While browsing Dr John Briffa’s blog today, I stumbled upon this recent post. [Backup here: http://backupurl.com/6u8x3z.##] Brilliantly, Briffa’s post seems to be based entirely upon a Daily Mail article. No references to research are given and the only source he links to is the Mail.
The Mail article is about a book written by Australian anthropologist Peter McAllister. Dr Briffa# seems to be relying on (a) the Daily Mail accurately reporting the content of McAllister’s book and (b) the content of McAllister’s book being well-researched as well as accurately reported. Can you guess what the punchline is yet? First I will discuss my concerns about the way the Mail and Dr Briffa have approached this story.
Journalists, as Nick Davies points out in Flat Earth News, regularly write articles that show no sign of key facts having been checked – this is hardly conducive to writing accurate articles, although I am not sure we should blame journalists for this. The environment in which they work seems to promote churnalism, possibly because it is deemed by newspaper owners to be more economical than journalism. If considerably less reliable.
I would point out that it is unwise to ever assume accuracy when reading (of all papers) the Daily Mail – and that it is also unwise to rely on the content of a book one hasn’t read (or a book that fails to cite its sources). If Dr Briffa had checked the information provided by the Daily Mail by, say, looking up relevant academic papers then he might have been rather more cautious.*
Briffa points out that he is “a big believer in using our ancient past to inform our modern-day dietary and lifestyle habits”, discusses the claims of 20,000 year-old footprints that apparently “[reveal] that ancient [Indigenous Australians] were capable of running at 23 miles an hour”, claims that these ancient athletes “might even beat [Usain Bolt] at a canter” and goes on to use the Daily Mail’s report of McAllister’s book to claim that farming:
may well have been a huge retrograde step in terms of our health and wellbeing
One relevant paper looks at human footprints from about 20,000 years ago and, as well as including appropriate cautions about interpretation, claims that the “most impressive track in terms of speed” is estimated at roughly 20 kilometres per hour – somewhat lower than the claimed 23 miles per hour that Dr Briffa seems to have got from the book, but perhaps via the Daily Mail’s article.
And those cautions? Well, the authors explain that they first “calculated a conversion factor for extrapolating stature from foot length” and later calculated the “approximate speeds that the people making the trackways were traveling […] using a regression equation derived from measurements […] for a sample of twelve male recreational distance runners” and here comes the caveat:
Estimates of velocity derived from this equation should clearly be interpreted cautiously, as stride lengths at a given speed will be modified by variables such as leg length and body mass.
The Daily Mail article does not seem to carry similar caveats in their reporting of the book. Dr Briffa does not seem to mention any caveats or possible concerns in his report of the Daily Mail’s report of a book (that he makes no mention of having read himself). The failure to discuss the nature of such research – specifically, issues that should be addressed when communicating this research to the public – would normally bother me. In this case, though, there seem to be larger concerns.
* Here is a version of the paper I quoted from earlier, that is apparently the source for claims regarding the speed of the Indigenous Australians in question: linky. Here is an alternative PDF – I found it having googled for “Journal of Human Evolution 50 (2006) 405e413”. The reason I did this was because the author of the book apparently turned up on the xkcd forum and stated that the claim regarding speed came from Steve Webb’s research, citing this PDF as the relevant research. If the commenter on the xkcd forum really was Peter McAllister, then it appears that all the claims for these rather athletic Indigenous Australians running at 23mph rest on research that found they ran at 20kph. Oh dear Peter McAllister, oh dear Daily Mail, and oh dear Dr Briffa.
This is why fact-checking is important – and why it is also important to cite sources. If we accept claims without checking them, or if somebody makes a claim without citing their source for that claim, then how can we possibly know whether the claim has any validity?
Note: Although it appears in the Daily Mail article and Briffa’s post, I have changed “Aboriginals” to “Indigenous Australians” wherever it appears in this post (including direct quotes). Apparently, “Aboriginal” is deemed to be a derogatory term.
H/T to mp42; crowey from the Bad Science forum. Thank you for linking to the story – and to the xkcd forum.
H/T to Pez Dispens3r for asking Peter McAllister for the source of his claim (on the xkcd forum).
Here are some more recent posts from Dr Briffa: mobie phone use linked with tumours, which is cached at: http://backupurl.com/a7cv8r (the sources Briffa links to are (a) himself and (b) the Telegraph – who are reporting on an unpublished study); adverse effects of drugs, which is cached at: http://backupurl.com/akxnid.
Briffa’s decision to cite himself and a newspaper report about an unpublished study will come as no surprise to anyone who has read the comments thread following this post: http://www.drbriffa.com/blog/2007/02/26/347/, in which he writes “I have never claimed that my work is evidence-based.” This post can also be found here: Google cache and here: http://backupurl.com/k4kjx2
And into November: tea and stress, backed up at http://backupurl.com/ryiu26; high-protein diets and bones, backed up at http://backupurl.com/v2y7cg; and dark chocolate, backed up at http://backupurl.com/ag287c (the third of the these latest posts is about chocolate and skin damage – see NHS Choices for sensible discussion of the research: here).
# Dr Briffa is a “practising doctor, author and international speaker”.
## There appears to have been some sort of cock up on Briffa’s site and the link to his post on the Manthropology claim now goes to a post on mobile phone use. The backupurl link is still working at the time of writing, and here is a PDF of the backupurl cache: Could our ancient ancestors… [Updated 10/10/10]