A paper published today in the journal Neuron describes how the mainstream media (specifically the Daily Telegraph, Times, Daily Mail, Sun, Mirror and the Guardian) have tackled the topic of neuroscience over the past decade. The paper is a damning indictment of how the press use neuroscience as a tool with which to “portray themselves as dispassionate” whilst preaching their trademark prejudices. The paper describes how the Telegraph used research to wrongly “assert that productive female participation in both the labor market and family life is neurobiologically impossible”, while the Daily Mail miscellaneously linked “women to irrationality” (amongst countless other crimes) and the Times absurdly squealed “are gays dopamine junkies?”. The paper lists a labyrinth of logical fallacies which the media use to misrepresent neuroscience, repeatedly highlighting a tendency for:
“overextensions of research, with implications drawn far outside the original research context. This overextrapolation of research was not limited to idle speculation but sometimes extended to calls for concrete applications.”
The paper assessed the contents of nearly 3,000 articles involving neuroscience over the past decade to see which topics came up most. It’s not hard to see how the data is skewed by the media’s recent obsessions such as fish oil and narcotics. I’ve tossed the figures in to Manyeyes to make the information a little easier to digest:
Subjects Addressed within Media Coverage of Neuroscience
The paper concludes that the media has used neuroscience research “applied out of context to create dramatic headlines, push thinly disguised ideological arguments, or support particular policy agendas”. Fighting this tidal wave is the precise reason that I started this blog. For regular readers none of this will come as a surprise. I’ve previously described how the media has misrepresented everything from social networking and love to vaccination, drugs, and cognitive enhancement. I must admit that I find this issue so distressing that I have been left with the unfortunate tenancy to generally rant on the topic uncontrollably.
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With staff from Britain’s most popular newspaper suffering dawn raids by police for suspected phone hacking, the second most popular newspaper recently winning the Orwellian Prize for Journalistic Misrepresentation (nomination by yours truly), and a great proportion of the news-stand still suffering a severe preoccupation with the female anatomy while failing to accurately report any actual news whatsoever, it is a good time to reconsider your newspaper.
I’ve created a handy scientific* guide based on the results of last year’s National Readership Survey:
Research has demonstrated that the most popular and most trusted US news network may actually leave viewers both less informed and even more misinformed** than people who watch no TV news at all. I’d be willing to bet that these findings can be replicated in readers of the leading British newspapers. That’s my research proposal, any takers? It’s already been demonstrated that the majority of diet related health claims printed in the top ten newspapers are false and the bullshit certainly doesn’t stop at health or even science, so surely testing the effect of misinformation is the logical next step.
*I am of course using the term “scientific” as understood by the newspapers in the upper quartiles of this chart (by that I mean that this scientific analysis is “something I pulled straight out of my arse”). I would however, love to see this research carried out for real. The word “bullshit” has an entertaining definition, described in exquisite detail by Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt (PDF). Frankfurt’s definition applies perfectly to the contents of Britain’s leading newspapers.
**The FOX-misinformation research, (a poll by Fairleigh Dickinson University and a poll by worldpublicopinion.org) should appear of dubious quality to the informed reader but the research is certainly well within the standards of the Daily Mail, who recently carried an article based on promotional research (that doesn’t appear to even exist) apparently conducted by restaurant chain “TGI Fridays” and the Telegraph who continue to run polls that are so spectacularly biased that they are effectively rigged.
Frankfurt, H. (2005). On Bullshit. Princeton University Press
Cooper, B., Lee, W., Goldacre, B., & Sanders, T. (2011). The quality of the evidence for dietary advice given in UK national newspapers Public Understanding of Science DOI: 10.1177/0963662511401782
The Frugal Family Doctor has done a great post on an absolutely outstanding and at the same time superbly simple statistics paper that demonstrates how the numbers printed in the medical press informing us of risk are more often than not, not as they seem. The source paper is fully open access (PDF) and should be a must-read for all health journalists. That’s never going to happen so I’m hereby officially adding it to your personal reading list.
“For example, in October of 1995, the UK Committee on Safety of Medicines issued a warning that oral contraceptive pills increased risk of blood clots in legs or lungs by 100%. That number was the relative risk increase. This warning frightened patients and their doctors such that thousands of women stopped their birth control pills. However, the absolute risk reduction, if it had been calculated and broadcast, was 0.00014 (1/7000) with a number needed to harm of 7143. An unintended result of the misinformation was that the number of additional abortions in England and Wales increased by 13,000 during the year following the warning.”
The paper demonstrates that the statistical fallacy that led to the situation above is so poorly understood that when tested on it, even gynecologists for whom the mathematical problem is particularly vital, got the simple question below wrong. In fact, only 21% of the physicians asked got the answer right, that’s slightly worse than chance.
Assume you conduct breast cancer screening using mammography in a certain region. You know the following information about the women in this region:
- The probability that a woman has breast cancer is 1% (prevalence).
- If a woman has breast cancer, the probability that she tests positive is 90% (sensitivity).
- If a woman does not have breast cancer, the probability that she nevertheless tests positive is 9% (false-positive rate).
A woman tests positive. She wants to know from you whether that means that she has breast cancer for sure, or what the chances are. What is the best answer?
