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Dr. Binks Blog

The rumor effect on science in media – False impressions of science through traditional media, social media, and pseudomedia

Posted on August 22, 2012 by admin

I typically have thought of writing this story when I see gross misrepresentations of the science reported in the media and further proliferated through social media and pseudomedia  (blogs). It reminds me of that game where you tell a secret and watch it grow as it is passed from person to person. Each adding their spin and interpretation until it no longer resembles the original. However today I am choosing to comment based on a very minor and subtle example to drive home a point of view that we need to be very careful in our modern media environment that includes both trained journalists and many more untrained ‘lay media’ sources like blogs and social media. Information gets out fast and through all these channels in ways that make journalists of old cringe. Gone are the days of highly trained science reporters that diligently fact-check, consult with experts, and err on the side of caution. These were trusted media sources. Although some do still exist, the sheer volume of additional information sources has all but drowned them out. Instead we see individuals of all backgrounds and levels of training (including no relevant background or training) sharing their opinion and being read by thousands, even millions. This often allows science to grow in interpretation well-beyond the original data as stories proliferate across our diverse media platforms.

The issue of cognitive decline is important in an aging population, and the abstract from ‘Neurology’ (attached link) is receiving considerable attention. Unfortunately it is a fine example of how the media (defined both as traditional media and the ‘lay media’ such as social media and blogs) can take a minor study which represents  an interesting albeit tiny piece of a large puzzle and create an impression that goes far beyond the science.

As science gets shared in modern media, at each juncture we get further and further from the realistic limitations of the study. Why? Often stories and comments in social media are written by those who represent as ‘expert’ who do not understand the actual science. Sometimes in our modern world, it is too much trouble to seek the original source. In today’s example, if you are not part of a research institution you must pay $30 to access the article from the publisher. If you work real hard you might find a free  version somewhere on the web – but not always. So even if you are aware of the importance of the original source; the best most people do is read the abstract. Interestingly, at a recent conference I saw alarming data about the lack of concordance between the abstracts and the actual printed studies in peer reviewed journals (another issue for another time). So even IF you do read the abstract, it may not match the actual peer reviewed final version of the study and lead to misrepresentation. Few people even go this far, relying instead on information based solely on the first interpretive level (a media story written about the science) especially when that source is perceived as reputable. Worse yet, many social media comments are extracted only from the headline or perhaps headline plus 3 sentence article summary; then comments and conjecture based on this 30-word version of an original source become ‘fact’ in the public eye irrespective of their relationship to the original study data and get passed on ad infinitum. The result is a belief about the science of Obesity that the public, through repeatedly seeing the same conclusion in the media, take as ‘fact’ even when it does not necessarily represent the original scientist’s appropriately conservative conclusions about his or her data.

When I first read a social media commentary about the abstract published in Neurology® that considers cognitive decline associated with obesity and metabolic comorbidities it basically said ‘you see obesity is a disease that causes cognitive decline.’ Where did this come from?

Perhaps the person read the headline and summary in the link they provided to a Science Daily report:

Obesity, Metabolic Factors Linked to Faster Cognitive Decline

ScienceDaily (Aug. 20, 2012) — People who are obese and also have high blood pressure and other risk factors called metabolic abnormalities may experience a faster decline in their cognitive skills over time than others, according to a study published in the August 21, 2012, print issue of Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

So this suggests that if you are obese AND have high blood pressure etc – you are at risk for cognitive decline – according to this summary. To their credit, they used the word ‘may’ but in my experience these subtle modifiers are often omitted as others interpret what we say about studies.

However, in the same article – a study author is quoted as saying  “Singh-Manoux said the study also provides evidence against the concept of “metabolically healthy obesity” that has suggested that obese people without metabolic risk factors do not show negative cardiac and cognitive results compared to obese people with metabolic risk factors.” So the author is implying that the study showed that obesity alone, even WITHOUT metabolic risk factors can lead to cognitive decline? The opposite of the Science Daily Headline to the article THIS QUOTE was taken from….Well which is it?

My point is not to review the study or the often conflicting information about whether cognitive decline is primary to obesity or secondary to known comorbidities that may better explain obesity-related cognitive deficits- this is a longstanding scientific question. Nor am I here to suggest this is a bad study either. These studies are necessary as we seek to understand complex issues. The authors likely took great care to articulate the limitations of their data in the actual study. They even listed some facts in the abstract that would temper even the minimally trained eye’s willingness to make sweeping generalizations like the Science Daily headline paragraph or the ensuing social media commentary. For example, the results are based on 71% male sample; hardly representative of the obese population as a whole. Oh and in fact only 9% of the participants were obese at the time of the study (far below population levels at that time) suggesting this is a unique subsample that cannot generalize to all who are obese as many comments have implied. There are more limitations, and these were likely accurately reported in the original manuscript – if it were readily available.

My point is simply this. If we present ourselves as an expert or expert source on obesity (or any other topic for that matter) in traditional media, lay media (blogs) or social media; we must be diligent in what we write and what our sources are. Write only from original sources and if necessary have someone who is well-versed in scientific methods review the commentary. Our words are taken as fact from an already confused public and we have a responsibility to them for scientific accuracy.

Neurology® Abstract at:

http://www.neurology.org/content/79/8/755.abstract (Accessed 8/22/2012)

Science Daily Article at:

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/08/120820160851.htm?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+sciencedaily%2Fhealth_medicine%2Fobesity+%28ScienceDaily%3A+Health+&+Medicine+News+–+Obesity%29 (Accessed 8/22/2012)

Posted in Health & Wellness, Public Health | 3 Comments


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