Fishoil Scam hits news eventually

Well, you almost heard it here first. In an unusual turn of events, the always educational Ben Goldacre has managed to scoop the BBC with the ridicule of the fish oil “trial” in Durham.

On the BBC news website, there is an article titled “Fish oil brain study laughable” (yeah, great headline…) that sort of breaks the story. Interestingly, in typical BBC fashion, they are very reluctant to actually say anything really negative. As a result we get things like:

Durham County Council said children who took the Omega-3 supplements during the school year performed better in exams.
It claimed out of 3,000 students who took part, almost a third showed significant improvements in GCSEs.
Dr Ben Goldacre said it was bad science because there was no separate study of pupils not taking fish oil. The council admits the trial was not definitive.

Now that is so wet as to be almost pointless. It barely qualifies for news when you see the real idiocy that has taken place in the Durham County Council offices.

Keen to show both sides of an argument, the BBC further waters down its news with:

However Dr Goldacre added that just because the study was poorly conducted, that did not mean there was no benefit to taking fish oil supplements.
“I do think it’s possible that fish oils might be helpful to improve school performance in children.”

What? Seriously? I would love to find the citation for that but in my short search now, I have failed. If you find it please let me know.

As the BBC seems so reluctant, I will give you some of Ben Goldacre’s quotes:

Dave Ford [promoter] said he knew the results would be positive before it even began. I’m not surprised: this “trial” was flawed by design from the outset.

Obviously the BBC dont want to know about this bit of bad PR for Durham. How about this even more relevant one:

This is appalling. 2,168 of their subjects dropped out [leaving 832] of the trial. They must count these people in the results. It is incompetent not to do so. This makes the rest of their claimed results even more meaningless.

Of the remaining 832, 80% are claimed to have done better than some unknown benchmark and this is heralded as a success…  Why on earth did the BBC decide to ignore that blinder?

Worse still, the BBC tries to explain the study off as if it was legitimate after all with this: [emphasis mine]

Dave Ford, from the council’s children and young people’s services department, carried out the initiative with the help of an educational psychologist.
They matched students who showed improved results to those, of similar abilities and backgrounds, who did not take the tablets.
However, the council explained that there was no controlled study of those children who were not given supplements as part of the study, which took place in the school year ending in summer 2007.
Mr Ford said: “This study has produced some interesting and possibly exciting issues that could be the basis for future scientific trials.
“There seem to be some very clear indications that pupils taking the supplement do significantly better.”

Mr Ford added that the council made no claim the results of its GCSE study could be attributed to Omega-3 supplements alone.

By Odin that is infuriating. It is complete nonsense. The BBC are not doing a service by showing both sides of an argument (sound familiar?). They are not providing the UK public with news by minimising Ben Goldacre’s quotes and emphasisng the woo.

This is a hideous combination of poor journalism and very bad science.

BBC – Shame on you.

One thought on “Fishoil Scam hits news eventually

  1. They’ve taken Ben Goldacre’s quote and turned it into a ‘balanced’ he-said-she-said science story… If he write about that on Saturday then we might find out the answer to the Bad Science Halting Problem.

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