David Payne: Should we trust what scientists say about food?

If you open your newspaper in the next few weeks to read a feature entitled “Ten things you should ask a scientist,” chances are the idea came from a debate held in London this week about whether we can trust what they say about food.

A survey published by the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) suggests people trust what their mothers tell them more than they trust what scientists tell them. A microbiologist can tell us till they’re blue in the face that eating cooked chicken from a factory contaminated in bird flu is safe, but 90% of us would still be worried about doing do.

Hosted by the FSA at the Royal College of Physicians, the two hour discussion focused on the value of observational studies, open access journals, the role of anecdotal evidence, and the pros and cons of peer reviewed research.

More specifically, it touched on our complex relationship with food and our desire for certainty, even when the evidence is poor.

So when a story tells us that new research “proves” that giving teenagers fish oil pills can boost their concentration levels, the story should also tell us what kind of research it is, how big the sample size is, if it was peer reviewed etc. In other words, the stuff that might make the reader question why it was reported in the first place.

There is another way, of course, a point made by panellist and BMJ columnist Ben Goldacre. The devil is in the drilldown, and any self respecting website should link to the actual research paper, or abstract, so the reader can access the data.

Many do, of course, including the Food Standards Agency’s website, which I edited until last month before starting a similar job on bmj.com.

For us it was easy. The agency’s website was usually linking to research it had commissioned in the first place, so we felt a degree of ownership and knew exactly when a particular paper would go live.

The problem was usually if an issue had attracted coverage, such as research suggesting a link between some artificial colours and hyperactivity, but the actual study was still being peer reviewed. So should more FSA commissioned research be published without peer review?

Professor Colin Blakemore, former Chief Executive of the Medical Research Council and Chair of the FSA’s new Advisory Committee on Science, said: “I think we over value peer review in many respects. Scientists are human beings. Are they competing? Are they hiding their incompetence?”

But he added: “At least it’s an attempt at quality control…and I don’t think there’s a better way.” Any comments? Have your say on the blog.