Is It a Bomb Detector? No, It’s a Diagnostic Tool!

The Guardian has once again demonstrated that science and technology should be reported by specialist journalists, not whoever just happens to be around. Patrick Kingsley, thier Egypt correspondant has reported on an Egyptian device that supposedly remotely detects hepatitis C.

The initial reporting was highly credulous and was headlined “Scientists Divided …” which phrase still appears in the url. Scathing criticism in the comments has resulted in the headline being changed to “Scientists sceptical … “. Kingsley is not a scientist and cannot be expected to know everything but it would have been easy enough for him to run this past someone with some basic scientific knowledge. Frankly, I don’t believe Kingsley was even thinking when he wrote:

… it was adapted from a bomb detector used by the Egyptian army…

Because it made many, me included, think of the bogus bomb detectors sold to the Iraqi and Afghan security forces. The Egyptian device was allegedly developed by Dr Gamal Shiha who would appear to be the G. Shiha who is the lead researcher on this poster presentation:

We developed a novel, rapid, non-invasive screening device C-FAST (trade mark), which is patented Bio-sensor slash spectroscopy based technology for the detection of hepatitis C virus. When the signal is picked up a pivoting antenna of the C- FAST is drawn like a compass needle, to indicate alignment between the patient and the frequency card in the C-FAST

Frankly this sounds like a dowsing rod with added techno-babble. The detector has allegedly been tested on hundreds of individuals but we are told nothing about the selection process or whether there was any blinding – so the supposed positive results could be down to see what you expect to see – self deception in other words.

The article describes the detector as looking “like a car radio antenna” which does not sound much like any kind of spectroscope. A GCSE science student might think to ask exactly how much energy Hepatitis C viruses (virii?) are emitting that they can line up a pivoting antenna from several feet away. What suggests to me that this could be a little more than self deception is the reference to the “frequency card”. This sounds remarkably like the bogus bomb detector:

Mr McCormick has said the device, sold from offices in Sparkford, Somerset, used special electronic cards slotted into it to detect explosives.

Mr McCormick’s devices did not work and he is under investigation for fraud.

This article illustrates everything that is wrong with media reporting of scientific and technological issues. Kingsley knows no science but instead of referring the matter to someone who does he opted to report it in a “he says this but someone else says that” manner, which gives the false notion that the science is in doubt. Guardian staffers weighed into the comments saying that you can’t expect journalists to understand science (!) and pointing out that the article was balanced – completely unaware that this bogus balance is the problem and gives the impression that there is some possibility that this useless “invention” actually works, with the attendant possibility that somebody could believe it and base their health care decisions on it.

The really ironic thing here is that Kingsley has missed a great story about chancers seeking to exploit the health service of a not-exactly-wealthy country that is still recovering from a revolution but his scientific ignorance has blinded him to it. You would think that the MMR debacle would have made the press realise that having science and medicine reported by people who don’t actually understand what they are writing about will result in distortion amd mis-information but evidently not.

(thanks to the Bad Science forumites whose posts on this issue have been a great help)

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5 Responses to “Is It a Bomb Detector? No, It’s a Diagnostic Tool!”

  1. jdc325 Says:

    Guardian staffers weighed into the comments saying that you can’t expect journalists to understand science

    …which is why journalists can’t expect people to take them seriously when they write about science.

    I liked this:

    Does it matter whether Patrick Kingsley, a trained journalist, has GCSE physics? Journalists are not scientists. They report what they find and they try to achieve balance by testing theses with others who know more than they do. This is what has happened here.
    We have deliberately not couched our article as a “breakthrough” or even “hope for breakthrough” as other sectors of the press might. We posit it as a curiosity and hope that people with real knowledge of the science will get stuck into the subject and share their expertise.

    It seems to suggest that journalists will report whatever nonsense people utter and rely on people pointing out in the comments section that it’s nonsense. I thought journalists were supposed to inform the public, rather than the other way round? Is that how it works now? They misinform us, and we inform them in return?

    There’s also this:

    I agree that we should be cautious over scientific discoveries and claims that promise so much, but highlighting innovations and opening them up for discussion can only be a good thing.

    Firstly, I don’t think they were cautious in this instance. Secondly, highlighting ‘innovations’ like dowsing rods that it’s claimed can be used as diagnostic tools can’t only be a good thing. Christ, that’s naive.

    Then we have the author of the piece himself with “But does that mean a newspaper shouldn’t report on this kind of project? I’d disagree on that.” You often see this when articles are criticised – people who’ve written utter guff will defensively ask whether the subject should not be written about. My answer to that would normally be “it’s fine to write such topics – if they are written about responsibly”. People objected to the article that was written and said it should not have appeared in the newspaper. I doubt they’d have said the same about a decent article on the same subject. Also: talk of “reasonable (if not conclusive) amount of research”. Never mind the quality, feel the width… I also wonder how someone who can’t be expected to understand science is able to pronounce on the amount of research that’s been undertaken.

    I note that there is talk of research and a video but neither are linked to.

  2. Alan Henness Says:

    As far as I can see, there is no trade mark registered for ‘C-FAST’ listed in the Intellectual Property Office’s trade mark register.

  3. Recovering Agnostic Says:

    I have little to add, but I’d just like to endorse what you say, and all of jdc’s comments above. We often seem to be discussing stories like this, because it’s part of a much wider trend of science reporting. The Grauniad seem to think that not being the Mail is enough to earn them brownie points – sorry, no.

    I can understand that bad articles sometimes get published and mistakes can be made, but defending it on the grounds that the author can’t be expected to understand the subject, and at least they “opened it up for discussion” shows the scale of the problem.

  4. A Sixth Year of Steam | Letting Off Steam Says:

    […] bottle</a>, the Guardian’s credulous and ignorant coverage of an <a href=””&gt&#8230; health scam</a> and an <a […]

  5. Peter Robinson Says:

    Sadly the dodgy ‘detector’ lives on and can now also diagnose HIV! OH YEAH!

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