Sense about Science urge people to ‘Ask for Evidence’

Consumers, voters and patients should demand evidence for scientific and medical claims to counter a tide of misinformation, say leading scientists and public figures.

Derren Brown, Jonathan Ross and Dara Ó Briain have joined with representatives of Mumsnet, patient groups and science bodies to back a national campaign, launched on 14th September by the science education charity Sense About Science. Its aim is to get more members of the public asking advertisers, companies, government bodies and other organisations to set out the evidence they have for their claims.

The public are bombarded with scientific and medical information: on advertising material, product websites, advice columns, campaign statements, celebrity health fads and policy announcements. Even where there is some regulation, in advertising or trading standards, claims that are not based on good evidence keep reappearing. The only way to address this is to equip people to ask questions about evidence for themselves. Over 5,000 scientists and hundreds of organisations are now on hand to help.

Tracey Brown, Director of Sense About Science, said: “We have been working with scientists and the public for some years to challenge misinformation, whether about the age of the earth, the causes of cancer, wifi radiation or homeopathy for malaria. It’s often very effective but no sooner is attention turned elsewhere than misleading claims creep back up again. To make a permanent difference, we need the public to be evidence hunters. We are delighted to have so many high-profile people asking their audiences to do this. Organisations that seek to persuade people about products or policies should expect questions about their evidence.”

Lord Krebs, Chair of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, said: “Everyone should have a mental tool kit for interpreting what they read in the media, see on TV, hear on the radio, or hear politicians or ‘experts’ claiming. A key part of the toolkit is asking for the evidence, and understanding how good the evidence is. Does prison deter re-offenders? Does wearing a cycle helmet help to reduce your chance of serious injury? Does culling badgers help to control TB? Does class size influence the academic achievement of pupils? Confident assertions are often made in the evidence-free zone, or are based on very weak evidence.”

Derren Brown, Illusionist, said: “To not just mindlessly believe what we’re told, but to know how to question and test a claim, has lifted us from the Dark Ages. And when the untested assertions of health products and celebrity endorsements, of psychics and faith healers, of politicians, religious leaders and journalists go routinely unquestioned, we are put at risk. But we need the understanding and the tools to question these claims in order know what we should believe. This campaign offers those resources to anyone wanting to know how to find out the truth.”

Síle Lane, Sense About Science: “In our experience, patients and consumers have been very effective at holding organisations to account for what they claim. People don’t, for example, have to become an epidemiologist to ask searching questions about the status of claims regarding mobile phones and cancer. They can ask whether evidence exists, how conclusions have been reached, whether there has been a fair test, whether results have been peer reviewed, replicated or challenged.”

The campaign is being launched alongside publication of results from an Ipsos MORI study conducted for Sense About Science, which found that over half of the British public understands that science is a process of testing and questioning.