Follow the science: but whose science, and to where?

Reading 'Science Fictions' by Stuart Richie, ELCI Assistant Editor Lauren Sneade delves into what happens when academia and the media promote problematic research.
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“Here’s my evidence: I get a lot of positive calls about it.” That was Donald Trump when asked by reporters what grounds he had for administering  himself daily doses of the malaria and arthritis medication hydroxychloroquine in an effort to stave off COVID-19. 

The US promptly spent $20 million trialling the drug on COVID-19 patients. All in all, the US bought up 63 million units of hydroxychloroquine. The UK followed suit, spending £35 million to stockpile 16 million tablets. French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi made plans to donate 100 million doses of the drug to 50 poor countries across the world. It never worked. It’s old news now, like the ship that was too big for the Suez Canal, flushed down the toilet of our collective memory of the two years when everything went wrong. But who was it on the other end of the phone, making all this encouraging noise about a drug that did not do anything?  

In March 2020, a study by the Aix-Marseille University microbiologist and doctor Didier Raoult and his colleagues had claimed  a 100% cure rate for coronavirus patients who took hydroxychloroquine with an azithromycin antibiotic. Dr Raoult reported that all 24 patients made a miraculous recovery. His paper was published in an international journal and picked up almost immediately by the global media. But there were four key omissions in these findings. Three of his patients ended up in intensive care, and one died. Because their swab samples could not be collected, these patients appeared nowhere in the final analysis. Dr Raoult must have anticipated the media storm that such positive findings would garner from the climate of fear and anxiety of March 2020. News of the defects of the study eventually came to light and Dr Raoult was called to appear at tribunal. When he arrived, protestors gathered wearing “Je suis Raoult” t-shirts, chanting “Liberte!” 

It is the “Je suis Raoult” t-shirts which really underscore the pandora’s box relationship between scientific findings and the media. The protestors had not read the reproducibility study by scientists at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital which disproved Raoult’s findings, and by that point the damage was done. It was populism at work. “Doctor Cures COVID-19” makes for a far more arresting headline than “Doctor’s Findings Questioned” .

Once bad science has entered the public domain it can be hard to dispel. In 1998, British doctor Andrew Wakefield claimed that the Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine was linked to autism. Wakefield’s findings were based on a sample of twelve children. It transpired that Wakefield was being kept on a substantial financial retainer by a lawyer who had plans to sue the makers of the MMR vaccine on behalf of a group of parents of children with autism. Wakefield recruited the child patients for his study through an anti-vaccine pressure group. It also transpired that Wakefield had applied for a patent for his own measles vaccine the year before, so frightening people away from the MMR jab would have lined his pockets considerably. Wakefield’s paper was not retracted until 2010. After 1998, acceptance of the MMR vaccine plunged to way beneath the threshold for herd immunity. Over 140,000 people died from measles in 2018, twenty years after Wakefield’s study first surfaced. It would be hard to measure how scepticism of the MMR jab primed the anti-vaccination movement for current discussions around COVID-19.

The public likes to think of science as something reliable, objective, true. But scientists are not robots; they are prone to human error, or in the case of Wakefield, downright sleaze. Scientists – and their institutions – want fame, funding, and status just as much as in any other profession. Science is wrought with fraud, bias, negligence, and distorted by desire for publicity. It is not just the fault of the scientists, but the way that the whole peer-reviewed system is set up to reward scientists for a) the quantity of their research, and b) the explosiveness of their findings. This, and how to fix it, is what Stuart Richie’s book Science Fictions is about. Richie’s arguments won him a place on the shortlist of the Royal Society’s 2021 science book of the year.

Science Fictions is an enlightening insider’s investigation, powered by the author’s real keenness for science to do better. Richie’s prose is lively, even funny at times, with lines like “But there’s a baby in the bathwater of statistical significance.” It is the pressures that scientists face and the perverse incentives which distort the process which Richie finds fault with, not science itself. His love for the field is evident.

Richie is hard on science (and cases like the hydroxychloroquine incident are proof that we all need to be). But where Richie does not go far enough is in holding the media to account for disseminating questionable research, and then, when the research is disproved, not doing enough to make these redactions known. What is clear is, for all its flaws, science really tries to get at  the truth, as demonstrated by the various  algorithms and methods to check statistics and hypotheses. But from all we have seen in the past year, does the popular media even care if they get it wrong?

There are stories that in the early 2000s, the UK tabloid The Sun’s newsroom bore a poster on the wall which read: “Make it fast, Make it fresh, Make it up.” All the problems Richie finds in science are inherent to the modern media: our obsession with constant content and the next big story. 

Richie says “We mustn’t make science suck in its stomach whenever a member of the public or a politician is watching. In fact, a frank admission of science’s weaknesses is the best way to pre-empt attacks by science’s critics and to be honest more generally about how the uncertainty-filled process of science really works.”

He is surely right. But the danger is that this is all too utopian given the current state of the media. What he is asking is that we move away from thinking in terms of bold headlines: “Red Wine Prevents Heart Attacks”, as science rarely presents us with the black and white facts which make good news stories. The current political climate has shown, with the rise of figures like Donald Trump in the US, Narendra Modi in India, Joko Widodo in Indonesia, and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, that the public are being encouraged to pick their own narratives of the truth, regardless, and even sometimes in contempt of fact: “Here’s my evidence, I get a lot of positive calls about it.”

All that sad, Richie’s book is inspiring in its optimism that, through the dedication of individuals developing new strategies, scientists – and the scientific method – can and will weed out corruption in their field which obstructs truth. News editors should be taking notes.

Lauren is an Assistant Editor at ELCI.  She writes about global climate policy, China, and discussions of the environment in art. Find her LinkedIn here, or email her at lauren@elc-insight.org.

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