The Director’s Cut

A while ago I wrote a piece for GUM (Glasgow University Magazine) as part of a collaborative effort between themselves and The GIST. Due to the word count limitation, I had to cut the article down to 800 words (feel free to read it; pages 34-35). There was originally a plan to publish the longer article (which I like a little more) on The GIST’s website but As I’ve handed off most of my responsibilities to a new generation of GISTers I suspect that this article will fall to the bottom of their to-do list and I’ve decided to post the full article here. I hope you enjoy it.

Dying For Clarity

How do you begin to respond to an emotional story of loss and tragedy when you think that the methods used to tell the story are wrong? Not only wrong, but an affront to science? Couple this with the fact that the tragic story is conveyed via a heart-felt documentary told by a grieving father and you have a delicate situation on your hands. Essentially, arguing against this story’s conclusions will make you out to be a heartless monster who wilfully ignores the plight of others to focus on “mere” facts. None of this, however, changes the point that the methods used are wrong (or at least inappropriate for this context). Being part of a growing number of people that harp on about badly communicated science at every chance they get, I must say something.

Roaccutane - Image credits: Jpogi e André Teixeira Lima via wikicommons

Roaccutane – Image credits: Jpogi e André Teixeira Lima via wikicommons

In November 2012 I sat down to watch a documentary on BBC three called Dying for clear skin. The show focused on the use of the drug Roaccutane as a treatment for acne. Many readers I’m sure will be familiar with this drug and maybe even the documentary itself (if not, it’s available on YouTube). Very quickly the show centred on the more serious potential side-effects of the medication and told a heart-wrenching story of suicide that could perhaps, have been triggered by taking this drug. With the BBC being an institution desperate to provide balance on all its topics I had suspected that this emotional-rollercoaster would be countered at some stage by a good scientific argument to provide evidence for or against the banning of this drug, which was ultimately the point of the show. Sadly however, I was disappointed. Instead, the show relied almost exclusively on personal accounts to paint a picture that didn’t accurately reflect the whole story. By cherry-picking the personal accounts of a few they told an inherently biased story and although I suspect that this approach made for excellent television, it effectively removed the science from what was a valid scientific argument.

The personal accounts used to tell the story here were touching and at some points wholly concerning. But it’s important not to get drawn into these stories without further checking the facts (something I suspect most viewers wouldn’t do). When I checked some of the sources I was further disappointed. One of the people interviewed in the documentary, a 22 year old man named Stefan Lay, told his tale of how Roaccutane led to feelings of depression and sexual dysfunction. He appeared as an intelligent young man with an honest story to tell. However when I later found his YouTube channel I quickly realised that he is a person who not only hates Roaccutane but seemingly all prescription drugs. His YouTube channel is called FireYourDoctor, where he tries to discourage people from taking any medication whatsoever. With the dawning of this fact I began to worry about this person’s motives and I can’t help but question his inclusion in the documentary. The makers and presenter of the documentary found him by searching online and selected him on the basis of his YouTube videos. Videos where he expresses views like this:

But I do believe there is a cause. Like, people don’t get cancer for no reason. I don’t think so anyway. I think they’ve got to be a bit run down, or their body has been playing up and they’ve not really noticed the signs of that and they’re not taking their health seriously or they’re not eating well enough… I don’t think the cancer just pops out from nowhere.[1]

Oh dear. Undeterred, the film-makers interviewed him and used the footage where he stated that Roaccutane had caused his inability to have sex and caused him to “feel dead inside”. Yet in his own review of the show, posted on his channel, he stated that these side-effects weren’t as bad as reported and that in fact, he was still able to have sex.[2] I suspect that he was used as an interviewee because he was young, photogenic and told a story that suited the film makers (perhaps after some editing or careful scene selection).

