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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Wednesday 15th February 2012

A while ago, I read something about the underlying problem with getting scientific topics properly reported. I can’t recall where I saw it so I’m paraphrasing from memory but it was along the lines of saying that scientific journalism won’t improve until scientists acknowledge that there are some bad scientists and journalists accept that there are bad journalists.

I’ve come across two examples on the same day. One from each side of the issue.

My Google alert for ‘Aristolochia’ referred me to what looked like a scientific paper about new research to remove aristolochic acid (AA) from herbs used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and, thus, render them safe. The Google email referred me to a site called ‘Cancer Research Center’ and a paper called ‘Studies on Reducing the Toxins of Qingmuxiang (Aristolochia Debilis) Containing Aristolochic Acids by Processing Technique’.

That title immediately suggested that the author wasn’t a native English speaker but I determined not to think any less of the work just because of that. When I started to read the ‘abstract’, of which more later, I realised it wasn’t just a lack of ability in English that made this flawed. There is mention of ‘Our research group’ but no named authors of the piece and no indication of any affiliation with an educational or scientific institution. I also thought it odd that a scientific paper would describe an experimental method as ‘fry it with vinegar’.

I looked at some of the other entries and they had the same lack of attribution and absence of references expected from a proper scientific paper. I also found that there was no explanation on the site of who or what the ‘Cancer Research Center’ is. A bit of digging determined that it is run by someone called Wang Xiaofeng from Shanghai in China and has only been around since November last year.

So, it seems an individual has set up a site to write about cancer with no indication of whether they have any qualification or expertise to support their writings. So what? I’m an individual with no qualifications to back up what I write so why do I find the ‘Cancer Research Center’ worrying? Well, that would have to do with the word ‘Abstract’ I mentioned before.

The site has been set up to look like a proper resource for those seeking information about cancer. ‘Abstract’ is the sort of heading you expect to find over brief details of a scientific paper. The paper on AA makes it possible for TCM purveyors to claim that research has shown how to avoid the serious, and often fatal, effects of preparations containing AA and to say that their preparations have been treated in this way.

So, that’s the bad science. What about the bad journalism?

That comes in this story from the BBC about a private company in California that is offering a sniffer dog service to parents who are worried about whether their children are using drugs.

You could argue that it would have been nice if the BBC had chosen to discuss whether this was the best approach to a situation and whether better results wouldn’t be achieved by parents and children talking about the issues surrounding substance use but that’s not my complaint.

My problem with the story was that the notion that dogs can sniff out drugs was accepted without question. This report, looking at results of actual searches in Australia, found that four out of five searches produced false positives. And this trial published in January 2011 found that dogs respond to unintentional cues from their handlers rather than the actual smell of a substance.

The impact of an 80% failure rate on families was, surely, worth exploring. I’d like to have known how the company intended to explain away false positives. When a friend of mine got stopped in an airport, the explanation of the false positive was that he must have been close to someone smoking cannabis and the smell was on his clothes. I do hope the sniffer dog company won’t excuse its failures by saying there were drugs but they’ve been removed.

Accepting that ‘everybody knows’ sniffer dogs work is sloppy journalism, at best.