I remember in University, taking the course, ‘Research Methods in Biological and Social Sciences’, a truly excellent course (one I would recommend that they teach in high school because it is so critically important to everyday life). In any case, one of the components of the course was to take a magazine or newspaper article, like this one, and analyze the actual studies that the article cited. Invariably we learned that the headlines were ridiculously disproportionate to what the article claimed. The headlines we looked at, just a random sample, were so close to being plainly false, I was shocked.
Since then, every time someone says something about a study, I just smile and dismiss whatever it is that they are saying. Blueberries help melt away fat regardless of your diet, exercise doesn’t help you lose weight, high fat diets make you stupid, some fat in your salad is good… The list of the claims goes on and on. The thing is, studies don’t say those things at all. Even a well written article that while making claims that are consistent with the findings of the study will still make tremendous stretches from the findings.
The blueberry claim above is an article heading that comes from a study that says: Consumption of fermented blueberry juice gradually and significantly reduced high blood sugar glucose levels in diabetic mice,” said Tri Vuong, the study’s lead author (I have since searched out the actual study and it says its aim was to prove that: “Biotransformation of blueberry juice by the Serratia vaccinii bacterium gave rise to adenosine monophosphate-activated protein kinase (AMPK) phosphorylation and glucose uptake in muscle cells and adipocytes, but inhibited adipogenesis. This study investigated the antiobesity and antidiabetic potential of biotransformed blueberry juice (BJ) in KKAy mice, rodent model of leptin resistance.” There is some remarkably cool stuff in what they are researching and discovering, but there is a gulf of logic from what they are saying and what the articles heading is claiming. The thing is, the scientists who do the study would most of the time not even agree with the article headings.
This one, Sweetener ‘makes you fat and could dampen the effect of some medicines’, about Splenda is one of my favorites. The article does not cite the original study anywhere, nor the name of the researches who conducted the study. All it says is:
“Researchers who fed rats different doses of Splenda over 12 weeks found the animals put on more weight than a control group not given the sweetener.”
I have no idea what the protocol was for the study, how much Splenda the rats were given, how they were given it, what foods they were fed, etc or how much weight the rats actually gained or if the findings were statistically significant. Even then, nothing about the study claim supports the articles heading.
What I am getting at is that there is a tremendous amount of bad journalism about science out there. Tons of it. It has become the norm. Remember that article at the beginning of this entry, the one that said, Health Warning: Exercise Makes You Fat? Well, I noticed this article because a friend of mine sent me a link to a fantastic blog by a person who is bothered considerably more than I am by the bad science and journalism. The blog itself is called Bad Science and it should be read by everyone. This entry, the one I am linking to, tears apart the newspaper article above by reviewing the actual studies that the article cites, and goes on to point out just how dangerous bad journalism can be.
Please, don’t pay attention to the scientific articles any longer. Be the one in your office who looks up the study, sees what it says and informs the people at the water cooler what the scientists actually discovered, not what the newspaper wants you to believe.
Misleading journalism like this is becoming a genuine public health problem. We’ve previously seen the evidence that people change their health behaviour in response to what they read in the media. To add to this, the World Cancer Research Fund recently commissioned a survey from YouGov. This was a proper survey, in a representative sample, from a reputable data collector, where anyone is allowed to see the questions and the results, not a secret PR survey to get free advertising in a newspaper.
Half of all respondents said they thought scientists and doctors were constantly changing their minds about healthy living advice, although in reality, healthy living advice hasn’t changed at all for at least a decade (don’t smoke, do some exercise, eat more fruit and veg). And a quarter of all respondents said that because scientists keep changing their minds, you might as well eat whatever you want, because it won’t make any difference anyway. Have another pastry and put the telly on.
Ben Goldacre-Bad Science Blog