Tuesday, 29 May 2018

For sale: one university. Very, very cheap.

The annals of junk science are long and storied: one only has to look at the work of Ben Goldacre, David Colquhoun and Edzard Ernst amongst many others to realise that there's a lot of it about, and a surprisingly large amount of it is generated by universities, i.e. institutions that should know better. 

There's bad science, junk science and straight-up, built-to-order findings-for-cash, and I have a doozy of an example for you. Imagine, if you will, a university that issues an official press release ending with this line:
For Takeaway Trauma support, please visit www.chicagotown.com/takeaway-saviour. 
What, you may ask, leads an institution which promises that it is 
Maximising opportunity through generating knowledge, innovation and enterprise.
and develops
Skills and Knowledge for Economic and Social Transformation

informed by 'values':
We will behave respectfully and ethically, in all that we do. We will be inclusive and fair in our interaction with each other and with our wider community. We will act professionally, transparently, confidently, collaboratively and challengingly when engaging with our communities locally and globally.
to encourage the public to get 'support' for 'trauma' from a manufacturer of supermarket pizzas.

The answer, of course, is money.

The headline to this offence is
By whom? We are not told. 
THE stress of ordering and waiting for a takeaway can bring out the worst in all of us, but today it’s been identified as an actual condition, Takeaway Trauma, following scientific research.
Can it? How do we quantify 'the worst'? Should we really be saying 'all'? How many gun massacres have there been following a delayed pizza delivery. Who determines what's an 'actual condition'? My guess would be NICE, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, which incorporates the British National Formulary, the prescribers' bible. Sadly, 'Takeaway Trauma' is not listed amongst the many medical and social ills.

So, let's look at the underlying scientific research:
A University of Wolverhampton study, in partnership with Chicago Town, found that the average heart rate increased from a baseline or relaxed 70 BPM to 87 BPM in the period following ordering a pizza, while tense arousal scores - or stress levels - saw an increase with the length of time that participants waited for an order from a baseline 17.25 to 18.38 BPM.
In partnership, we can assume, means that Chicago Town looked around for an institution that would put the stamp of institutional credibility on a public relations stunt designed to get press coverage encouraging people to buy pizzas in supermarkets. Did it work? Their PR company certainly thinks so:

I can't help thinking that if I worked at a university and got a call from an organisation called 'Brazen PR', I might be a little suspicious. Mind you, if I were the Biosciences department and I got a call from a PR company I might think it an odd route for a scientific project to be born. 

Sorry, I said we were going to look at the science. But we can't, because there isn't any. Some students were put on a hospital trolley, wired up, then a pizza was ordered, and they answered a questionnaire. 
The experiment by the University’s biomedical sciences department involved participants ordering and waiting for a takeaway pizza while wearing heart rate monitors to measure pulse fluctuations, as well as monitoring stress levels using the psychometric questionnaire and the UMACL - UNWIST Mood Adjective Checklist - which measures tense arousal scores.
How many subjects? We don't know. How long did they wait? No idea. Would being wired up to a heart monitor and asked questions in a university laboratory affect their heart rates? Nothing is said about this. How was the test group selected? Are there age, gender, ethnicity, educational and class differences between their 'responses'? Who knows? What was the control group doing? We don't know that there was one. Might there be other causes for a slightly increased heart rate? What toppings were ordered? 

Let's look at the peer-reviewed research findings that came out of this project. 

Sorry. There isn't any. Instead, they hired
Behavioural Expert Darren Stanton, who analysed the results of the experiment, classified the condition in four stages: fidgety, anxious, irate and lost.
Curiously enough, and no doubt entirely coincidentally, the first letters of each 'stage' make up an acronym: FAIL, used to describe 'symptoms' on the pizza company's website. Should you be relying on a pizza company to diagnose heart conditions? I suspect not. But we should all relax. Darren Stanton is on the case. Professor Stanton – as he isn't known by anyone – describes himself as 'TV's Human Lie Detector' and was a police officer, but I'm sure that he does a lot of peer-reviewed, serious science on the side. Google Scholar says not, but he has done a TED talk. His Wikipedia entry, which doesn't sound like he wrote it at all, lists no qualifications or research (though Nottingham Trent University proudly describes him as an alumnus in another guessing press release), but does give details of his book:
Stanton has published one book to date. Project Jam Jar is a psychological self-help success book. It aims to empower its audience by introducing them to tried and tested techniques that allow readers to make changes that last a lifetime.
Peer-reviewed? It's print-on-demand! Certainly there's no indication that Stanton belongs to any of the professional bodies which regulate scientific research and analysis. Why was he needed? Surely the university has psychologists and biomedical scientists capable of analysing findings? How did Wolverhampton University find him? Well, the deeply cynical side of me wonders if he was introduced by Brazen PR (for money) to add a tinge of media stardust to this farrago of nonsense.

