Our mention of urban myths in the last issue triggered another recollection. A study, the details of which are forgotten but it may have been for a Masters or PhD, focused on Irish urban myths, and found that a significant source of those myths was none other than the broadcaster Gay Byrne.
How so, you might ask. Well, he had a habit of reading out bits and pieces and man-bites-dog stories from the morning’s papers from time to time, often adding his own tuppence worth. Being a bit of a fogey, of course, he frequently resorted to the British papers and The Telegraph and Daily Mail in particular. Never the whole story nor balanced, just stuff that caught his eye.
Those who half-listened often got bits of the story but not all. When retelling the tale they’d forget where they heard it and would attribute it to a friend of a friend when retelling. Thus, in the weird ways of the world, some of the idiotic garbage those papers were, and still are, prone to print wound its way into modern Irish urban mythology.
And those particular papers are pretty cavalier when it comes to politics, Europe, general truths and science. If they hear of something that reflects badly on foreigners they’ll print it whether true or not. The same goes for Europe. And young people. And women. Everything is filtered through the prisms of prejudice and small c conservatism. And the default response is outrage and bluster and labelling your opponents loonies or traitors or enemies of the people.
The same applies to science, technology, engineering and mathematics. You know, the stuff that clever clogs with glasses and white coats get up to. Studies. Tests. Numbers. Results. But of course, it has to fit their small world view. If it doesn’t they’ll not mention it. Like, they’re pretty chilly on global warming and will gleefully report on anything that undermines the Green position.
There’s no effort to establish the wider background. They epitomise what author Ben Goldacre describes as bad science; that is, they almost randomly pick up on a study and basically reprint the press release. They are not alone. Many Irish papers do the same, including broadsheets that fancy themselves as “good on science”. There are times you’d tear your hair out in frustration. And there’s no need for Gaybo or Ryan or any other intermediary to set the urban myth machine in motion, since social media will do the job a thousand times faster than they ever could.
This has proven to be good news for quacks and charlatans and diet gurus (however much they may contradict each other), not to mention a large and growing feelgood, love yourself industry. No more than Dara O Briain, we here on Hog Heights are sceptical about that whole shebang but that’s unlikely to diminish its growth.
You’ll find it in ads for various health products, where the makers cite research that shows that this or that has a beneficial effect, for example the supplement phosphatidylserine. The label on an American version of this product makes a number of statements like “studies have shown the ability of supplemental phosphatidylserine to support healthy cognitive function. It may enhance healthy memory and thinking ability…” But then comes the disclaimer: “These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration”.
But that hasn’t stopped the word getting out like an urban myth. Students preparing for examinations take phosphatidylserine to get an edge, in much the same way as athletes and bodybuilders take ubiquinone, chromium picolinate or essential amino acids, and with a weaker evidential basis. One of the odder things one finds in the small c conservative media is their general sympathy towards alcohol. One would have thought they’d be pursed lipped advocates of Protestant petit bourgeois abstinence, but on the whole they’re not.
Again and again they’ll recycle press releases about studies that tell you that wine will keep your ticker in good shape and keep your grey matter grey, while caffeine will definitely (nudge nudge) put a pep in your step. More urban mythology! Some of it’s true. But not all, and there’s the rub.
The thing is, the same kind of bad science is a feature of the highbrow meeja, except that where the small c conservative press are positive on alcohol, the highbrows are generally negative.
To take one example, the Irish Times is a stern advocate of temperance and restrictions on consumers and the alcohol industry. Regarding one study recently published in the British Medical Journal, it reported the finding that even moderate drinking may cause brain damage, but without even mentioning the BMJ authors’ own caveats. These include that, “the sample… might not be representative of the wider UK population”, and “the analyses with MRI measures were cross sectional, raising the possibility that the associations between brain structure and alcohol were the result of a confounding variable”. And so it continued, to a length of about 600 words.
When the usual suspects – in what looks like a coordinated campaign – then joined in with letters and statements, they didn’t mention the caveats either. They never do. Anti-alcohol evangelists comb the research for facts that reflect badly on alcohol, but never for research that gives the rounded picture. Yet they claim to provide the facts. The thing is, they see the alcohol policy debate as a war between the evangelists and the industry, a kind of extended, court-like adversarial process. As a result, their “facts” are as those used in college debates, court cases and police practice: you adopt your position and try to find evidence that supports it, and ignore anything that doesn’t.
This may be good campaigning, but it’s very bad science. Indeed, partisan and narrow reportage in the mainstream media risks pulling what should be very serious policymaking debate into the realm of urban mythology.
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