and  z and this is the result they believe it. I don't think people have any idea that results have to be published in proper journals and reproduced by other scientists to validate them."

She added: "Someone only has to look into ten people being ill and do a few calculations and it is called research. If it is then put in the public domain that can be dangerous."

* Patients and families dealing with chronic diseases are naturally very susceptible to stories about wonder therapies. Lee Dunster, head of research at the Multiple Sclerosis Society, said that this was a particular problem for his charity, which receives calls each day from people who are confused about something they have read. A drug based on goat serum called Aims Pro has excited many of the people who call. "It received front page coverage in a number of newspapers including the Daily Mail . This sort of Lazarus effect is reported and 80,000 sufferers in the UK think - "This is it!'" Dr Dunster said. "But as yet there is no clinical evidence to back up the claims."

The charity insists that it will not recommend treatments that have not been proven to be safe, and that all research must be evidence based. But getting this across to patients is tough. "People believe anecdotal information is enough," he said.

n Milk used to be seen as the miracle cure for bones. Now some reports have claimed that it causes osteoporosis. What should people believe?

"This is a difficult area," Sarah Leyland, helpline supervisor for the National Osteoporosis Society said. "It is not completely without truth, because there are still questions to be answered. They might use epidemiological research from a country about the number of broken bones linked to the intake of dairy produce, but it is much more complex than that. To tell people to completely cut out milk is just wrong."

The charity spends a lot of time counteracting information about particular minerals or calcium supplements. "It tends to be in the question and answer columns on health pages, where a product is mentioned as being really good, but there has never been any research to back this up that has been peer reviewed or published," Ms Leyland said.

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