When I came across this Daily Mail headline last week…
…I simply let out a low moan without bothering to read any further. I assumed it was the usual sensationalist rubbish that frequently passes for the media reporting of science. Nowadays, for good or ill, I take it for granted that almost any science story appearing in the newspapers or on TV will be at best misleading and at worst just plain wrong.
So, what else is new? Click, flip, turn the page, forget about it…
But soon I was brought back to this story again. It was later in the week, thanks to the stalwart work of Vaughan at Mind Hacks, that I happened to discover that it wasn’t just the journalist who’d been quoting research without contextualising, it was the author of the original paper as well.
It seems that Dr Aric Sigman’s paper (PDF), published in the journal Biologist, really does suggest that social networking online is associated with a higher risk of cancer. Crudely put Sigman cites research showing that using the internet can lead to loneliness, and loneliness has also been associated with increased cancer risk. Voila, there’s your media-friendly scare story.
What the newspaper coverage doesn’t tell you is what Mind Hacks clearly does: that this research is, as Vaughan puts it, ‘appalling’. Sigman, it seems, has strung together a couple of correlations then drawn an extremely speculative conclusion from them. The correlation between internet use and loneliness isn’t even accurate – there’s plenty of correlational evidence that shows the exact opposite: that internet use actually decreases loneliness.
Heroes and villains
The heroes and villains in this little story are clear. Villain status firstly has to be accorded to Sigman for spouting this tosh in the first place. The Daily Mail and BBC News – and probably loads of other outlets – do their familiar job of passing on whatever seems likely to catch the attention of the visceral masses, without providing any perspective for understanding this information. Again, villain status.
Mind Hacks are our heroes once again, along with John Grohol over at Psych Central who also points to the inadequacies of Sigman’s article and its subsequent reporting. Praise should also go to the NHS blog Behind The Headlines – a guide to science that makes the news – who weigh-in with a thoughtful response.
Winner of my newly inaugurated ‘Gurning Scientist Award’, though, has to go to Dr Ben Goldacre of Bad Science who appeared on Newsnight opposite Sigman to help expose the ‘research’ for what it is: scary speculation. The praise for Goldacre has been particularly fulsome in regard to the facial expressions he pulls while Sigman is talking. Here’s the video:
Salute the heroes
I tell you all this partly out of guilt. When I first started PsyBlog I wanted to help correct the awful coverage of psychology I read in the mainstream media, but it turned out that PsyBlog didn’t evolve in that direction. Of course I still come across barmy reporting of psychological science on a regular basis; this usually makes me wring my hands, feel a bit guilty, then write about some classic psych studies instead.
Thankfully, though, I’m feeling a lot less guilty in recent years. In the response to Sigman’s article I saw the number of people prepared to fight back against misinformation in both the research and reporting of psychological science. And this is not the first time or the first scientific field – not by a long way. I only pick a few examples mostly from psychology blogs because that’s closest to home – there are many others doing fantastic work (like Professor David Colquhoun’s Improbable Science)
Ironically an aspect of what Sigman thinks is giving us cancer, is what I believe is giving us real debate, and ultimately a better stab at the truth. Thank goodness for the people who are prepared to take the time to do the debunking. I salute you – long may you continue to open our eyes!
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks.