We Don’t Need No (Science) Education

When the media gets it wrong, there can be serious repercussions on the health decisions of the man on the street.


AsianScientist (Jan. 30, 2015) – Science journalism is a difficult job. Scientists do the experiments, analyze the results and compile it all in a paper. It is the job of the science journalist to read the paper and put it into language that the broader public can understand. Science journalism is a job that basically entails educating the public about this deep, dark black hole that is Science.

A prime example of this difficult job would be the recent furore over how bad luck causes cancer. Unless you’ve been without Internet over the past couple of months, you’ve probably heard of the now infamous Science paper titled “Variation in cancer risk among tissues can be explained by the number of stem cell divisions”. It’s also been wrongly thrown into the mainstream media wind, spouting articles with completely sensational headlines such as “Most cancer types just ‘bad luck’” or “Two thirds of adult cancers are largely ‘down to bad luck’ rather than genes”.

Claims and consequences

I always thought that the concept of “luck” was very much one rooted in centuries of superstition, mysticism, religion and emotion. For cancer scientists, it must have been extremely disarming to read a news article from credible news sources that debunks years’ worth of studies that have proven repeatedly that cancers are, indeed, preventable.

It turns out that the paper makes a claim that is not quite so extreme. The paper suggests that the lifetime risk of cancers of different types is strongly correlated with the total number of divisions of self-renewing cells that maintain tissue. There is, however, no data suggesting what proportion of cancers are DUE to cell division.

The authors, Tomasetti and Vogelstein, have said in a separate press release, “Some have misunderstood our research to say that two-thirds of cancer cases are due to bad luck. We want to stress that cancer is caused by a combination of many factors. Referring back to our car analogy, we can’t say that two-thirds of accidents are caused solely by the length of the trip.”

What bothered me the most was that this made the front page in local papers in Malaysia. Can you imagine the reaction among the aunties and uncles of Kuala Lumpur? “Eat lah, eat lah, who cares! Sure die of cancer anyway.”

Careless extrapolation?

While the paper is still being hotly debated in the cancer community, it is easy to see why irresponsible and some extremely sensational health journalism has become the bane of many scientists. It is the reason why many scientists refuse to talk to the media about their work: out of fear that their work will be completely misinterpreted, torn apart and have completely misguided consequences.

In another example, as part of a public health communications assignment, I discovered a Daily Mail article that posed the ever so thoughtful question: “Is caffeine in fizzy drinks making teenagers stupid? Coffee, cola and energy drinks could ‘slow brain development’”. The article referred to a scientific article in PloS One entitled “The Effects of Caffeine on Sleep and Maturational Markers in the Rat”. The paper describes the effects of caffeine on sleep and maturational markers in juvenile rats.

However, the sensationalist title itself suggests that the study was conducted among humans. The Daily Mail article rather humorously went on to describe how caffeine could make teenagers develop slower than normal. The study made no such claim. The conclusion merely read, “no matter what mechanism applies, our study shows that caffeine interferes with cortical maturation during a critical development period.”

The study never conclusively extrapolated its findings to extend to humans; they concluded, “no matter what mechanism applies, our study shows that caffeine interferes with cortical maturation during a critical development period.” This is a very conservative conclusion, compared to how the Daily Mail says caffeine could, indeed, make you “stupid”.

A better way to bridge the gap

The intended audience of such articles is the wider, less scientific savvy public. The Daily Mail has a 100 million unique visits to its website per month. That is a staggering number of clicks, eyes and brains, further emphasizing the need for responsible reporting.

Health communications plays an increasingly important role in bridging the gap between the scientific community and the general population. It is the sole responsibility of scientific magazines, health journalists and even wellness bloggers to spread non-sensationalist news out into the world.

Unfortunately, contrary to what Pink Floyd sang angrily some 40 years ago, we do need an education.

This article is from a monthly column called Our Small World. Click here to see the other articles in this series.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Shutterstock.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Annabel is currently a 2nd year Masters in Public Health student at Yale University. She received her MEng in biomedical engineering from Imperial College London in 2010. She spent the summer of 2014 researching substance abuse in Tanzania. She has a keen interest in food, yoga and metal music.

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