Science Media Centre: A lesson in
is a very, very long background story to this cartoon. I will
my best to be brief, but please do bear wtih
me. First of
all, let me translate the Latin Spell.
AD VERECUNDIAM: Argument from authority (or appeal to
where something is purported to be true, simply because a knowledgeable
and well-reputed person has said it.
In July 2017, I happened across this article on the Newsweek Website: “BBC,
SSRIS AND ‘A PRESCRIPTION FOR MURDER’: EXPERTS SLAM PANORAMA
DOCUMENTARY ON ANTIDEPRESSANTS”
contains this quote from Carmine Pariante, Professor of Biological
Psychiatry, King’s College London’s Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology
know very well that every time an alarm reduces the rates of
prescription for antidepressants, suicide rates increase, including in
adolescent and young adults.”
quick Google search traced the exact quote back to a press release from
the Science Media Centre (SMC) :
comments on whether antidepressants can lead people to become a
murderer, as is being reported in advance of the upcoming Panorama
programme ‘A Prescription for Murder?’”
the Newsweek journalist had sourced Pariante’s quote from the SMC
heard a lot about this UK based Registered Charity, none of it good,
but I wanted to know more. A little rooting around their website put me
in the picture.
science hits the news agenda, it’s our job to pass on to journalists as
much accurate information as we can, as quickly as possible. In order
to do this we send out quotes from experts…”
Tell me more…
quality of our experts is important to us. The SMC recruits scientists,
engineers and others who work for respected institutions, publish in
peer-reviewed journals and have a track record of quality research in
their specialist field.”
And what is your mission?
MISSION: “To provide, for the benefit of the public and policymakers,
accurate and evidence-based information about science and engineering
through the media, particularly on controversial and headline news
stories when most confusion and misinformation occurs.”
I was pretty certain that Pariante’s words were neither accurate nor
evidence based, but the SMC press release provided no references to
back up his bold and startling claim. So, my first port of call was
Prof Pariante himself. I sent an e-mail asking him to point me at the
evidence. In reply, he sent me a link to this paper:
evidence on the effects of regulators' suicidality warnings on SSRI
prescriptions and suicide in children and adolescents. Gibbons RD1,
Brown CH, Hur K, Marcus SM, Bhaumik DK, Erkens JA, Herings RM, Mann JJ.
(Am J Psychiatry 2007)
et al 2007. I know this paper. It is notorious amongst many leading
academics and doctors in the field. In the words of Consultant
Psychiatrist Sami Timimi: “To
describe this as ‘junk science’ would be an insult to junk science.”
he’s right. Check it out for yourself, you’ll see.
I e-mailed Pariante back…
“Gibbons et al? Seriously?”
No response. And so, I turned my attention to the SMC. How would this
Registered Charity with a mission to provide “accurate and evidence
based information about science” respond to being challenged?
first step was to track down the SMC Complaints Procedure. After
searching the website in vain, I put in a polite request for it by
e-mail. No reply. I tried again. Still no reply. I phoned the contact
you the person who e-mailed about this?”
we don’t actually have a Complaints Procedure, but we’re discussing
your request, and will e-mail you soon.”
enough, later that day I received an e-mail – a very helpful e-mail.
would be happy to receive your complaint, review it internally and pass
it onto the Trustees if appropriate.”
I diligently gathered together the evidence, put it to them, and firmly
stated my case:
“The Science Media Centre bills
itself as a reputable and reliable source for journalists [...] Journalists
and the public rightfully expect to trust and rely on the information
issued by the SMC. The assertion made by Prof. Carmine Pariante, and
endorsed by the SMC, is misleading and without foundation.
Desired outcome: An
appropriate response would be for the SMC to issue a public
‘corrections and clarifications’ notice (similar to those issued by
editors of mainstream newspapers) on the SMC website.”
weeks later, I received this response from a Senior Press Manager.
you for your email on this contentious issue. We have considered your
complaint closely and there are a few points for me to
we are not scientific experts and so do not endorse comments. This is
evident in our work as we rely on and issue the views of individual
scientists and, as disagreements between scientists often occur, we
frequently issue sets of comments containing differing views.
if a scientist feels they have made a factual error in a statement then
we are happy to make amendments on our website, and have done so
previously. We have not been alerted to such a concern on this occasion.
if other scientists inform us that an expert has made an error, or
appears to have missed key evidence, then we may decide to speak to the
expert involved to discuss their response. As part of our routine work
we have sent Prof Pariante’s comments to many experts across the UK and
none have raised any concerns, indeed the only responses I have
received have been supportive.
In result, we will not be taking
any action in response to your complaint.”
A masterful piece of institutional flimflam, neatly sidestepping all
the evidence I had so carefully presented, and wilfully failing to
address my central point that Pariante’s statement is misleading and
I pressed on. Next step, a letter to the Board of Trustees. This time,
I gathered additional evidence from specialists with recognised
expertise in this area, and took a different tack to re-state my case.
“The Science Media Centre is an
independent charity with the purpose of boosting public trust in
science [...] In the event that
circulated by the SMC is challenged by experts as being neither
accurate nor evidence-based, it is the responsibility of the
organisation to conduct a full and open investigation into the
For the SMC to withdraw the above statement made by Prof Pariante, and
issue a public ‘corrections and clarifications’ notice on its website
to inform journalists and the public of the withdrawal.”
The response was a long time coming. Worth the wait? Well, see for
name is Jonathan Baker and I am chair of the Trustees of the Science
our autumn meeting on October 20, the Trustees considered the complaint
you made about an SMC roundup relating to a BBC programme about
anti-depressants. Because you were not satisfied with the initial
response you received, your complaint was referred to the Trustees for
discussion and resolution.
there is a contentious or new science-related issue in the public
debate, or about to enter it, the SMC circulates the details to as many
experts in the field as it can to solicit their responses and opinions.
Those responses are then collated and circulated to journalists to help
them understand and/or cover the story. This element of the SMC's work
is described on the website: "One of the other ways the SMC ensures
that the media have easy access to scientists and their views is by
offering journalists a variety of comments from scientists reacting to
the latest research."
roundup is no more or less than that. Inclusion of a quote from a
scientist does not imply any form of endorsement by the SMC. From your
complaint, it appears your (sic) believe that it does, or should. But
the roundup is based on the fundamental conviction that it is the
scientists who are the experts, not the
this context, the Trustees wanted to know the answers to three
questions before deciding whether or not the SMC was at fault in this
Professor Pariante a qualified and credible person to express an
opinion on this issue? We believe that he was.
his views accurately reported by the SMC? We believe that they were.
his views requested on their own, or as one contribution among many
from scientists with relevant expertise and credentials? In
keeping with the nature of roundups, as set out above, Professor
Pariante’s response was one of several received and included in the
roundup. Given all of this, the view of the Trustees is that the
proper, indeed standard procedure was followed in this case, and no
further action is required.”
with that, I yield. Game over.
ARGUMENTUM AD VERECUNDIAM.