What if we could challenge the scientific and medical claims made on products, adverts and websites? That’s exactly what the charity Sense About Science wants us to do – will you join them in asking for evidence?
If we don’t ask for evidence, people and companies will get away with making misleading claims.
At Sense About Science, we know the cost of false claims. Take the husband of a multiple sclerosis sufferer who told us that he wished he’d known the questions to ask a clinic offering unproven stem cell treatments. He might have spent the thousands of pounds, and the last few months of his wife’s life, on a holiday instead of chasing false hope.
We’ve launched an Ask for Evidence campaign to encourage everyone, every consumer, citizen and patient, to ask for evidence for every claim they encounter.
We’re bombarded with claims
Scientific and medical claims appear everywhere: on advertising material, product websites, advice columns, campaign statements, celebrity health fads and policy announcements.
Where there is regulation, in advertising or trading standards for example, regulators are overworked and overwhelmed. Organisations get around adjudications with small tweaks, and the same claims crop up again and again.
What are groups like patient support forums supposed to do when people pose as members to promote unproven treatments – police every post made on their forums? That probably wouldn’t work, even if we wanted it to. The only solution is to give everybody the questions to ask for themselves.
You don’t need to be a scientist
This doesn’t mean you have to go back to school and become an expert in everything. You don’t have to become an epidemiologist to ask penetrating questions about claims made about mobile phones and cancer, for example. You can ask whether evidence exists, how conclusions are reached, whether there have been fair tests, whether results have been peer reviewed, replicated or challenged.
Asking questions in whatever way we can is a conversation that society needs to start having. People are already doing this – organisations like Which? scrutinise the evidence for product claims, medical research charities make it their business to take on claims that hit the headlines – but this is fragile, fragmented work. It would be much less fragile if everybody joined in.
There are stories of people’s evidence hunting on our website. Tamlyn asked companies for evidence on supplements his mum uses. Sarah asked a company to back up its claims that head massages would improve childrens’ academic performance.
These evidence hunters have described how surprised they were that companies didn’t expect to be asked and often don’t have evidence to hand – when Jennifer asked Marks & Spencer’s for the evidence behind their “MRSA resistant” pyjamas it took an age to get an answer (the answer was that tests are underway).
The more of us who ask for evidence, the more every company, politician, exaggerating scientist, advertiser and journalist will expect to be asked about any claim they make. You don’t need to be a scientist to scrutinise claims and hold people making them to account.