Last month, the House of Commons Science and Technology select committee published a report claiming that, in order to maintain the trust of the general public, journalists would need to demonstrate ‘fairer’, more accurate reporting of science stories. The report claimed 71% of people believe the media ‘sensationalises’ its science reporting, and that just 25% felt journalists ‘checked their facts’. Writing in the Guardian, committee chairman Stephen Metcalfe MP suggested ‘accuracy’ was often sacrificed in order to create ‘an enticing headline’.

This drive to bring greater balance to science reporting, rather than use select data to drive an agenda, seems to have fallen on deaf ears. Plain packaging of tobacco is currently being rolled out across the UK, and this week the BBC ran a story on its positive effects, citing a review claiming it ‘may cut smokers by 300,000 in the UK.’ The rest of the press dutifully followed suit, with the Sun going so far as to proclaim that ‘Plain packaging on cigarette packets WILL save lives’.

The review responsible for this assumption, the Cochrane Review, is a compilation of 51 separate studies into the effects of plain packaging on rates of smoking. It makes the claim that introducing the policy could cut the UK’s smoking population by 0.5% within a year of introduction. Yet by its own admission, evidence for this theory is limited to statistics from the Australian government and their experience of plain packaging, and their statistics, unfortunately, failed to show any tangible difference in the rate of decline in smoking after the policy was introduced in 2012. The most extensive of the studies concluded: “the number of cigarettes consumed remained stable at all time points.”

Meanwhile, in France, since plain packaging was introduced earlier this year, sales of cigarettes have, in fact, increased. These were statistics not included in the Cochrane review, but again throw its findings into doubt. As well as failing to show that plain packaging has any serious affect on stopping people smoking, though, the research also failed to demonstrate that it had a major impact on preventing young people from taking up smoking in the first place, one of the key reasons for introducing it in the UK and Australia.

How can it be that a review into the effects of plain packaging can have been lent quite so much weight when its sample sizes are quite so small, and even the data accrued from these found to be quite so inconclusive? That the evidence is so witheringly thin is enough to make anyone question why the BBC, Guardian, Sun and others felt it was balanced or fair to lead with a headline implying that plain packaging has been shown to decrease smoking rates.

But where the analysis strays into dangerous waters regarding trust is that the Cochrane review, in its 51 studies, included 17 conducted by the authors of the review, with many of the other studies having been compiled by other contributors. It’s no wonder a fairly lightweight set of findings managed to arrive at such a concrete conclusion, given the circumstances: the children were left to mark their own homework.

The problem is, no one doubts that the intentions of the authors of the study are good; and so things like plain packaging are allowed to slip through the net of scrutiny by virtue of the fact that they are, supposedly, virtuous. No one seems to stop and question the effectiveness of the measures, however: if they have no effect, why the determination to push them through? Who can benefit from a policy that has no tangible effect on health outcomes? And why have journalists not only allowed this misinformation to slide but actively promoted a demonstrably false set of findings? Surely it should be in their interests to look out for the public interest; demonstrate that time and resources are being wasted on a policy that does nothing, where they could be diverted into something that does have a positive impact?

The Science and Technology select committee probably didn’t have this sort of thing in mind when they highlighted the need for integrity in the reporting of science. It serves to highlight, however, an attitude where accuracy is happily sacrificed for the sake of a supposedly greater good. But if it is allowed to continue, how long until the public refuse to trust scientists and the journalists who pander to them?

by Edward Baer