After a few more personal accounts the documentary finally focuses on the evidence that is available in an attempt to link Roaccutane to depression or suicidal tendencies. In the 2 minutes (out of 57) dedicated to this, the facts were glossed over as irrelevant (presumably as they didn’t agree with the points being made) and fobbed off as incomplete. Sadly the film missed its chance to have a serious debate about the drug by ignoring the science. The fact is this. Out of half a million people who have been prescribed Roaccutane worldwide, reports of nine people committing suicide whilst taking the drug were made to the drug’s manufacturer. To add some context to this, that is 88% lower than the UK average (17 per 100,000 population[3]). Not only this, but the film didn’t properly explain to its audience that these suicides could have been caused by any number of different reasons. You’ll hear it time and time again; correlation does not equal causation.

Roaccutane description

What is very disheartening though is that I think there is a serious debate to be had here. Roaccutane usage is surprisingly common. The drug is not without its (proven) side-effects,[4] the mechanism of action is not fully understood and, worryingly, it appears that this “last option” treatment is sometimes used earlier than needs be.[5] Yet all these points were forgotten in favour of the emotionally-manipulative story of an unproven link to suicide made through the use of questionable and unscientific sources. The calls that came from the makers of this documentary (and some viewers) to ban Roaccutane were reactionary and misinformed. This sort of knee-jerk reaction to an emotional story is unsurprising but the fact that it’s the aim of the documentary is discouraging to say the least. This should have been a scientific argument. Scientific evidence is how we decide if drugs get their licence. Shouldn’t the story have followed the narrative that Roaccutane usage is on the increase, and GPs and dermatologists need a reminder that they are prescribing an incredibly potent drug to potentially vulnerable users? Maybe a call to monitor side-effects much more closely would have been sensible. Perhaps tackling a blasé attitude to the drug would have been much more productive. If nothing else, a call for more studies and more information would have been the logical thing to do. However that’s not what BBC three thinks its viewers want to see and instead they peddled a heart-felt but irrelevant story to an audience it clearly doesn’t respect enough. Not everybody tunes into the BBC to watch ‘Snog, Marry, Avoid?’. Come on BBC, you can do better.

[1] http://bit.ly/rmMxAl

[2] http://bit.ly/WdqYTs

[3] http://bit.ly/10Pb5XS

[4] http://bit.ly/16GOqfl

[5] http://bbc.in/19KgvnD and http://bbc.in/V1mhI1

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The Public Execution of Jonah Lehrer

Yesterday Twitter whipped itself into a frenzied-bloodbath of moral-outrage; nothing new there then. But for once I was quite willing to sit down and follow the twitter feed as witty put-down and vitriolic lampooning tumbled down my screen. Why? Well because the subject was Jonah Lehrer and what seemed to be his ‘Lance Armstrong-flavoured apology’. For those that don’t know who Jonah Lehrer is or what he’s apologising for I refer you to Michael Moynihan’s exposé in Tablet and Steve Myers’ piece in Poynter. If however you’re looking for the abridged version, I’d say this: Lehrer invented quotes, lied about doing it, ignored criticism and advice regarding his mistakes and profited from it, all under the guise of being a great science communicator. In doing so he betrayed the trust of many readers and fellow science communicators. With all that said, this is not what people were getting so worked up about yesterday. All that moral-outrage took place last year. This year’s angry tweets were concerned with his lunchtime presentation at a Knight Foundation conference. (FYI the video starts at about an hour into the feed. You will need to watch this video to know what I’m talking about.)

Jonah Lehrer

Jonah Lehrer. Image credit: Kris Krüg (creative commons license)

Somewhat ironically, Knight Foundation invited Lehrer to give his presentation under the umbrella-theme of ‘decisions’ and how to avoid making poor ones but at the same time allowing Lehrer a platform to talk about what he’d done. So far so tenuous, but we’ll proceed.

Coming to this video straight from the twitter-storm I’ll say that I don’t think I was prepared to warm to his “apology”. Yet thanks to Twitter’s ubiquitous nature I suspect that even if I just happened to catch the presentation without the backlash fresh in my mind, I would have drawn the same conclusions in due course. That is to say, the presentation ended up feeling like a 30 minute long squirming, narcissistic non-apology. It was like watching a Scooby-doo styled bad guy intellectualising the phrase “I would’ve gotten away with it…”. Lehrer is a very intelligent fellow and on the surface of things his points seem reasonable, but with a moment of reflection the presentation leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. I worried for a second that if it wasn’t for the live-feed of twitter in the corner, people in the room might actually have bought it (it’s all too easy to just listen to the content and not question it). However, Knight Foundation let an uncensored stream of tweets quietly take down the “apology” before it had even reached the Q&A section. So while Lehrer was peddling his contrived non-apology, the audience had cause to question what he was saying.

