And now–what you can do about it

So by now, I imagine most of you have seen the Last Week Tonight with John Oliver scientific studies spotlight from May 8.  If not, here’s the Youtube clip.  Watch it.  I’ll wait….

As a former researcher and current medical writer who evaluates scientific literature on a daily basis, I applaud Mr. Oliver for his hilarious perspective on the clusterf*ck of medical reporting in the mainstream media.  I encounter cringe-worthy science “news” on a near daily basis–it was one of the motiving factors for starting this blog and it is a huge problem.  From the couch to the lab bench, we are all responsible for this mess.

And now–what you can do about it:

Mr. Joe General:  Consider your source before disseminating information for which you know nothing about.  I’m not trying to be disparaging or rude here, I do this when I’m in a discussion about politics, tech, or heck even sports (which I do know a little about), but for which I understand that the source I’m choosing to listen to (be it liberal or Boston-based) has an agenda.

This bears repeating because it is so crucial.  Everyone–every publishing house, news agency, celebrity, anonymous online commenter, interviewer, interviewee, even John Oliver, has undisclosed motivations.  They may or may not be financial, political, or emotional, but they exist.

If you’re not going to go the extra step to evaluate a scientific report or ask a professional before telling your colleagues, sharing it on Facebook, or worst of all changing something about your life, then you’re part of the problem.  Don’t be that guy.  Without the shares, downloads, and likes media outlets will be less likely to disseminate useless information.

This doesn’t mean taking a backseat to science.  We don’t want disinterest, but we need focused interest on the things that matter most to our health, well-being, and life on this planet.

If you’re interested in a scientific report–great!  Go find the study (if the study is not cited, DO NOT share the information!).  You don’t need to know all the jargon (I apologize for that, by the way) and you may not even need the full text article (open source science literature is a blog for another day), just ask yourself a few questions:

vetting science in the media

Dr. Phyllis Physician:  You may or may not be directly involved in research.  If you are, please also read the section for Dr. Sam Scientist below.  If not, that doesn’t expunge you from some responsibility here.  You have been trained to evaluate medical literature for the purpose of helping patients.  So, when you see poor science reporting and don’t do anything about it, you’re just as responsible as those who put it out there.  Of course, this isn’t grounds for malpractice because you haven’t directly harmed anyone, but perhaps you should consider how beneficial your actions could be if you did do something.

A great example of the way a couple of physicians have decided to tackle this challenge is the podcast 2 Docs Talk by Drs. Amy Rogers and Kendall Britt.  In this short, weekly podcast, Drs. Rogers and Britt discuss a medical topic and the studies that exist about it.  They are honest when there are no studies or very poor studies that support a claim, especially if it’s an idea, drug, or diet that is popular in the media.

Not all physicians have to go to such great lengths as producing a podcast to do something about poor science reporting.  I follow a number of doctors on Twitter and many others also blog.  Outside of social media, it’s important to discuss these issues with your patients (and friends and family, for that matter).  This approach may not be as far-reaching as one could get through the internet, but the motivations to help those you care about are strong and worthwhile.

“There is no doubt, some of this is on us, the viewing audience.
We like fun, poppy science that we can share like gossip.”

-John Oliver

Mr. Robby Reporter:  I understand that you may or may not have a background in science or medicine (the growing number of science professionals without research jobs may sway this ratio a bit in the coming years, which in my opinion would be great for science reporting).  But out of everyone in this chain, you’re the one holding all the cards.  You decide what to say or write.  Ok, so maybe the final say is from a producer or editor farther up the chain, but it’s your name, it’s your face associated with the story.

To err is human.  People make mistakes, but media, even print media, doesn’t need to be static.  Science isn’t static.  For every one thing we learn, 100 more questions arise.  Scientific inquiry is an iterative process of testing and only when multiple conclusions from many studies come together do we actually know anything substantiative that may change our lives.

Individual studies may reveal contradictory findings because they asked a slightly different question, were performed in a different patient population, or measured a different outcome.  Reporting the results from each study is confusing unless these differences are revealed.  You can’t possibly know that a contradictory study is about to be published when you report, “chocolate prevents cancer!”, but you should try to resist the urge to publish stories that are based on any individual study.  And please, please, please always cite the studies.

