Science Reporting: What would you have us do ?

Posted on September 21, 2009


These comments are not solely directed at Mike Hanlon, Fiona Macrae, nor the Daily Mail.  They are mentioned here simply as a response to the comments made by Mike Hanlon (Daily Mail Science Editor) during the Ben Goldacre / Lord Drayson debate.   Fiona Macrae’s article was not discussed during the debate and its use does not imply that I think every article by the author is inaccurate.  An interview with Fiona Macrae can be found here on Sense About Science

In defence of the quality of scientific reporting in the UK media Mr Hanlon commented that 2 years ago he did a survey of 10 years worth of published papers on research into coffee, is it good for you or is it bad for you.  He found 91 major, peer reviewed papers, 46 concluded that coffee was bad and 45 that coffee was good.  He also stated that on this subject there are around 6 studies every 3 years, most of which are contradictory.
Based on this, he asked Ben Goldacre … What would you have us do ?

Well I’m not a scientist, not a journalist nor healthcare professional.  I’m simply somebody who reads the news papers and has to try to distinguish the valid reports from amongst the pile of garbage that often passes for science or health reporting in the UK media!
…….. And in case any of you journalist have forgotten, It’s people like me who read your articles !

Clearly nobody expects journalists to spend millions on conducting their own peer reviews or sit in labs for weeks on end with the scientists and I understand that these were not offered as serious suggestions.

The problem Mike Hanlon raised was that journalists could only base their article on the published (peer reviewed) paper and new reports often contradicted earlier findings.

That’s fine, base your article on the latest research but report the findings as accurately as possible.  If the latest research contradicts earlier work (as in the case of coffee), don’t just leave your article there, put the results of the latest report into context with the earlier research.  In other words ……

Tell your readers exactly what you told Ben Goldacre 91 major papers, 45 in favour or coffee and 46 against! And that overall the findings would seem to be pretty inconclusive.

It’s a fairly simple concept to understand, it’s not your fault if the scientists can’t agree on the benefits of coffee, but it is your fault if you fail to report it accurately or your article leaves the reader confused about the issue!
As a quick example of poor/confusing reporting I’ll just take a quick look at one article from the Daily Mail in May 2009:  Although just a single article, it serves as a pretty good example of the nonsense reporting that destroys the credibility of the good reporting:

Article:Man flu is not a myth: Female hormones give women stronger immune systems
Author: Fiona Macrae (links to list of Fiona Macrae’s Daily Mail articles)

Date: 13 May 2009

It’s a fairly small article but contains a number of areas that either misrepresent the facts or ignore them all together. I’m not going to list them all; instead here are links to the Daily Mail article and a far more reliable summary of the research on the NHS Choices website:

Man flu is not a myth – Daily Mail version:

Man flu is not a myth – NHS Choices version:

The first half of the article would seem to be little more that nonsense, printed simply to justify the headline.
“Researchers found that women have a more powerful immune system than men thanks to their hormones”
1.    Not during this research they didn’t!

DM:The study showed that the female sex hormone oestrogen boosts the immune system’s first line of attack against bacteria and other invaders
1.    Genetically modified female mice would have been a more accurate statement!
2.    She correctly reported protection against bacteria …. But flu is a virus!

DM:The research focused on an enzyme called caspase-12
1.    The vast majority of people do not have an active caspase-12 producing gene.
2.  A report entitled
Losing gene activity can be good for your health’ published by the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute  in The Human Genome, “suggests that a gene called caspase-12 has been inactivated in the human population because the active gene can lead to poorer response to bacterial infection.”

The second half of the article seems to make a token effort to return to the content of the research and comments on the trial being conducted on mice …… that’s mice, not humans and not women.  There are even comments that this resistance to bacteria has it’s roots ‘deep in evolution’.

However, before thinking that those comments provide justification that the article is well reported we should remind ourselves of the opening phrase of the headline  “Man flu is not a myth:”

Surely people like Mike Hanlon and Lord Drayson can see that as long as articles like this are presented to the public under the guise of ‘science reporting’  where  the actual findings of a study are hidden behind inaccuracies and headlines where sensationalism seems to be more important that the facts then the quality of that reporting should be questioned.

It is bad enough that reporting like this is being passed of as ‘scientific’ even worse is that others defend it, or at least allow it to go unchallenged.  As long as that happens we need people like Ben Goldacre campaign for improvements,  engage people in open debate ……  and to call well meaning science ministers to account !

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