3 FIXES FOR A MEDIA DIET OF QUESTIONABLE SCIENCE
Will leafy green vegetables prevent dementia? Or does living near heavy traffic cause it? ConscienHealth’s Ted Kyle summarises John Ioannidis’ JAMA opinion piece describing our woeful current media diet of questionable science and minor issues, while serious and substantial health concerns get little attention.
1. FOCUS ON BIGGER ISSUES
Scientific articles are getting more attention these days in the media. Ioannidis looked at the top 100 papers ranked by how much media attention they received. Altimetric scores were the measure. He found roughly half of the stories dealt with health and lifestyle. But the focus was mostly on trivial issues like coffee’s effect on lifespan. Even if it’s real, it’s not really big. Pointless arguments about fats versus carbs are big too.
Ioannidis says the answer is obvious. Focus on bigger issues, like tobacco and obesity. Those subjects received relatively little attention, he said. He did find one bright spot, though. Exercise is both important for health and amply covered in the media.
2. FOCUS ON CLEAR RESULTS
Because scientific controversies get so much attention, the public gets many conflicting messages. For example, Ioannidis pointed to recent controversial papers regarding red meat. Media attention, as measured by Altimetric, went sky high on these studies.
This kind of food fight is unhelpful, he writes: “Some expert advocates in these fields have a large number of followers in social media that broadcast their beliefs and attack opponents as being unethical, conflicted individuals. Perhaps this behavior is based on good intentions (e.g., to save lives), but heated advocacy is unsuitable for thoughtful, disinterested scientific exchange. It seems more akin to religious dedication to intolerant sects. Promoting such conflicts in the media offers little public benefit.”
3. STOP HYPING OBSERVATIONAL FINDINGS
Most of the high-scoring health and lifestyle articles were based on observational research. What’s more, those observational studies attract extreme news coverage. More so than randomized, controlled studies with null results. In other words, once a supposition arises from a weak observational study, even a well-controlled study might not kill it.
Ioannidis says that observational research should be rare in high-impact journals (like JAMA). Instead, they should appear mostly in journals for specialized audiences, with appropriate caveats. Press releases for such studies should fade away.
Sensation has always sold newspapers. And today, it provides great clickbait. But serious health journalists can do better. They would do well to pay attention to Ioannidis.