Tuesday 24 January 2006

Science and reporters.

Watching Channel 5 News last night, I saw their report on this fuss about Alzheimer's drugs. And started shouting at the television. What is it with journalists and science? Here's the important bit of the story:

Andrew Dillon, NICE Chief Executive and Executive Lead for the appraisal, said: "We are acutely aware of our responsibility to help people with Alzheimer's disease secure access to effective treatment. We needed to make the right decision, based on all the relevant evidence.

"By going the extra mile and asking the drug companies to delve deeper into their clinical trial data, we have been able to identify the right way to use these medicines.

"People with Alzheimer's will now receive these drugs when they can help them most."

See? Relevant evidence. Clinical trial data. Any chance of a TV journalist understanding that such things even exist? Nope.

No, the whole thing was, as ever, presented as a conflict between two opposing points of view. On the one hand, we have rigorous scientific analysis of controlled trials of the drugs in question. On the other, we have a press conference given by well known GMTV anchor-woman Fiona Phillips and intellectual television reviewer A A Gill. Who can say which side might be right? It's impossible to say.

They showed an interview with a NICE spokesman, who made the above points: clinical trials have shown that a lot of the patients who are currently being given the drugs are getting no benefit from them whatsoever. The reporter then said, "But some doctors disagree," and they cut to a clip of a doctor explaining that there is going to be a problem with mixed messages, in that, having asked people to look out for the disease and get it diagnosed as early as possible, patients are going to be nonplussed when they're then told, well, you can't have the drugs yet, not till you've had the illness longer. Very true, and a good point, but not in any way a disagreement with the clinical trial data. Shouldn't this be a basic qualification for the job of journalist — the ability to tell whether two statements contradict or agree with each other? Even the ability to tell whether two statements have anything whatsoever to do with each other would be a start.

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