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The New Sensationalist gets cross

Following the publication of the New Sensationalist article, a features editor at the New Scientist responded to some of the points I raised. In the interests of fairness and openness the full texts of our email correspondence is provided below, unedited except to correct a few typographical errors.

From Graham Lawton to Peter Marsh – March 13th 2003

Dear Peter,

I have just seen your editorial about our story on fast food addiction. It contains several errors, which I think you have a responsibility to put right.

The question in the coverline is not "largely rhetorical". It's not even a bit rhetorical.. Addiction researchers are becoming interested in the question, and the feature reports on the evidence for an against. That's it.

How the BBC and other media outlets re-report our stories is their business. To use their sensational treatments as a stick to beat New Scientist is simply naive.

You say the article is based on "A couple of small-scale studies", and thereafter refer exclusively to Hoebel's. We report on 6 different studies.

You say Hoebel's study used "an unspecified number of rats". A Responsible journalist who suspected some kind of chicanery would go and check the facts. Hoebel's paper is referenced in the text and the journal is widely available. Did you check? No. I suspect you don't want to know the facts in case they get in the way of your rant.

Caesar Barber has not lost his case.

Diane Martindale is not from New York, she's from Toronto, as is clearly printed at the end of the article.

And all this from an organisation that claims to promote "open and Rational debates based on evidence rather than ideology". What a joke. Overall, your article is so sloppy, lazy and inaccurate that if I was your editor I'd fire you.

Yours sincerely, Graham Lawton,

From Peter Marsh to Graham Lawton – March 14th 2003

Dear Graham

Let me respond to the substantive claims you make in what is clearly a rather ill-tempered email.

The point regarding 'largely rhetorical' – if you pose a question only In order to answer to yourself, rather than having it answered by the reader, it is, by definition, rhetorical.

It seems rather bizarre that a responsible science magazine, whose role is to communicate often complex technical research to lay persons, should not have regard for the way in which its material might be misinterpreted, distorted of misrepresented by the popular media. The way you presented the research on the allegedly addictive properties of some foods was almost guaranteed to lead to sensationalist treatment. Diane Martindale herself acknowledges that once this debate gets outside of the scientific community "it won't make for scholarly discussion." This is clearly something that you, as an editor, might have borne in mind when you commissioned artwork of cheeseburgers to illustrate the article.

You suggest that I refer to only a 'couple of studies' while the article referred to 6. In fact there were five main studies quoted – only two of which were referenced. Three of these did not address the issue of addiction – only of hormonal change. Diane Martindale herself notes that this "on its own … hardly means that fast food is addictive." That is why I didn't refer to them. Of the two studies that did address the issue of addiction the one in which Hoebel was involved received the most attention in the popular media – Kelley's less so.

Interestingly, your article refers to work by 'John Hoebel' – a Psychologist at Princeton University – working with physiologists in Venezuela. He is, in fact, Bartley G. Hoebel, not John, unless he has an undeclared nickname. I make this comment only in relation to your accusation that I have been "sloppy, lazy and inaccurate."

The number of rats used/killed in Hoebel's studies was undeclared in your article – that's all – and that's what I said. Yes, I have read the original article in Obesity Research. The number of rats in the experimental conditions ranged from 6 to 16. New Scientist presumably thought that such details were irrelevant in its coverage of the experiments.

Concerning the issue of Mr Caesar Barber. I understand that he is now pursuing his case again. My article 'New Sensationalist' was, as you will have noted, written on January 31st. On January 30th Robert Uhlig reported in the Daily Telegraph: "Caesar Barber, a middle-aged New York janitor, sued McDonald's, Burger King, KFC and Wendy's, claiming that their foods were partly at fault for causing his diabetes and double heart-attack. Although he lost his case, lawyers are preparing 'Big Fat' class actions, which could see the fast food industry forced to contribute to the health care costs of obesity." (See here).

According to Scientific American "Diane Martindale is a science writer who is based in New York City." See, for example, here. She has, presumably, moved to Toronto quite recently.

I will ignore the gratuitously unpleasant remarks at the end of your email – hardly appropriate comments for a science feature editor who wants to be taken seriously.

Let me also pursue a little further my concerns about your 'tabloid' approach to science reporting by reference to another article in the edition of New Scientist that followed the one which dealt with food addiction. Here you state boldly on page 9 "Don't eat soya if you're pregnant" – a simple, unqualified command. The article itself reports the unreferenced work of Sabra Klein on the alleged effects of genistein, found in soya, on the sexual development of male rats – the numbers used in the study again unspecified. The article concludes, however, "Another complicating factor is that in Klein's study, moderate levels of genistein had a bigger effect than a huge dose. If this holds true in people it may prove impossible to tease out just what effects eating soya has."