 “I think the way to live your life is that you find the study that sounds best for you and you go with that one.”  
-Al Roker, NBC
“NO!  No, no, no, no, no, no, no! In science, you don’t just get the cherry-pick the parts that justify what you were going to do anyway.  That’s religion.”
-John Oliver

Dr. Patty Publisher:  From overhauling peer review to making it all open access, there has been a lot of talk about reinventing the process of scientific publication.  With today’s technology and connectivity, the stagnant unit of a “paper” is a relic that truly needs to be abolished.

Scientific inquiry does not come in little (or very large, as the case may be) chunks that are entirely distinct from other chunks.  It is a continuum and we should present it as such.  Scientific knowledge is gained through an iterative, cyclical process.

In the ideal situation, when true scientific knowledge is gained, a paper may be published.  However, in reality, scientists are under immense pressure to publish their findings as often as possible.  The result is often a mixed bag of publications: some are full stories that move their fields in new directions, but many are a potpourri of data that may or may not fit together to allow for some clear understanding.  It is this type of publication that is dangerous to portray in the media because the conclusions are often conjecture, reached by extrapolation and assumptions rather than layered evidence.

A shift from the paper to a living, evolving database of a lab’s research would be an excellent platform to publish new research findings and provide a forum for discussion.  This wouldn’t be an easy process, but some labs are already moving in this direction.  For one example, see the Zika Open-Research Portal from Dr. Dave O’Connor’s lab at the University of Wisconsin.  Publishers should really start thinking about how to integrate this dynamic type of communication into science publication and take a step back from the static paper.

 “And after a certain point, all that ridiculous information can make you wonder, is science bullshit? To which the answer is clearly, no.  But, there is a lot of bullshit currently masquerading as science.”
-John Oliver

Ms. Olivia Press-Officer:  You are the liaison between the researchers at a company or university and the general media– you know what the media wants while also understanding the science.  This is a tricky balance that I’m sure most people just don’t appreciate, but we need to stop incentivizing your role as the detonator with the goal of a media explosion.  Metrics that only involve downstream coverage of a press release undermine your integral role as a central conduit of information.

Despite that you handle only a small fraction of select research to disseminate to the media, for every “hot” headline you are handed, there are likely a dozen duds.  This is ok, it’s still a better reflection of newsworthy science than what exists in reality, but the pressure to get these duds picked up by the media still exists.

In a study published by the British Medical Journal (BMJ) in 2014, 36% of press releases contained exaggerated inference to humans from animal research, and 86% of the news stories stemming from these press releases contained similar exaggerations. Further, this BMJ study also found that exaggerated press releases did not always attract more media attention, nor that including caveats in press releases limited uptake.  While I realize that some of these inflations stem directly from the scientists themselves, you are still responsible for disseminating accurate information.

Dr. Sam Scientist:  Talk to real people about your research.  Speak and write in jargon-free language, but don’t be tempted to “dumb it down” for a general audience.  Analogies are great if you can use them without losing sight of the fundamental biology.

If you are contacted by a news agency about your research, prepare a statement, ask for questions beforehand, and speak candidly about what your research does (and doesn’t) show.  It’s arguably more important for you to describe your research limitations to a reporter or press officer than to your peers in papers and grants.  Is there a chance that your story gets bumped after divulging that your study was done in mice and may not be applicable to humans?  Sure, but isn’t that better than having it reported as if it were in people?

And if someone does misconstrue your findings–in another published study, a review, a press release, magazine article, blog, or literally anywhere–say something, fix it (even if it was your mistake), set the record straight.


It is a tragedy that we are all far too busy to take the necessary steps to ensure proper science reporting and dissemination in the general media, but we need to recognize that we are all culpable in this deceit.

Joe knows that a like or share on social media is easy and he thinks it’s also harmless.  Phyllis spends every free moment reading literature directly pertaining to her patients and can’t be bothered to do so for stories in the media.  Robby had a deadline approaching so he got all his information from a press release.  Patty accepted a paper because it was about a hot new topic, not because it was rigorously performed.  Olivia got such a great reaction to an exaggerated headline that she continued to write them.  Sam was so ecstatic when a news agency called him about his research that he gave the interview right away without first preparing what to say.

So, what we can do about it is to find the time to raise the bar on medical reporting in the media.  Then maybe we can get out of this vicious cycle:

The Science News Cycle. Originally published 5/18/2009. (c) Jorge Cham
The Science News Cycle. PHD Comics 5/18/2009. (c) Jorge Cham


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