I got some books for Christmas, one of which was inarguably one of the best and most illuminating non-fiction books I’ve ever read. It was Dr. Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science – which I recommend you pick up for £3.50 on Amazon. It’s all about exposing science and health scares for what they all too often are; misunderstood and manufactured nonsense exacerbated by lazy journalists who don’t go deeper than a press release in their search for the latest controversy, devious PRs hoping to promote their clients and people desperate for attention regardless of the truth.
The book also provides a lot of information on the intricacies of the placebo effect, the history of homeopathy and health scares over MRSA and MMR. It’s all presented in an easily digestible way, slowly changing how you look at the media.
Since reading it my usual grumpiness at health fads and medical scares has been crystallised into a more cautious and articulate cynicism – a cynicism I’ve been dying to try out. Today I found a target with a story which appeared on the front page of the Metro newspaper. The headline was “Video gaming leads to surge in rickets."
Metro has 3.7 million readers and it's published by Associated Newspapers Limited - publishers of the Daily Mail - and is available free, every weekday morning, in 14 major UK cities. In terms of copies distributed, it's the UK's third largest newspaper - and yet this morning, it ran a story directly attacking games from a deeply sensationalist viewpoint.
Newcastle University looks like a nice place
The article in question, which appeared on the cover of Metro on Jan 22nd, 2010, is about a rise in the amount of rickets in UK children and lays the blame for the disease squarely at the feet of videogames – mainly because of a quote made by Prof Simon Pearce, a researcher at Newcastle University.
"Kids tend to stay indoors more these days and play on their computers instead of enjoying the fresh air,” said Pearce. "This means their vitamin D levels are worse than in previous years. The number of patients still presenting with symptoms of vitamin D deficiency shows we have a long way to go."
It’s this singular quote which apparently forms the entire focus of the article, because there’s little other factual information that’s truly relevant within the story. There’s mention that Newcastle has around 20 cases of childhood rickets a year and that there’s a 100 cases annually across the UK, but with no figures to compare these against then how can we be sure that there is an actual surge? We can’t even be sure if there’s an increase at all, let alone the massive rise suggested by the article.
Tuna; a good source of vitamin D
The Metro article also does something that Goldacre repeatedly warns of in Bad Science: science stories reported with no information of how the research was actually conducted. That’s a problem here because unless we have some information about how the statistics were gathered then we can’t really judge them at all. It may be that there’s something very specific about the area or children themselves which makes them susceptible to rickets. It may be, as a rather gruesome example, that five of those 20 children are all in the same family and could have been subjected to abuse of either malnutrition or imprisonment. Assuming that the number of rickets cases last year was constant except for this single family then the figures could be manipulated to represent a 25 percent rise in rickets in the area. All of course, without the involvement of videogames.
That’s an extreme and unlikely scenario, admittedly – but the only way to be sure we can discount it is if we’re presented with critical information such as how long a timeline the research looked at. In fact, in the full press release accompanying the research, there are other issues mentioned which could play a factor, such as “skin pigmentation…concealing clothing, being elderly or institutionalised, people who are obese and renal and liver disease” which all increase the risk of rickets. None of these are mentioned in the article.
These might seem like minor quibbles, but they really aren’t. It’s exactly this type of controversy spinning which forces the games industry to be viewed with such suspicion by the mainstream. In fact, who’s to say that videogames specifically are to blame? If the kids were inside reading then that could create a similar problem to the one Dr. Simon Pearce is alluding to. So too would the fact that parents are so scared of big cities that they deliberately keep children inside where it is safe. Why drag video games into the matter when it could just as easily be shoddy parenting, books or the fact that England is nearly always overcast?