Delineating journalism

During the First World War, an enterprising British field medic named Sgt James Shearer unveiled a machine that promised to revolutionise medicine. Shearer’s “Delineator” was a small wooden box that had an aperture at one end and a crank on the side. Clicking the shutter and winding the arm produced a small drawing of a human figure, punched with holes that diagnosed disease in any patient sat in front of it. The British Medical Journal hailed it as a life-saving device. These were the years immediately after Wilhelm Röntgen’s discovery of x rays, and the world was abuzz with the idea of invisible radiation that might have some medical benefit. That sense of awe, and radiation’s unseen and somewhat unfathomable nature, was a boon to the quackery industry, which produced a multitude of miraculous devices to harness these mysterious forces.

Yesterday Patrick Kingsley of the Guardian revealed what may be* the latest incarnation of this trend, the C-Fast , a device invented by Egyptian army engineer Brigadier Ahmed Amien from bomb detecting technology. According to Dr Gamal Shiha (“one of Egypt 's most respected liver specialists”), the C-Fast detects hepatitis C almost flawlessly in patients, and can be adapted to detect other diseases such as cancer. Naturally this article provoked strong reactions from the readers of the Guardian’s Science and Medicine pages (the article has since been moved to a handy “Science Controversies” subdivision).

I’m sure many people will feel this piece should be taken down, but I find that a problematic solution. Currently, there is nothing technically incorrect within it. I think it’s an editorial failing rather than a journalistic one. The article includes a fair deal of skeptical comment, it presents Shiha’s comments as claims rather than statements of fact, it notes that if the device worked, it would require our entire understanding of science to be ripped up and rethought. But even a Nobel prize-winner stopped short of calling the device a sham, opting for a more lukewarm comment that the C-Fast “simply does not have sufficient scientific foundation” (sufficient for what? For trial? For use?). If a Nobel prize-winner isn’t prepared to call Bullshit! on this thing, what hope is there that a lay journalist will?

I think it’s easy for someone familiar with science, familiar with the legions of hoaxers from Shearer to Blondlot and beyond, to have that hard seed of scepticism that instantly crystallises their opinion against this device. But – in the absence of proof – that is still an opinion. Remember what happened last time the Guardian called bullshit on bogus medical claims?

If we set aside the suspicion that the Guardian editors felt caveats were cheaper than libel lawyers, I’m left with the idea that the core of this article’s problematic nature is the differing currencies of evidence between scientists and journalists. Covering a different topic every day, non-specialists are naturally reliant upon experts. It’s fitting that the underlying mechanism of the C-Fast is said to be founded on the ridiculed theories of Nobel prize-winner Luc Montagnier. Ridiculed theories, Nobel winner. Two different currencies to two different professions, and of diametric value. That worries me a lot, because expert commentary is a foundation of so much reporting. It’s just that science throws its shortcomings into sharp relief. I’m thinking about history, or sport, or economics, or politics. Can we trust the he-said-she-said format to operate any better for those topics than for science?

I also wonder, what could have rescued this Kingsley’s article? Perhaps a comment as equal in strength and tone from a scientist who was willing to give up their name. Perhaps a longer investigation into the effects of diagnosing hepatitis with an unproven medical device. But I don’t think there’s the money to do that. I worry about that, too, because if the alternative to jamming suspicious medical stories into an inadequate he-said-she-said reporting model is not to report them at all, it means giving everything that is too time-consuming to debunk a free rein to operate in secret.

It was, after all, credulous reporting that ultimately led to Shearer’s undoing. Buoyed by the fame his Delineator generated, Shearer went on to claim that the device could detect more than just disease – it could treat illness too. In fact, it could even be used to detect enemy aircraft. In the days before radar, this was an alarming boast, and attracted the attention of the British intelligence. The spies cracked open Shearer’s Delineator and found nothing more than a few strips of waxed paper that were holed by the drum of a pianola. Shearer faced a court-martial for his deception and was sent to the firing squad.  Let's hope the penalties for errant reporting are less harsh.


* aren’t libel laws great?


More like this

"Remember what happened last time the Guardian called bullshit on bogus medical claims?"

I don't - what did happen?

By Alan Thomas (not verified) on 26 Feb 2013 #permalink

they shot him!!!..for something like that when men were being tossed into the grinder every day by screw up officers!!.
i lost a great uncle in WW1..