Press Release below on an article in this weeks BMJ by Steve Cummins and Sally MacIntyre looking at the potential for unproven assertions to gradually be accepted as fact over time, and hence increase possibility that they will influence government policy. They take the example of so-called food deserts where it has been alleged that lack of income is the primary factor for poor diet in the UK; recently the Food Poverty (Eradication) Bill wqas introduced into the UK Parliament receiving cross party support.
LSE Health and Social Care
IS GOVERNMENT HEALTH POLICY BASED ON EVIDENCE OR ASSUMPTION?
("Food deserts" - evidence and assumption in health
The overinterpretation of a few small scale studies,
carried out up to 10 years ago, could end up being used
to determine health policy because the findings fit in with
the government's broader policy objectives, argue
researchers in this week's BMJ.
Steven Cummins and Sally Macintyre examine the
phenomena of "factoids" ? assumptions or speculations
reported and repeated so often that they are considered
true. Using the widely claimed existence of "food
deserts"? poor urban areas in the United Kingdom where
residents cannot buy affordable, healthy food ? they raise
important questions about how evidence in public health
is produced, interpreted, and reproduced when making
Three main studies have been used as evidence that food
deserts exist in the UK, yet the authors suggest that this
research may have been overinterpreted to suit the needs
of individuals or groups, and subsequently cited in
journals, at seminars, and in the media without close
reference to the original source material.
If these three studies had concerned an issue not so
eagerly espoused by many in central and local
government and public health, and by the public too, and
if the issue had been more contentious, the authors
suspect that the studies would have been more critically
The key problem is that the burden of proof, or demand
for evidence, may vary according to a policy's perceived
fit with current collective world views, they add.
As such, policy makers need to move away from an
unquestioning acceptance of conventional wisdom and
"expert" advice and cast a more critical and objective eye
over the facts, they conclude.
Steven Cummins, Research Associate, MRC Social and
Public Health Sciences Unit, Glasgow, Scotland
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