Sometimes, it sucks being a grown up. I’ve actually had enough time to write some blog posts recently but other events have left me with a lack of motivation for anything other than eating cake and reading Tudor crime novels under a blanket (it’s a fairly niche slump). Anyway, in an attempt to drag myself out of it, before any more Lutheran priests meet a grisly end, I’ve decided to revisit some old blog posts as a way of sharing tips on how to spot dodgy science and health stories. The reproductive lives of the Tudor queens may have been subject to much debate and gossip, but hey, we modern Mums have to deal with medical advice from the Daily Mail!
First up in what will hopefully be a series of posts – Publication By Press Release:
What is supposed to happen when a scientist completes a study or set of experiments it that she/he writes it all up and sends it to a scientific journal who get other experts in the field to check it. They then usually ask for a few corrections and maybe some extra data and decide if the work is good enough to be published. It’s a process known as peer review and there are any number of flaws in it but it is the best available system for scientific publishing and the one all scientists are supposed to
endure engage with.
Increasingly though I see cases where this isn’t happening. A good example came almost exactly a year ago when a whole raft of news outlets got all excited over initial results from a study hoping to increase breast feeding rates by giving breast feeding Mums shopping vouchers. You can read my post from the time here but essentially this wasn’t a story about a published paper, it was based on the author planing to give a presentation at a meeting. As I said at the time, you could in theory get up and say any old nonsense you wanted at a scientific meeting so simply planning to speak at one tells us nothing about the quality of what will be said. Of course if you do talk rot you’ll face some pretty stiff questioning from the audience afterwards and I hope that happened in this case, I certainly had a lot of queries about the quality of the study! Interestingly, a year on, I still can’t find any published results. To be fair the peer review process can be achingly slow but so far all that seems to have come out of this much touted study is two papers about how the study team sought opinions from a small number of women and health care professionals. Not very impressive, and really not worthy of repeat slots on breakfast news!
Instead of waiting until the study had been assessed and the results checked, someone, somewhere (I could probably take a guess at who), decided to get some media attention and put out a press release and because the media just luurve stories about health/ breast feeding/ women’s bodies/ judging poor people that press release was gratefully picked up.
So who’s to blame for this kind of non-story? It’s tempting (presumably unless you are one) to just blame the journalists, looking for sensational stories and to hell with the truth. Sometimes that’s fair, In an ideal world a journalist receiving a press release about some scientific research would check the published data and seek out alternative expert opinions. But we’re not talking about getting this done in time for tonight’s print run or the 10pm news bulletin anymore. If it’s news, it needs to be up online and on social media in hours or perhaps minutes and it needs to compete in an almost infinite fight for attention. So perhaps it’s not surprising that journalists often depend on a press release from a respectable institution being accurate. In the immortal words of Whitney Huston: It’s not right, but it’s ok.
Actually no it’s not ok, but I had that song in my head for some reason, anywaaay,
Sometimes the blame for this sort of thing needs to be shared out. If the journalists are relying on university press releases to be accurate, then university press officers need to make sure they are. But again there is a conflict. Not putting out a press release because something isn’t published yet isn’t going to get you any publicity, so there is an understandable temptation to take any opportunity to get your institution talked about. The scientists themselves should be checking that press releases are an accurate reflection of their work but this also doesn’t always happen. Scientists are ordinary people they’re busy, they may be under pressure to publish or at least get some publicity and some ordinary people just really like their own opinions and/or their 15 minutes or fame.
Which brings me on to another old blog post. In this case there was a published paper, but it bears little resemblance to the the press coverage it generated. According to the Telegraph and (oh yes) The Daily Mail, we should all co-sleep/bedshare with our children until they are three. Not because they like it or it’s just the only way for anyone to get some sleep sometimes, but because not doing so results in lasting damage to children’s hearts and harms brain development causing behavioral problems later in life. Pretty damn scary news if, like me, your kid was actually pretty happy in her own cot most of the time. But the paper says absolutely nothing about these dreadful long term problems, it looked at the heart rate of a few newborns being held by their mother and compared that to their heart rate when they were in a crib. Presumably one of the authors got rather carried away and extrapolated wildly from that to the three years or brain damage headlines. The media were happy to go along with it because hey look! Another opportunity to tell Mum’s we’re doing it wrong!
All this bugs me. There is loads of good, interesting, important science going on out there. A small proportion of which offers real, useful advice to improve people’s health and well being. But when small, unchecked, unproven studies start fighting for column inches or the stories that reach the public are wild fantasies based only vaguely on the evidence, then how can anyone know what to believe and act on? The valuable stuff gets crowded out or people simply feel drowned in information and give up on all of it.
Clearly most parents have one or two other things to do and don’t have time to conduct their own personal scientific literature review for every single bit of health advice so here are a few things to look out for in a news story which may suggest you’re looking at Publication By Press Release rather than a properly checked over bit of research.
Publication By Press Release
If a health news story meets any of these criteria, it may be a bit dodgy:
- There is no mention of or reference to a scientific paper
- The story says the information will be presented at a meeting
- The story says the information came from an interview or other media article
- The only quotes and opinions come from people who worked on the research
Basically just don’t ever put too much faith in one off bits of information and advice in the media and online.
Like for example information and advice on random blogs.