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Ask for Evidence

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How to do it

Distorted and misleading scientific claims appear anywhere and everywhere. They pull the wool over people’s eyes and undermine science. You can do something about it.

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Have a look at our 'Read before you ask' blog to see who you should ask, what questions to ask and how best to go about it.

You can ask penetrating questions about evidence, whatever your experience. You just need an inquisitive mind and a desire to stand up for science in public life.

What could you do?

You might find the person making the claim has good evidence to back it up. The more people ask, the more a company will expect to be asked so they’ll make evidence available and think more deeply about how they present claims in the future.

If they don’t have evidence they shouldn’t be making those claims and someone should hold them to account for it.

How do you ask for evidence?

If product claims are not supported by evidence get in touch with the company. Companies are often unprepared to be questioned about the claims they make suggesting not many people do ask.

Questions to ask

  • Ask them about the science behind the claim: What kind of testing has been done (controlled, blinded tests; a clinical trial; lab studies on an ingredient)? What is the mechanism behind the science?
  • Ask about the status of evidence for the claim: Has the research been peer reviewed and published? Has it been replicated?

How to call companies from Jennifer Lardge, who contacted M&S about MRSA resistant pyjamas

1. Read the company’s website and look up the meaning (scientific or otherwise) of any words used in the marketing that you don’t understand.

2. Prepare a list of questions as these types of conversations often get sidetracked.

3. Ask to speak to someone who is able to explain the science; it’s not fair to expect a customer services representative to know about gut bacteria or radiation.

4. If you don’t understand ask for further explanation. Keep asking and re-posing the question if you don’t feel you’re getting an answer. Don’t be patronising or rude.

5. Find out who you’re speaking to and take good notes, including a time and date. If they offer to send information agree when and get a direct phone number so you can chase them up!

A group of evidence hunting young scientists did this for claims from food containing no chemicals to a spray that protects you against EMF radiation in their There Goes the Science Bit dossier.

There are regulatory agencies you can report misleading product claims to.

Ask official bodies to confirm that their policies and the claims they make or support are based on the best evidence, like the young scientists of VoYS did when persuading the WHO to condemn the promotion of homeopathy for malaria and HIV/AIDS in developing countries.

 

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If your MP, a campaign group, or a public figure makes statements based on bad science write to them and ask for the evidence behind a claim they made. Let your local newspaper know if you don’t get an answer or the answer is unsatisfactory.

How to write to your MP

1. You can contact any MP by letter or email, including the Prime Minister.

2. Find out about your MP and their views or check Hansard, the daily report of parliamentary debates.

3. Most of the time you will get a boring letter of reply from your MP. You might consider copying your letter to the local newspaper (you should put this on the letter sent to the MP so they are aware), which does help to get a response from the MP and might end up getting further publicity for your concerns.

 

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If an article in the press misreports science, write to the editor of the newspaper, or to the journalist directly.

How to respond to articles in the press from Tom Whipple, The Times

The Times receives an average of 600 letters a day – of which only 18-20 will get published. Improve your chances of publication by:

1. Being brief – never write more than 150 words and don’t send attachments.

2. Sending your letter the same day the article appeared or the moment will pass.

3. Reading the letters page and being familiar with the personality of the paper.

4. Being entertaining – people often make the same argument so if you have specialist knowledge or an interesting angle concentrate on that.

5. Showing your credentials in your sign off – check with your institution before you include its name.

6. Don’t be disheartened – remember the odds and keep trying.

 

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Rally others to your cause

Write up what you are doing for an article for the newsletter of your professional association, your University newspaper, or your own blog. You will probably find you are not the only person getting frustrated by the claim. And tell us what you are doing by emailing report@senseaboutscience.org.

Hear from others who have hunted down evidence

Find out how you can understand evidence with our tools for questioning pseudoscience and misleading claims.

 

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