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News and Comment

Understanding the status of evidence

10 October 2011

Jaime Earnest is a member of the VoYS network and a PhD student at the University of Glasgow. Here she comments on a recent debate between Aric Sigman and Ben Goldacre.

"I’ve followed with interest the recent exchange between Aric Sigman and Ben Goldacre regarding Sigman’s recent article in The Biologist. In his article, Sigman referred to research showing that levels of cortisol (a hormone released in response to stress) increase during the day in children who attend daycare and highlighted other research showing negative effects of cortisol on health. Ben Goldacre criticised Sigman’s article as cherry picking research that showed a negative effect. Sigman responded to Goldacre by stressing it was clear he was presenting an opinion piece and not a scientific review and it was so fine that he had only referred to certain research findings.

For me, this highlights why it is important to understand how to identify reliable information. While Aric Sigman may express an opinion on the health effects of daycare for the sake of encouraging both public and scientific debate on the subject, it is important to distinguish opinion supported by selected evidence, and a systematic review that uses rigorous scientific methods to ensure an objective conclusion that is consistent with scientific consensus on a subject. Rather than selecting a few studies to support an opinion, systematic reviews allow us to pool and analyse all available evidence and use only that of a sufficient standard to reach conclusions.

I think it is important that we have free and open debates about issues such as childcare, and opinion pieces are a great way of doing that. But writers need to be clear about the status of the evidence they are referring to so the public can reach an informed conclusion."


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