This is in response to the blog post by Fiona Fox who was reacting to criticism of the Science Media Centre (SMC) for its support of the SMILE trial (1). Although both her blog and this post refer to myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), the issues are much broader and raise major questions about the organization.
Two things immediately stand out. First, in a blog post claiming that she and the SMC are free of bias, Fox reveals her bias: she links ME to climate change and to animal experiments; she makes a loaded comment about ‘vocal critics’; she refers to ‘ME activists’; she contrasts ‘ME activists’ with friends ‘in science’. Second, in an attempt to address questions about SMC bias, Fox responds with anecdotes. ‘I’m not biased: some of my best friends are…’
For Fox’s response to carry any weight, she needed to talk about transparency and procedures. A number of questions remain unanswered:
1. What steps are taken to ensure SMC governors have no influence on day-to-day decisions taken by the SMC?
Simon Wessely for example is seen as one of the creators of the ‘false belief’ model of ME. He is also a governor of the SMC. How does the SMC ensure he has no influence, including indirect influence, over anything the SMC has to do with ME?
2. Who decides what research is covered by the SMC? And on what basis?
3. Who decides and on what basis which researchers are invited to the SMC to give a briefing?
Why, for example, was Esther Crawley asked to do a presentation?
Why was Fiona Fox herself at the presentation? Why is Fiona Fox who is known to have a particular view of ME (apparently one can inoculate oneself against ME by belonging to the Revolutionary Communist Party) allowed to have anything to do with SMC’s work on ME?
4. Who decides and on what basis which researchers are supported by the SMC?
5. Who decides and according to what criteria who counts as an ‘expert’?
6. Who decides and on what basis which ‘experts’ are asked to respond to any particular piece of research?
7. What steps are taken to ensure that the ‘experts‘ who do respond are not self-selecting?
8. Why are experts with a clear conflict of interest allowed to give reactions to research?
Michael Sharpe is deeply involved in promoting the ‘false belief’ model of ME. Why was he allowed anywhere near the response to the SMILE trial?
Dorothy Bishop has a particular view of ME ‘as someone who is familiar with the condition both from family members and colleagues’ (2). Bishop considers criticism of the PACE trial amounted to an ‘orchestrated and well-funded harassment campaign’. Why was she allowed to give a reaction to the SMILE trial?
Alastair Sutcliffe is Professor of General Paediatrics at UCL, where paediatrician Crawley, lead investigator on SMILE, did her PhD. Is there any link between the two which may create a possible conflict of interest?
9. How does the SMC ensure the ‘expert reaction’ is balanced?
10. Who determines and on what basis whether this balanced ‘expert reaction’ has been achieved?
11. What steps are taken to ensure that research supported by SMC funders is not treated more favourably?
An organization set up ‘to promote more informed science’ doesn’t seem to understand the nature of bias or the concept of a biased sample.
As every GCSE student knows, everyone is biased and the easiest person to fool is oneself. If the SMC were serious about avoiding bias, then it would have proper procedures in place to guard against its own. Fox should not need to resort to a few stories to make her case, but should be able to point to established safeguards.
The problem for the SMC, though, is that as an institution it is inherently biased. It exists to be biased. A handful of people have set themselves up as judges of what does and does not constitute ‘good science’ and who does and does not qualify as an ‘expert’. The SMC is predicated on an idea that there is one true science and that a group of ‘wise people’ can find other ‘wise people’ to make sure the media get the true picture.
It’s not necessary to be a Gove-ian sceptic of experts or a devout believer in the Kuhn cycle to know that this view of science is deeply flawed. With new methods, new technology and new approaches, science, all knowledge, is constantly evolving. As so often happens, by concentrating on one problem (false equivalence), the SMC magnifies the risk of others (eg false consensus). The SMC is a brake on science’s self-correction.
That Fox either does not understand or cannot see these problems is deeply concerning. What is more, her blog post reveals something else. The gushing, schoolgirlish tone (3) is not just a question of personal style. Perhaps because of her background, Fox does not seek to argue her point, but to charm. We are the good guys, she is saying. Join us, be in our gang and on the side of true science. If you don’t, you’ll be one of them. You’ll be on the dark side, with the ME activists, the ‘vocal critics’, the climate-change deniers, the animal-rights extremists. It’s politics, and not good politics at that; rhetoric and not substance.
The SMC was set up in 2000. Perhaps it did then have a purpose, but it is hard to see why it exists today. Any science journalist worth their pay has no need for it. In the time it would take to go to the SMC for a briefing, they could read the study, contact half a dozen ‘experts’ whose views they trust, and send an email to the investigator with any questions. Everyone now is online and most researchers are on social media. Access to scientists is easy; there is no need for a go-between.
The existence of the SMC reveals a collective failure of nerve by science journalists in the UK. They have contracted out their job to a self-appointed group led by someone with no scientific qualifications. Journalists who are churning out SMC briefings are effectively saying they can’t do their own jobs. They need Fiona Fox to decide which research is important and which ‘experts’ are trustworthy.
The SMC has nothing to offer on the current issues in science. With major concerns such as the ‘reproducibility crisis’, the SMC is more of a hindrance than a help. It is entrenching the status quo; it is delaying the funerals. Fox’s failure to comprehend these issues reveals she is unsuited to her role, but in any case the Science Media Centre is no longer, if it ever has been, part of the solution. It’s become part of the problem.
And here (note, I was involved in a small way with this post):
2. Quotation from email to me of 15/03/2015.
In particular these paragraphs:
‘And all around the room, pouring wine for the panellists, offering tiny pastries, and gently inquiring about everyone’s careers and interests, or simply posing, very upright, against the shiny white walls, were the correct young staff of Living Marxism.
The men wore suits, or close-fitting shirts with pressed trousers. They had disciplined hair: shaven, cropped or gelled back. Their shoes were gleaming as tap dancers’. As they stood in twos and threes, clicking their heels, coughing into their palms and clasping their hands behind their backs, something else about them became apparent. They were mostly wearing black: black shirts and black ties, black socks and black polo necks, everything spotless.
The women were similar. They wore suits and tied-back hair, or short skirts and tight tops. Few of them seemed older than 30. And, like their male colleagues, who slightly outnumbered them, they asked lots of questions. They always made eye contact. They smiled a lot, and stood very close, and tried fleeting, flirty touches. Near the end of the reception, at about midnight, a well-dressed couple in their thirties walked across. They had, as the man put it, “a driving situation”. Could I drive? Would I drive them home? He did not say where they lived. Their eyes shone pleadingly, but they seemed quite sober. We had known each other for all of a minute.’