A. The probability that she has breast cancer is about 81%.
B. Out of 10 women with a positive mammogram, about 9 have breast cancer.
C. Out of 10 women with a positive mammogram, about 1 has breast cancer.
D. The probability that she has breast cancer is about 1%.
You can scroll to the end of this article for the answer. The problem is in two parts. Firstly, humans are inherently crap at computing percentages. The solution to this problem is to calculate and compare the actual values being referred to. Whether we like it or not, our brains tend to find it much easier to juggle whole numbers:
This effect is compounded by the fact that the percentages that we are discussing when we are talking about the “relative risk” of a disease are mind bogglingly small. A percentage alone (as is commonly reported) gives no indication to the risk in the first place:
“Consider one medication that lowers risk of disease from 20% to 10% and another that lowers it from 0.0002% to 0.0001%. Both yield a 50% relative risk reduction”
This time, journalists are not necessarily to blame. The study reports that relative risks without the base rate are not just a problem in newspapers and press releases but even such reputable journals as the Annals of Internal Medicine, BritishMedical Journal (BMJ), Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), The Lancet, and The New England Journal of Medicine have been guilty of reporting relative risk reductions without reporting the absolute risk. Thankfully this is changing with most academic publishers now requiring absolute risks be reported. Unfortunately this rarely trickles down in to press releases and even less frequently in to print media, leaving Joe Bloggs with a very distorted picture of medical research findings.
The moral of the story, if you are given a percentage that you think affects you, always find out the raw numbers. They might be much less earth shattering than you were led to believe.
C: 1 out of every 10 women who test positive in screening actually has breast cancer. The other 9 are falsely alarmed. Despite this, the physicians (who all worked in this area) “grossly overestimated the probability, most answering with 90% or 81%.
Gigerenzer, G., Gaissmaier, W., Kurz-Milcke, E., Schwartz, L., & Woloshin, S. (2007). Helping Doctors and Patients Make Sense of Health Statistics Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 8 (2), 53-96 DOI: 10.1111/j.1539-6053.2008.00033.x
It’s easy for me to go after the tabloids, it doesn’t take a genius to see how the Daily Mail is full of lies or that Fox news distorts the facts to the extend that their consumers are left knowing less than when they started. With the broadsheets it’s a different story. The broadsheets brings with them an air of respectability, a faithful following of educated intellectuals who trust the newspapers enough not to bother checking their sources, which (when you do some research) often fall apart like a year old muffin. First in the firing line is the Independent. This paper is particularly dangerous because like their sworn enemies the redtops, the Independent is predisposed to shameless hyperbole; unlike the tabloids, most people trust what the paper says.
One of the first posts I did on this blog was about how, after a ten year campaign for cannabis legalisation, the Independent made a full about turn and placed a front page apology for their actions based on only a shred of evidence. The Independent got their facts wrong on a grand scale including wrongly reporting that the ACMD were to recommend cannabis be upgraded (the opposite was true) and wrongly reporting the figures for the the increase in cannabis strength by a factor of thirty times!
Recently the Independent have continued their campaign of hyperbole filled drug scare stories with a report about Valium that failed to mention the word “Valium”. The report was littered with glaring errors – (edit: now slightly mitigated after my complaint to the PCC – see my report on the similar Hull Daily Mail article and the Metro article, both taken down after my complaints to the PCC). Of key importance is the fact that the article wrongly reports that Valium is used to treat depression when in reality Valium is an addictive anxiety drug that worsens depression. This is a severe editorial failure because the millions of people who read the Independent and who have easy access to Valium (or already use the drug recreationally) would be likely, after reading the Independent article to use the drug to self medicate if they get depressed. Conversely, the addictive nature of Valium is not mentioned in the article. The report also likens the drug to Speed, something which anyone who knows anything about Benzodiazepines will find laughable. Once again, the report seems to be little more than a reworded press release, this time from a rather spectacularly misinformed police force.
This week the Guardian’s Observer caused somewhat of a storm among the skeptic bloggers after running a fawning article about Burzynski; a controversial cancer doctor in Texas who for the past 30 years has encouraged the parents of children with cancer to send him their children to take part in his “trials”. All for a tidy sum of hundreds of thousands of dollars a pop of course.
Burzynski has never published any peer reviewed research of his findings and his licence is under investigation by US authorities. Rather than tackling his critics with debate or published work he respondents by issuing “cease and desist” libel threats to anyone who criticises him as the Quackometer and Rhys Morgan found out this week. Luckily for Burzynski, the Independent is on hand to send him a few million uncritical hits to add to his army of “placard waving supporters drummed up by PR campaigns”.
In researching this article, I stumbled across the holy grail I was looking for, a rather enlightening piece by one of the Independent’s health correspondent’s Jeremy Lawrence. The “manifesto for failure” is full of choice quotes that explain in detail the pithy reasons given for why journalists don’t bother checking facts. This piece invites the rather spectacular riposte by the target of the article, Dr. Ben Goldacre. Hopefully more of the bloggers that are doing such a sterling job of dismantling the main stream media garbage can get picked up by the major papers. Sooner rather than later please.
UPDATE 06/12/11: THE INDEPENDENT HAVE NOW AMMENDED THEIR ARTICLE FOLLOWING A PCC COMPLAINT (THEY STILL FAIL TO REFERENCE THE FACT THAT THE DRUG IN QUESTION IS ALMOST CERTAINLY “VALIUM”.)
UPDATE 05/12/11: THE METRO HAVE NOW REMOVED THEIR ARTICLE FOLLOWING A PCC COMPLAINT.
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