So, do you really think that your scary warning style of headline was justified? The Food Standards Agency certainly do not. Shortly after the piece was published in the New Scientist the FSA distributed the following advice:

"Pregnant women don't need to avoid soya products if they're eaten as part of a healthy balanced diet. Soya contains naturally occurring compounds called phytoestrogens that may act as weak forms of the human hormone, oestrogen. Some people have raised concerns that pregnant women who eat soya may affect the future fertility of their male babies. However, these concerns are based on a single unpublished study on animals and there haven't been any reports of problems in countries such as Japan and China, where the traditional diet includes soya. Once this study is published, it will be considered alongside a major review of the scientific evidence on phytoestrogens by the Committee on Toxicity (COT), an expert committee that advises the Government. COT will publish a report of its findings in spring 2003."

Now that kind of advice seems to be more in keeping with both rational consideration of the facts and with responsible communication of health and science issues.

In the circumstances, and given the tone of your email, I am sure that You will have no objections to this exchange of views being published on our web site as a follow-up to the 'New Sensationalist' article.

Regards, Peter Marsh

From Graham Lawton to Peter Marsh – March 14th 2003

Dear Peter,

If you want to publish our full correspondence on your site then be my guest. Your amateurish grasp of the facts is only the start of my criticism. The substance of your argument is intellectually vapid and I'd be delighted to expose it as such.

For now let's focus on the facts.

If it were a "rhetorical question" then the answer would be implicit. Read the feature. Does it reach a conclusion? No.

Please spare me the lecture on New Scientist's role. The notion that it is our responsibility to inform an ignorant laity about the facts of science is risible. Opinions of that nature probably play well in the sixth-form common room but have no place in grown-up debate.

Diane does indeed say that the hormonal research (3 people, 4 different studies) don't mean that fast food is addictive. So who's posing rhetorical questions?

If John Hoebel is actually Bart Hoebel then I have fucked up and so has Diane, our sub editors and our fact checking process. But it's a first name, not a substantive fact. The research results remain the same.

You criticise us for deciding that the number of rats killed was irrelevant. Many congratulations on recognising its importance and putting it straight in your article!

Barber's case hasn't even come to court. Robert Uhlig got his facts totally wrong. Another fast food case -- 2 Bronx teenagers -- was thrown out and has since been re-filed. Reliance on secondary sources can cause you problems.

Yup, Diane used to live in New York. You clearly believe that means she is biased and unreliable. Do you want to take that up with her libel lawyer?

I'm afraid I can't shed any light on the soya story but if you want to start a new losing argument I'll happily facilitate it.

Sincerely, Graham Lawton.

PS you're damn right I'm ill-tempered. I can't wait to get my teeth into your silly argument about gyms.

From Peter Marsh to Graham Lawton – March 16th 2003

Dear Graham,

You say that "If it were a 'rhetorical question' then the answer would be implicit." Consider the fact that the only subhead in the article simply said 'Sugar junkies' – no quote marks, no question mark. Why? What are we to infer from casual reading other than that you have concluded that sugar is addictive? The BBC certainly made the same kind of inference when they reported the article with the head "Fast food 'as addictive as heroin'"

The phrase 'ignorant laity' is yours, not mine. New Scientist declares that it is "a science magazine for everyone, both young and old, amateur & professional". It was the 'amateurs' that I was referring to when I made the point about communicating to lay persons.

Regarding your point about getting Hoebel's name wrong, you said it.

Yes, Robert Uhlig seems to have got it wrong about Mr Barber, even though he is a highly regarded technology and food correspondent. Are you suggesting that we shouldn't rely on science writers to report the facts accurately? Surely not.

I didn't know that Diane Martindale had a libel lawyer, but I'm fairly sure that he or she is not going to get over exited about my description of her as "a freelance writer, also from New York".

A pity you can't shed any light on the soya story – perhaps one of your colleagues …?

We can't continue this dialogue indefinitely – we both have more productive things to do. You can have the last word if you want before I post the stuff on the web.

Regards, Peter

From Graham Lawton to Peter Marsh – March 17th 2003

You're right, I certainly have better things to do.

One important matter I haven't dealt with yet is your attempt to expose a logical flaw in the article by making an analogy with exercise. It is just embarrassing.

Let's break your argument down to a syllogism.

1) Some addiction researchers think that eating junk food causes neurochemical changes similar to those produced by addictive drugs.

2) Exercise produces similar neurochemical changes, but banning exercise would be absurd.

3) Therefore banning fast food would be absurd.

It's logically sound, but all you've destroyed is a straw man. Who's suggesting we should ban fast food? Nobody. When did having addictive properties become grounds to ban something?

The argument the article makes is this: lawyers are suing the fast food industry for some of the costs of caring for obesity; some addiction researchers think that eating fast food causes neurochemical changes similar to those produced by addictive drugs; therefore the lawyers will argue in court that their clients weren't fully responsible for their bad diets.

So in the end you've got your knickers in a twist about something that's not even in the story.

A few last points:

Re: libel. Your needless (and inaccurate) statement that Diane Martindale is "also from New York" looks to me like an attempt to besmirch her reputation. Therefore it is potentially libellous. The implication is, she's from New York too, so she cannot be trusted. I'll point that out to Diane and she may want words with you. I'm not joking: libel is a very serious matter.

Re: Uhlig: Having finally accepted that Caesar Barber has not lost his case, you should think about altering your article. (And yes, we're going to print a correction about Hoebel).