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Science is hard, and best left to professionals (the same may be said for journalism)

It might seem a bit undemocratic, but science, like medicine or dentistry, is a profession. One doesn’t become a scientist by fiat but by education and training. I am not a scientist. I apply science. My colleague Dr. Gorski is a scientist (as well as physician). He understands in a way that I never will the practical process of science—funding, experimental design, statistics. While I can read and understand scientific studies in my field, I cannot design and run them (but I probably could in a limited way with some additional training). Even reading and understanding journal articles is difficult, and actually takes training (which can be terribly boring, but I sometimes teach it anyway).

So when I read a newspaper article about science or medicine, I usually end up disappointed—sometimes with the science, and sometimes with the reporting. A recent newspaper article made me weep for both. Local newspapers serve an important role in covering news in smaller communities, and are often jumping off points for young, talented journalists. Or sometimes, not so much.

The article was in the Darien (CT) Times. The headline reads, in part, “surveys refute national Lyme disease findings.” Epidemiologic studies, such as surveys, are very tricky. They require a firm grounding in statistics, among other things. You must know what kind of question to ask, how many people to ask, how to choose these people, etc, etc, etc. So what institution conducted this groundbreaking survey on Lyme disease?

Actually, they are quoting the famous work of one Kent Haydock, chairman of the Deer Management Committee. But I’m sure he outlined his methods carefully. Or not.

Haydock conducted:

[T]wo surveys — which polled 41 Darien households after a showing of the Lyme Disease film, Under Our Skin, at the Darien Library last month… . In the 41 households that completed the questionnaire, 47 total Lyme disease cases were reported. In 64 percent of those cases, the patient had relapses after an initial Lyme treatment, which required additional treatment for a chronic or long-term conditions.

So, Haydock showed the agitprop chronic Lyme advocacy film Under Our Skin to local families, presumably not selected at random, and then asked them if they had signs of Lyme disease and if it was ruining their lives. Not surprisingly, the answers to both questions were “yes” a remarkably high percentage of the time.

His conclusion: the surveys “show that Lyme not only exists in great numbers, but also in debilitating, chronic and long-term cases.”

This is not epidemiology. This is not science. This is an uninformed opinion dressed up with meaningless numbers. If you get together a group of people who are interested in Lyme disease, show them a propaganda film, and query them about it, the only thing you’ve “measured” is your ability to count people who come to a movie and hold a certain belief. If there were any valid conclusions to be drawn (and with these numbers, there probably aren’t) it’s that many people in this small group think they have Lyme disease—and even that’s over-reaching.

It’s bad enough that the deer commissioner did this. But arguably, it’s much worse that the reporter and editor published it. The only thing this accomplishes is fanning the fears of the readers.

Posted in: Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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