Marketing man pushes placebo effect

10th October 2008 at 01:00
A `spurious' mailshot has been sent to schools telling heads how to bamboozle pupils and parents with unscientific experiments that may boost results

A marketing company has recommended that headteachers carry out unscientific experiments on their pupils in order to boost their schools' profiles.

Hamilton House, a Corby-based PR company, suggested in a mailshot sent to more than 1,000 school leaders that trialling harmless pills or making random changes to pupils' environments might help boost results, even if they only had a placebo effect.

"You can give them some pills for effect (fish oil, sugar, it doesn't matter)," it said. "Or you can tell them you have changed the lighting, or do anything else that has no effect (because there is no change).

"But the main thing is you must tell them - and ideally their parents too - that they are in an experiment to see if this change improves something under their control.

"Then you do the normal round of PR and everyone - at least the local press and possibly the national - gets really excited about what you are doing."

Tony Attwood, the company's chairman, gave the recent trial of fish oil pills in Durham as an example of an experiment that was "unreliable in the extreme" but "looks great".

Durham county council announced in 2006 that it would give 2,000 children fish oil pills, from the company Equazen to see if their GCSE results improved.

The experiment was criticised for being unscientific after it emerged that there was no control group in which pupils were given a placebo.

Any improvement might have been the result of the Hawthorne effect, a phenomenon where participants' results improve because they know they are involved in an experiment.

Mr Attwood's mailshot said the only potential pitfall of the experiments was they might be spotted by Ben Goldacre, the science journalist and author of Bad Science.

Dr Goldacre said: "This is one of the strangest things I've ever seen: an outright recommendation that schools should perform incompetent experiments on their children in the name of getting some spurious publicity.

"It is highly unethical to perform incompetent experiments on children and, most perniciously, this kind of bad science misleads children about the basics of experimental design and interpretation."

Another version of the mailshot, focusing on the exam benefits of such experiments, was sent to a further 5,000 teachers.

Mr Attwood said he had received only one complaint and several positive comments from school leaders, although he was not aware of any who had taken his advice.

"This might seem cynical, but if you can get pupils with D grades up to Cs then it may be worth it.

"It's not cheating because the pupils are doing the work themselves," he said. "Teachers are intelligent enough to make up their own minds."

Mr Attwood describes himself as "the most famous direct mail copywriter in the UK".

He also runs The School of Educational Administration. His books include Business Rip-offs and How to Avoid Them as well as publications on special educational needs and the sci-fi series Blake's 7.

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