Like a bad joke following a tragedy, I suspect that Lehrer’s apology was all a bit ‘too soon’. I couldn’t take it seriously. To me it seems apparent that he hasn’t had enough time to truly think about what he’s done and I got the feeling that he’d been thinking more about how to ‘come back’ as opposed to considering his mistakes properly. Reading between the lines a little, it seems that Lehrer was saying he’d do it all again if he thought he could get away with it:

…unless I hold myself accountable in public, then the lessons will not last.

He even said that if he didn’t stick to his new rules that he might “find a better way to fail”. Presumably Lehrer would rather expend his efforts inventing more and more plausible lies as opposed to just telling the truth. While Lehrer keeps a cool exterior, I think these statements are the most telling (there were quite a few other points that we could pick over too by the way, but let’s not flog a dead horse). What he implies throughout his presentation is that he doesn’t trust himself to never do this again. (Hopefully future editors take careful note of this.) It leads you to think that the only thing he’s truly sorry for, is getting caught. You might arrive at the same conclusion too by considering those quotes and also by thinking a little more deeply about his FBI story. He tried to link together his own short-comings and the thought that serious consequences can be avoided by sticking to tough new SOPs. Only, his new rules aren’t ‘tough’ SOPs but common practice in everyday journalism; basic common sense if you will. His mistakes weren’t simple oversight and accidental errors but wilful decisions taken to deceive, plagiarise and lie. All this (presumably) to sell books and further his career.

This takes us to the inescapable focus of the tweeting masses. Not only did Lehrer profit from his many lies and plagiarism but he’s profiting even now by talking about why he lied and plagiarised and how he’s (perhaps) never going to do it again. $20,000 (US dollars) for less than an hour’s presentation was, as it turns out, compensation for today’s charade. Knight Foundation wasted a lot of money today for a presentation that was, in my opinion, disingenuous and ultimately embarrassing for both parties. A costly price to pay. Though I’m left asking myself if $20K isn’t the only price the Knight Foundation will pay for today’s little chit-chat? Whilst money can be recouped from generous investors, credibility is a much rarer commodity and I think that they may well have just given up more than they bargained for.

Update

OK, so I’ve not really used this blog to its fullest potential…Or really much at all. However, that’s because over the last two years I’ve had one thing on my mind: Thesis. I’ve been trying to finish my PhD and as soon as it’s done and out of the way (hopefully with a positive outcome) I’ll focus much more on the science communication aspect of what I do. I’d like to set out here the things that I want to achieve so that there’s a record of how I should be spending my time! So if in another year I’ve got a grand total of four posts on this blog, those of you who know me, can kick my ass.
First, a little background. I originally got into sci comm (science communication to the uninitiated) to do podcasting. I don’t really rate my writing skills (even though I’ve spent the last two years almost exclusively writing) but I figured that I could get my point across by chatting with people. This leads me nicely onto what I want to do. Either through this blog, The GIST or what ever media outlet will let me abuse their resources I would like to do the following (and do it properly);

  • Do some regular podcasting
  • write, film and edit a short documentary
  • Begin to focus my style as a communicator – I’m thinking that humour is something that few people bring to professional sci comm just now
  • Find something genuinely chemistry-based to talk about, be it fundamentals or cutting-edge

This isn’t a manifesto or anything of that ilk, I just want to light a fire under my ass and hopefully construct some external pressure to force me into achieving some or all of the things I’ve set out to do. That’s why I’ve gone on to use twitter and other social media things, that’s why I came back to this blog and it’s why I’m writing this. Hopefully I can make this count.

 

Anyway, keep your eyes peeled and your ears to the ground and above all else, science your face in!

 

Craig – the science your face in guy!

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