A modest proposal for the science media (1)

September 17, 2013 at 11:18 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments
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(Feel free to take it in the spirit of the great Jonathan Swift’s original.)

What prompted the proposal

Most mornings, I say hello to the Internet. In return, I find a slew of press releases, heralding recent, or even advance, publications in neuroscience, psychology, medicine and health.

Two in particular have caught my eye of late. One, a study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, proposed a link between omega-3 fatty acids and prostate cancer. The second, in the prestigious journal PNAS, proposed a link between copper (Cu) and Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Both were much discussed in the media. They triggered this particular piece of devil’s advocacy, but they’re only two examples of very many, and my beef is not with them, but with the system that produced them.

Everything’s bad for you

As it happens, I do some editorial work for a small research charity, the Institute for Food, Brain and Behaviour (IFBB), and I was recently at a colloquium with some people who’ve spent their careers researching omega-3 fatty acids. Let’s just say that when I heard about the fatty acids/prostate cancer article, I raised a sceptical eyebrow; when they heard, they tore its methods into little tiny pieces. You can read a brief summary of some of the criticisms on the IFBB website.

This isn’t just abstract theorising, or scientists quarrelling among themselves. It matters. I’ve already been told of one elderly man who’s very anxious about whether he should stop taking fish oil supplements. The stress has probably already done him more harm than the omega-3s ever will – but he believes what he reads in the papers, as many people do.

(And yes, a cynic might say he shouldn’t, but that’s close to accepting it’s OK for papers to print stuff that is, when you get down to it, not true.)

The copper/Alzheimer’s study is preliminary work, done in mice and in human cell cultures. What the authors say in the paper is this:

“Whereas the role of environmental factors in the development of the sporadic form of AD is controversial, long-term exposure to higher levels of Cu may contribute to this process, at least in some cases.”

Note the qualifications: ‘may’, ‘in some cases’.

By the time this reached the press release, it had acquired the headline, ‘Copper identified as culprit in Alzheimer’s disease’, a warning advertisement – how to tell if you’re about to get Alzheimer’s – and (because most of us don’t chew on copper pipes, though we may get our drinking water from them) a list of copper-containing foods.

Why? Are we to stop eating “red meats, shellfish, nuts, and many fruits and vegetables”, for fear of dementia? Or perhaps we should merely cut down on these foods? Red meat I can understand; both doctors and environmentalists keep telling us we should be eating less of that. But surely the benefits of fruit and veg outweigh the risk of dementia? – especially given everything else that’s been linked to Alzheimer’s over the years.

The press release’s last two paragraphs, for those who get so far, are more cautious. They read as follows:

However, because metal is essential to so many other functions in the body, the researchers say that these results must be interpreted with caution.

“Copper is an essential metal and it is clear that these effects are due to exposure over a long period of time,” said Deane. “The key will be striking the right balance between too little and too much copper consumption. Right now we cannot say what the right level will be, but diet may ultimately play an important role in regulating this process.”

Indeed. So why isn’t this right at the top of the press release?

To be fair, the press release provides a link to the article, which not all of them do. It’s got quotes from the authors, and it does a good job of explaining. It’s not a bad example of the genre.

And yet …

This is one study. On animals and cells, not people. It has a plausible mechanism, which is more than many nutritional epidemiology studies do, but it seriously needs replication. Not everyone agrees on what causes Alzheimer’s, and no one’s saying copper is the only ‘culprit’, that morally-laden word. (Bad chemical! Stop tormenting those brains!) Possible causes for this awful disease frequently hit the headlines, long before we’ve any idea whether they really are ‘the’, or even ‘a’ culprit. We still can’t do much to help someone with Alzheimer’s.

Likewise, one study hinting at a possible link between omega-3 fatty acids and prostate cancer does not make a theory, let alone a major new truth.

Health reporting implies the impossible

Besides, even if ye ordinary hassled consumer swears off eating anything with either copper or omega-3 fatty acids in it, that doesn’t mean he’ll dodge either Alzheimer’s or cancer. There’s this implicit claim: if you can only eat/behave/think properly, your life will be long and healthy, your old age serene, and your death an easy one. The definition of ‘properly’ varies, but it’s always presented as having the authority of science behind it. This causes problems if the report is also trying to emphasise how new and revolutionary its wonderful new findings are, because it makes science look as featherweight as the media.

With the claim comes a nasty moral innuendo: if you’re ill, it’s your fault, your failure. This victim-blaming isn’t just abstract psychologising. In the UK, disabled people are now often labelled as ‘benefit scroungers’, as if their inability to work is either a) a lie, or b) entirely self-inflicted. It isn’t.

Where’s the evidence that a single, perfect lifestyle for health exists? Or, for that matter, that people whose lifestyles aren’t perfect are morally flawed?

And this doesn’t just apply to health issues. The ideas that

• all our problems can be fixed by physicists, chemists, engineers, etc.

• good enough tech will obviate the need for hard work

• if we could only get the systems right we’d be able to erase human wickedness

• you are a failure if you do not know about — or at least, have an opinion on — far, far more than any previous generation of humans

are just as dubious, yet all are implied in the breathless reporting of advances in science, new technologies, and institutional failures.

This isn’t just froth. It matters. These assumptions worm their way into our heads, changing both our behaviour and our attitudes to others. They set up false expectations. When those expectations fail, we blame the people who couldn’t meet them, not the media who spread them. We also torment ourselves with our efforts to achieve an impossible perfection. The result is unnecessary unhappiness.

In my next post, I’ll consider a modest proposal for reform.

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5 Comments »

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  1. […] my previous post, I discussed two examples of high-profile science. One, a study published in the Journal of the […]

  2. Do you think the big ‘fructose’ scare is another unjustified vilification like the big ‘egg’ scare of the past? I never gave up my eggs & I won’t give up my fruit. I figure you can’t go far wrong with whole foods. The media are also irresponsible and could do with a good reality check.
    Great Post
    Jean Harrison

    • Jean, thanks for your comment. I was recently told by a nutrition researcher that a useful rule-of-thumb was “the less processed the food, the better it is for you”. So he’d say a vehement yes to whole foods! As for the fructose, I’m with you on that; I’d need to see a lot more data before I stopped eating fruit.

      • The ‘Foodies’ don’t seem to appreciate the fact that enjoyment counts. I became interested in food when I contacted Palindromic Rheumatoid Arthritis – crippled for nigh-on 3 years. I’m now pain free most of the time with zero medication.

        My ‘spit-the-dummies’ are in the field of education. The ‘Foodies’ pale into insignificance when compared to the so-call ‘Educators.’

        I love your posts – they are a leveller for me.

  3. Great post. I work in science so that I know findings need to be couched carefully to avoid Chicken Little Syndrome.

    Good post. I think it was, anyway. But I don’t really remember … What did I eat?


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