Information is thrown at you every day. Your mind's tickertape
is constantly updating with things seen online, told to you by a
friend, heard on the radio, or read in what I call "olde timey
print." Often, these items involve a new, breakthrough in
medication or treatment. Usually posted by a friend with the best
intentions, these articles sometimes make me cringe because of a
noticeable pattern in delivery. I've become suspicious of any
headlines that have
cure, cause, or
revolutionary in them. Almost every time I can look the next
day and find a
better explanation of what's going on.
There's a general thought among social scientists (one that has
also governed journalists for the past several decades) that
frustration or skepticism among the public toward new technologies
or discoveries stems from a lack of knowledge and the way to fix
this is to flood people with information. This is called the
information deficit model of science communication. Newspaper
articles are one example of filling this judgement gap. The problem
is the underlying mindset that if a journalist provides the news,
the public will understand the true nature of what they are
reading. Basically the, "Well you know what I mean," approach. So
when a writer inflates a discovery's importance or over-simplifies
conclusive evidence, it's not always apparent to a reader not
familiar with the subject.
Operating under the guise of fixing the health news information
deficit between the reader and the scientific health community,
publishers frequently use this very deficit to their advantage.
Example: a reporter will take it upon themselves to (mis)interpret
complicated scientific jargon pulled from a press release into
something more digestible, yet still interesting to their readers.
Basically, it's if you combined the technique of writing at a 7th-grade
level with spin
journalism. This is how "Taking Aspirin Leads to Two Fewer
Strokes per 1,000 Woman Over a Six Year Period" becomes "
Aspirin Reduces Risk of Stroke in Women by 24 Percent." The
deficit also impacts the communication link between the scientific
researchers and writers. If a writer doesn't understand all facets
of the research, he or she may not fact check in order to meet a
deadline or even print the press release verbatim.
All these seemingly innocuous blurred truths have a huge impact
on people's consciousness of the current state of health care and
medicine. This in turn affects the clinical trial and research
industry. Many pharmaceutical researchers want you to be aware of
how crucial words like "possibly" and "potential" are to treatment
outcomes. They want you to be not only well-informed but to also
have the correct information. These are all important factors in
how a treatment will be properly marketed or prescribed. But some
publishers of articles count on casual readers' ignorance
of these points to sell their "game changing" news.
So, how do you judge breaking health news?
- Make sure the story cites more than one study or source.
Otherwise it could be taken directly from a press release that
could be biased.
- Know the numbers behind percentages. One in 10 people does not
hold the same weight as 10 in 100.
- Follow the link (if given) to the study results; it's always
best to go to the source.
- Articles shouldn't rely on customer anecdotes. Costumer
anecdotes are sometimes used in place of insufficient data.
- Find out in which phase of research the treatment or medicine
is currently. Phase III is right before FDA approval, and
pre-clinical studies are still testing in animals. (Side-note: Only
5 in 5,000 drugs make it to clinical trial testing from
pre-clinical studies. After that, only 1 in 5,000 of those drugs
have a chance to make it to market. The whole process can take 12
to 15 years). Most things you see that say "animal testing showed
positive results" will never make it to fruition.
**This article is based on On the Media's
A Skeptic's Guide to Health News and Diet Fads published on
Friday, July 31, 2015.