Breastfeeding vouchers and the public misunderstanding of science

I planned to blog about Keir Hardie’s views on labour colonies today. But I was so taken aback by public reactions to a new research project that I decided to leave the old Labour leader for tomorrow.

The project in question is one of a set of trials, which will explore the use of vouchers as a way of improving public health. One, for example, is examining the effect of healthy food incentives on obesity. The study which hit the headlines is testing whether vouchers will raise levels of breastfeeding among women who belong to groups where breastfeeding levels are low.

This story could also have been designed to investigate how the public misunderstand research. It has nearly everything that tabloids love – breasts, social class, irresponsible mothers, moral decline, Northern England, and easy jokes about the ‘nanny state’. All that us missing from the mix – so far – is a crazed terrorist asylum seeker.

So out poured the hostility. Predictably, the tabloids were quick off the mark, while the instantly enraged took to Twitter to attack the researchers’ motives and lament the declining standards of British motherhood. In all the fuss, the original story – that this is a trial – got lost. And I assume it got lost because it stood in the way of a flood of emoting opinion.

It occurs to me that something very basic is missing from the way we discuss science – and research in general. The point of a trial is to find out what the effects are of a particular intervention. You can then discuss the findings, work out whether the intervention should be tried in other contexts, and eventually decide what the practical implications are.

The nature of trials is that sometimes you test an intervention that does not have the effects policy makers would like. At least, not with that population at that time. This is, of course, a cue for the tabloids and emoters to shout about a waste of public money. But that’s trials for you: they produce evidence, and you can then apply logic to analysing that evidence.

In this case, the purpose of the study is to improve babies’ health and raise their life chances as adults. If vouchers have that effect, then they might be worth pursuing further. If not, then the researchers from Sheffield and Dundee will have learned something, which may or may not help lead us to other studies of other possibilities.

This isn’t very glamorous, and some of my fellow researchers will think it is “positivist”. And they don’t mean this as praise. But I prefer collecting and analysing evidence to relying on emotion and opinion.

I wish the medical researchers in this project well, and I also look forward to seeing the results. As I do with another set of studies, which NIACE is supporting, which is using trials to examine pedagogic approaches to literacy and numeracy teaching.