Goldacre vs.Sigman and The Biologist: when opinion articles are published in the guise of science

Dr. Aric Sigman is a biologist with fine credentials (a Fellow of the Society of Biology and an Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society) but one who has been seduced by the notoriety and adulation that comes from creating headlines with nonsense science (usually in the Daily Mail – popularly known as the Daily Fail).

Children’s TV diet more harmful than thought 

How super skinny TV stars are harming our health

Curse of the screen: PCs ‘dull children’s brains and should be banned until nine 

Ban TV to protect children’s health, top psychologist tells EU politicians 

How using Facebook could raise your risk of cancer 

Putting baby in nursery ‘could raise its risk of heart disease’

Just the headlines brand Sigman clearly as a publicity seeking “kook”. He has even gone on record – with the Daily Mail of course – to suggest that smacking children can lead to their success!! He may have been a scientist once but has now fallen to become a “celebrity scientist” and appears to be a psychologist suffering from some form of narcissism.

Ben Goldacre is the author of the Bad Science column in Saturday’s Guardian and of the Bad Science website and does not much care for Sigman (good for him).

But now Sigman has taken to publishing his crazy opinions in The Biologist. It is not science and the purpose is publicity and while The Biologist may well like basking in this publicity it degrades its own position as a scientific journal and degrades the work of those who publish real science in the journal.

Goldacre takes Sigman to task in The Guardian:

Last week the Daily Mail and the Today programme took some bait from Aric Sigman, an author of popular sciencey books about the merits of traditional values. “Sending babies and toddlers to daycare could do untold damage to the development of their brains and their future health,” explained the Mail.

These news stories were based on a scientific paper by Sigman in The Biologist. Itmisrepresents individual studies, as Professor Dorothy Bishop demonstrated almost immediately, and it cherry-picks the scientific literature, selectively referencing only the studies that support Sigman’s view. Normally this charge of cherry-picking would take a column of effort to prove, but this time Sigman himself admits it, frankly, in a PDF posted on his own website. Nobody reading The Biologist, or its press release, could possibly have known that the evidence presented was deliberately incomplete. That is, in my opinion, an act of deceit by the journal.  ……

Sigman replies to the criticism also in The Guardian by claiming that his article in the Biologist was not science and was clearly an opinion piece. But this does not wash. It was opinion – and nonsense opinion at that – but he clearly wanted it to be taken as science at least by the popular press to satisfy his narcissistic urges. He whines:

….. columnists and bloggers cannot assume a sense of entitlement over science and dictate to learned societies, their journals and journalists what they should publish, stifling healthy debate.

But bloggers and columnists can certainly demand of journals who claim to be scientific, peer-reviewed journals that they refrain from the politicisation and corruption of science and assure the quality of what they publish. The Biologist needs to clean up its act and cannot just pander to a “celebrity scientist” seeking publicity by passing off nonsense opinion as science. But it is Sigman’s ethics which are in doubt.

Related: How to become a celebrity scientific expert

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