The Mölnlycke O.R. blog
Scientific (Mis)-communication: Cleaning up the act
The first in a three-part series on the need for media responsibility and clearer healthcare communication, as issues like antibiotic resistance and public health epidemics like Ebola make headlines.
In the UK, headline-grabbing scientific news stories, if not about recent outbreaks of terrifying diseases, such as Ebola, are often food related, e.g. one study claims “alcohol is bad for you1” but another claims “red wine is good for you2”; sometimes this reporting causes the layperson to distrust these messages or regard them as some kind of government conspiracy or complicity with industry to make us eat or drink what they want or help industry sell its products.
The general public is not alone in this view. I remember seeing a social media status update from a nurse friend last year, reading, “Oh the scientists are at it again, changing their minds as to what we can and cannot eat!” Even a medical professional, whom I thought would have more confidence in scientific messages, is sick and tired of seeing scientific messages all over the press and has grown to distrust them!
Why ARE scientists getting such bad press (when it is in fact not scientists writing mainstream articles about their study findings)? If we remember our school science lessons (sorry if this is a while back for some of our readers), a hypothesis is formed and then a series of experiments is carried out to either prove or disprove this hypothesis. Therefore, it’s just the facts - nothing more.
But when the media get their hands on a scientific study, the resulting article they produce often adds emotion to turn it into a story that its readers will want to read, which often emphasizes the wrong details, misinterprets study findings and elevates the story to something completely out of proportion.
Mainstream reporting about these issues also fails to take into account the often quite limited scope and research question that guided such studies. Much of the very specific wording, key to the meaning and interpretation of the study results, ends up missing from the journalistic rendering. That is, a study may support the conclusion that “one glass of red wine is good for your blood pressure but should be taken in moderation”, but a headline skips the “one glass”, and results are reported as extremes. Mainstream media may take liberties, reporting very broad generalized interpretations, extrapolating “facts” that support the most extreme conclusions, regardless of how misleading this is.
Why is it that scientists get the blame instead of the media?
Could it just be a lack of understanding that causes distrust, or that these messages seem to go hand in hand with new government initiatives, thus making the scientific findings seem less objective?
The “Committee for Public Understanding of Science” (CoPUS)3 has since the 1990s worked with many different expert groups to investigate ways to better engage with the public, learning lessons from unfounded public concerns regarding power lines causing cancer (long running debate since 1979)4, to Andrew Wakefield announcing in 1998 that the MMR vaccine causes autism with a definite absence of evidence, which has now been determined as having no causal link5.
It is from these very public lessons that our beloved evidence-based medicine has evolved, in that all the evidence is reviewed on a level setting with just the facts, hence reducing bias as much as possible, to get the best outcome from the intervention that we give our patients. This is as close to true scientific principles as we get today.
And how does this tie into media responsibility in scientific and medical communication?
Whilst listening to the radio in the car recently, there was a public health warning that came on during the adverts regarding taking antibiotics for a cold. Basically the ad cautioned that antibiotics do not work against viruses, so people should not take them or else they will become useless for other people to use “if we wear them out”.
The coming era of antibiotic resistance is perhaps one of the most alarming and emergent issues, one about which the media could easily misreport and create public hysteria. Hearing this advert filled me with hope that we are moving toward a trend of responsible media reporting about basic scientific problems. Given the media tendency to overhype, exaggerate and take scientific information out of context, it was heartening to hear such an important public health issue as antibiotic stewardship being treated responsibly, with the media turning a potential public health crisis into an opportunity for creating a platform for clearer, better communication and discussions on viable alternatives.
In the next parts of this series, I will explore antibiotic stewardship, antiseptics, hand hygiene and the responsible sharing of scientific information to ensure that the media paint the whole picture.
- Editorial, Wakefield’s article linking MMR vaccine and autism was fraudulent. BMJ 2011;342:c7452