Anyway, on with the science. 
As stress levels increase further, circa 40 minutes after ordering, a lack of clear communication, the tardiness of deliveries, curtain twitching and the driver going the wrong way heightens emotions and results in a state of being visibly irate, with loved ones often bearing the brunt of this.
The final stage is one of absolute despondency. Frequently after waiting for a long time – around 50 minutes - the wrong order arriving or the food being of a disappointing quality makes people feel lost. During the experiment, participants had a lower heart rate than when they initially ordered, contradicting expectations that they would feel joy upon receiving the pizza they had waited for.
Eh? Can someone lying on a gurney or waiting in a house know that a driver has gone the wrong way? How did the experiment find that 'loved ones' bore the brunt of ire? Were they also in the room? Was ethical clearance received for all this cruelty? What does 'lost' mean? Or 'joy' for that matter?

Said the UoW scientist involved:
the experience has a real impact on stress levels and our heart rate
The experience of being wired up in a lab surrounded by loved ones, maybe. And even then, only slightly. The experience of food being delivered tardily: not so much. But let's see what the Principal Investigator made of all this:
Darren Stanton said: “People order a takeaway as a treat – a way to reward themselves after a long week at work and to enjoy a relaxing night in with loved ones. This study shows that it can be the opposite of this. However, with the four stages we’ve identified as fidgety, anxious, irate and lost, it’s easy to recognise the symptoms of Takeaway Trauma, so we can help others suffering from the condition.”
Sentence 1: 3 imaginative conjectures. Sentence 2: cannot be proven through this experiment. Sentence 3: equates mild cheese-related anxiety with AIDS, Ebola, depression and cancer as a 'condition'.

But don't worry: a cure is at hand thanks to 'boffins' at Chicago Town:
Rachel Bradshaw, Senior Brand Manager at Chicago Town said: “It was really interesting to work with the University of Wolverhampton and Darren on this experiment. Both the physiological and psychological effects clearly demonstrate that Takeaway Trauma is real, and we’ll all identify with the various stages having gone through them ourselves.
“A much more satisfying alternative would be to pop a Chicago Town The Takeaway pizza in the oven at home. With its unique dough rising before your eyes, the freshly-baked pizza delivers a real, takeaway taste straight from your freezer in just 20 minutes – which never disappoints.”
Note the subtle 'work with', which again means: we hired these people to record a video supporting a nasty-minded little sales technique. And then it's back to my opening line:
For Takeaway Trauma support, please visit www.chicagotown.com/takeaway-saviour.
Now you might think that I'm breaking a butterfly on a wheel here, and not being very supportive of my colleagues. Fair enough, but any university has a higher duty to the social good, and to the principles of science. This shady little endeavour has rented out scientific and institutional credibility to an advertising campaign. I don't know if the researcher in this case was forced to do this – my university's annual budget for 23,000 students and 4000 staff is c. £140m, only £10m more than smaller Cambridge University's annual endowment loot ,and money talks – but places like mine, with a pretty poor reputation (unjustified, I might add) should be working harder to claim our place amongst the ranks of the serious. In accepting this money, staging this stunt and then using medical terms in a press release, the university has forfeited any right to be considered trustworthy. It has left all its research staff high and dry and rendered its ethics procedures null and void. I know that I will be accused of being holier-than-thou, and have my rather limited external funding record raised, but these things really matter. We can't develop a reputation of being for hire. It's not fair on the students, their eventual employers or the staff who work here.

Still, it's all a bit of a giggle isn't it? And it did get a lot of press coverage. Impact matters people!

Update: we're so delighted that there's another university story plugging this (not sure if it's viewable) but the video is well worth watching though my one-person experiment demonstrates 'quite profound effects' on my heart rate on the back of a BBC interview (and yes, the BBC should be ashamed too). It's a curious mix of boosterism and self-defence.
“There were some effects but we are not saying, ‘don’t order a takeaway as something really serious might happen’!
“It is just worth remembering that everyday things can sometimes lead to profound effects over time.
People might ask why we carried out this study but a part of my job at the University is trying to create conversations about science.
“If people are out there in the community thinking about health, thinking about their body, thinking about any aspect of science, then I think we are doing our jobs right!”
They might be thinking 'why are my taxes paying for this rather than a cure for malaria, for instance?'.


Quoyle said...

Wow...wlv is going to smash this REF apart, that's a 4* right there...or am I dying inside?

Simon Higgins said...

Yes, but think of the IMPACT. And those lovely altmetrics (which no doubt your blog will be boosting!).

Alan said...

Wonderful! The institution from which I hold my highest academic qualification, supervised by a world-class scholar (Paul Willis) with another world-class scholar (Huw Beynon) as external examiner, decides to prostitute itself with this bullshit. Is it worth writing to the VC?

Quoyle said...

Writing to the VC? He retweeted the Press Office self love-in.