‘Scientific Yediot Aharonot’

Way, way back, in my antedeluvian medical school days, when a student would quote a medical factoid with little basis in reality (or just guessed wrong on a question posed him), the professors would smile patronizingly and ask, “Where’d you get that one from, Scientific Yediot Aharonot?”. They were referring to Israel’s largest daily newspaper, which, let’s face it, isn’t quite the (scientific) journalistic equivalent of the Scientific American. Needless to say, we quickly learned that you can’t rely on reports in the mass media for accurate protrayal of the results of medical research.

Newspaper editors, in stark contrast to medical journal editors, are more interested in providing a good story and ‘scooping’ the competition than getting at the truth. It’s not that newspapers lie, necessarily. But you can’t presume the medical information is entirely accurate or correct. Sometimes, in the interest of getting a good headline, the newspaper will overstate what the study actually shows.

Newspapers also rarely distinguish between good and lousy research – something more easily elucidated from whether a study actually manages to get published in a respected medical journal, and what other experts on the subject have to say – i.e, peer review. I recently told you about some research which merited a report in ‘Scientific CNN’ regarding baby buggies ; in this case, the study (though not published or peer reviewed) was available online, so we could all see what it actually showed and its lack of scientific merit. But in most cases, the study is only in the hands of the researchers at the time the news goes to press.

I get that it’s cool for a newspaper to ‘scoop’ scientific research findings. I even get that researchers want the world at large to know about their research – which they naturally feel is groundbreaking and that they, themselves, believe to be valid. But reporting about studies about to be presented at scientific gatherings is not evidence the studies presented are good ones. The findings shown at a conference may be interesting, but the selection of a study to be presented at a given conference doesn’t mean its results are correct. It’s hard to do peer review from a bunch of slides hurriedly presented at a conference – and in any case, the reporting of the studies’ findings in the general press takes place even in advance of that. The findings also need to be compared to the existing body of research.

Colin over at Science-based Parenting has a post up regarding a study about cosleeping reported in the British Telegraph titled “Sharing a bed with a baby does not increase risk of cot death, research shows “. Does it, in fact show this? I have no idea. Neither does anyone else, except maybe (and that’s a big ‘maybe’) the few people who attended the Conference it was presented at…a few days later, and for all we know, the participants all shook their heads after the lecture and said, “How do they let crap research like this in a serious conference?”. Either way, the public (both scientific and general) has no way of discerning the quality of this research from the little reported. Perhaps the Telegraph‘s scientific reporter, Laura Donnelly, was shown the study’s data, perhaps the conference just put out a press release; we know nothing about her qualifications or her ability to peer-review medical articles. If and when it gets published in a medical journal, it’ll have to undergo both editorial review and that of the medical public (and those of the general public who are interested and scientifically literate).

Ditto for another recent piece of research published recently, also well in advance of presentation or publication: Breast-Fed Baby May Mean Better Behaved Child.

Add yet another potential benefit to breast-feeding: Fewer behavioral problems in young children.

Parents of youngsters who were breast-fed as infants were less likely to report that their child had a behavior problem or psychiatric illness during the first five years of life, a new study found.

While wryly noting to myself that my longest-breastfed baby (#2, at 21 months) is also the one who has ADHD, I’ll be taking this with a huge grain of salt until I see the actual published study.

By the way, I’ve noticed the press is very quick to jump on certain types of research; those touting the benefits of breastfeeding seem very popular. If you can stand another med school vignette of mine…after 3 years of medical school, we were awarded a B.Sc in the Basic Medical Sciences. One of the requirements to receive this honor was to deliver an undergraduate thesis on a subject of our choosing. A very good friend of mine did an interesting research project on the epidemiology of bronchiolitis (an infantile respiratory infection most often caused by RSV). Under the tutelage of her proctor, a pediatric pulmonologist, she interviewed a large number of families, half of whose babies were hospitalized for bronchiolitis and half whose babies attended a community clinic for other reasons, and took sputum samples from them all for virological analysis. She found quite a few factors associated with babies getting bronchiolitis – IIRC, the most prominent of them being a family history of wheezing/asthma and how many people shared a room with the baby. Among the associations was that there were fewer breastfed babies among those who were hospitalized for bronchiolitis. (Keep in mind this was an undergraduate thesis; it was not reveiwed by anyone but her proctor and never published). Somehow, the national press got wind of her study.

Wanna guess which of these facts were later published in ‘Scientific’ Yediot Aharonot?


4 Responses

  1. Good point. The press is generally quick to jump on hot button science issues, but they are slow to correct their knee jerk articles when the study turns out to be a dud.

    It’s important for scientists and doctors to write letters to the editors and insist that poor science articles are updated and corrected.

    I’ve learned that science news usually ignores the limitations of a study and touts the headlines. I fall victim to that too, since I’m not a professional, but I will happily update my posts when better information comes in.


  2. This is so true. The media specializes in sensationalism not accuracy.

    As a journalist I’ve worked with two kinds of editors: those terrified of controversy and those in love with it. Walking a line between the two is not easy.

    The problem is that advertising plays a bigger role in reporting than it should. You have those companies that relish ANY kind of attention no matter how negative. Then you have companies that are very scared of it.

    The problem is that the general public at large is probably smarter than the advertisers or editors but the media doesn’t trust them. So they basically play to the lowest ends of the spectrum on either side leaving the sane middle to try and get at at the actual truth.

    Unfortunately finding that truth is not at all easy.

  3. I first became familiar with factoid reality when I was pregnant. 37 year-olds get plied with a lot of scary things about their health and the health of the baby, because they waited soooo long to have children (I really think a lot of it is more social control).

    Take Down syndrome, the message is your risk of a DS baby goes up dramatically after the age of 35. Well, yes, but the incidence is still less than 1%. A little closer reading of the studies shows that 80% of Down syndrome children are born to women under 35, but that’s never a headline.

  4. I used to teach a research methods class for psych majors at a local university. Most of the course was focused on study design, but I also gave an assignment where every week 2 or 3 students would have to find a recent newspaper article reporting on a scientific study, track down the original research (if possible), and give a brief presentation summarizing both and then the class would have a discussion where we would critically analyze both the actual research and the reporting of that research.

    I occasionally get emails from former students telling me that was the single most valuable assignment they ever completed in university. It was often really eye opening, just how misleading the reporting could be. My favourite was the ‘study’ that turned out to actually be a promotional press release from some sort of plastic surgery organization, but was reported on as though it was an actual scientific study.

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