Sunday, April 26, 2009

Bias in the New Scientist

Last month, the New Scientist published an interview with psychiatrist Simon Wessely. Wessely has made a name for himself promoting the view that people with ME/CFS -- as well as Gulf War syndrome, fibromyalgia, and irritable bowel syndrome -- are just thinking themselves sick.

In his own words:
Often there is an organic trigger like glandular fever. That's the start, and usually most people get over it, albeit after some weeks or months. But others can get trapped in vicious circles of monitoring their symptoms, restricting their activities beyond what is necessary and getting frustrated or demoralised. This causes more symptoms, more concerns and more physical changes, so much so that what started it all off is no longer what is keeping it going.
You can read the whole article here. The telling bit is not so much in anything it says, but in what it doesn't say:
  1. Though Wessely states that there's no organic cause beyond the "infective trigger," he provides no evidence to back up his claim.

  2. Wessely fails to mention the mountain of evidence that ME/CFS is a biological disease.
And then it gets interesting.

Following the Web version of this article are, at this writing, 562 comments. The thread began on March 15 and it's still going. The vast majority of commenters vehemently disagree with everything Wessely said. If you don't have the hour or two it would take to carefully read all the comments, here's a sampling.

From Michael Tomlinson, in response to Wessely's assertion that severely affected ME/CFS sufferers need to exercise:
Most of us have tried anything they could. We've tried exercising, physio, chiro, massage, weird diets, acupuncture... you name it! ... All exercise did for me was add to the number of limbs that are inflamed; and this was carefully supervised by a fully trained personal trainer. I had to stop after 18 months or I wouldn't be able to use my arms at all! ...

I was incredibly fit before - I rowed in the head of the river, did competitive downhill skiing, rock climbing at a high level, bike riding, swimming, and more. I can no longer do any of those activities. Can you really understand how horrible it is to be unable to do those things? That's why I'm depressed! It's NOT the other way around.
From Balbuie, challenging New Scientist to interview biomedical scientists about the disease:
I could suggest scientists like Dr Judy A. Mikovits, Director of Research at the Whittemore Peterson Institute for Immune Disease in Universtiy of Nevada, Reno. Here is some of WPI's latest work:

Cytokine Volume 43, Issue 3 September 2008, page 245, Special Issue, Abstracts and Reviews

"Our analysis has revealed distinct pathogen associated signatures with significant 5-200 - fold differences between patients and controls for the inflammatory cytokines Il-8, IP-10, MIP-a and MIP-1b, as well as the procytokines IL-6, TNFa and Il-1b ..."

And also Dr Jonathan Kerr, Sir Joseph Hotung Clinical Senior Lecturer in Inflammation, St George's University of London who has published several groundbreaking papers on gene expression in ME/CFS.
So here's where I'm confused: Why is New Scientist presenting the Wessely angle exclusively? As the above commenter noted, they could have found any number of scientists who would have been happy to provide an alternate view.

If they couldn't be bothered to procure quotes from other scientists, how about a few probing questions for their subject? For instance, how does Wessely respond to the biomedical research demonstrating that the disease is organic? Or, if we know that there are legitimate serious chronic illnesses -- multiple sclerosis, for example -- what makes ME/CFS different?

Who knows. Maybe New Scientist just figured that stories about how people's own minds make them sick are sexier than stories about pathogens and inflammatory cytokines. But standing by their flimsy, biased work after getting hammered by their readership for a solid month? It doesn't make sense.

So what now? Will it help for us to add to the still-growing list of comments? To contact an organization like MediaWatch and try to get them to nudge the journal into doing the right thing?

Your suggestions are welcome.


DeppityBob said...

But it's not as sexy as swine flu.

In all seriousness, though, media want audiences. I wish I weren't so cynical, but more readers see ads when they visit articles designed to provoke them, and readers are more likely to visit articles when they are deliberately provocative. In other words, it's entirely possible that the New Scientist is just trying to generate hits, which it obviously has.

If this is their genuine position, though, I don't understand.

Bodhi said...

"Why is New Scientist presenting the Wessely angle exclusively?"

Have you tried doing a search on NS to see what other articles they've carried on CFS? Here are some more from the first page of results (excluding comments):

Chronic fatigue is not all in the mind: Differences in gene expression are found in the immune cells of those affected, which could lead to blood tests for the disorder, and perhaps treatments.

The reality of chronic fatigue syndrome: Once derided as yuppie flu, the physical evidence for CFS, also known as ME, is beginning to stack up.

The trouble with ME: For the past decade sufferers of chronic fatigue syndrome have fought to get their condition recognised as a biological disease. Now scientific research seems to be backing their claims.

Chronic fatigue syndrome can kill official

For the first time, chronic fatigue syndrome has been recorded as a cause of death in the UK.

This is evidence of bias?

cinderkeys said...

Good on the New Scientist for reporting the biomedical angle previously. I'd seen the 2005 article, but not the others. So ... why didn't they check their own archives for this story?

I have no problem with them interviewing this guy. I have to raise an eyebrow or two when they don't bother to question him about any of his assertions. (There are no people with ME/CFS in France? Really?)

This read like a press release.