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In the media part 1

Posted by bob1, 16 September 2010 · 2,539 views


In this blog I am hoping to discuss science in the media and the reporting thereof, both good and bad...

What inspired me to start this was a local 60 Minutes report (http://www.3news.co....28/Default.aspx(video, may not be accessible internationally)) about a person who was at death's door in hospital with "swine flu" (presumably influenza virus type A), and received high dose vitamin C on the family's insistence after the doctors had advised that life support should be switched off, with the end result that he survived and is now back at work on his farm...with the subsequent reporting that families are now demanding vitamin C as a treatment for members who are in hospital, with threats to sue etc. if it is not administered.

Now, don't get me wrong, I am extremely happy that this was a good result for the patient and his family, but I would like to rail against this sort of reporting of "how doctors should be more open to "alternative" therapies".

As a scientist I know (and I hope you know too) that science and medicine are all about evidence and repeatable results, relying on large double-blinded drug trials for determining the effectiveness of therapies. Alternative therapies on the other hand typically rely on observational studies of one or two people who have had seemingly miraculous recoveries after treatment with a certain therapy and the proclamations of the recovered people/families.

So here's how this works; 60 Minutes is guilty of this in their reporting:

"If a group of patients is treated with a therapy and most of them die, but one survives (which may or may not be a result of the therapy applied), the one who survived gets publicised such that the public only gets to hear about the positive result, never the negative ones. This leads to the perception that a particular therapy works, when in reality most of the time it doesn't."

This is a combination of two phenomena called observation bias and confirmation bias, where we only look when we expect to see things (surviving patients after treatment X) and only see what we expect to see (patients who survived). These happen all the time to everyone, but are re-inforced (in the case above) by the publication of only the "good" outcomes.

To be truly balanced the media should also report the deaths of people who had the therapy. Of course, this is something that doesn't happen as that would make for really really bad TV/news.

As scientists, we should be striving to educate the public, showing them how such things work and helping the media to report science correctly...

So, go on, get out there and educate!

That is a new zealand show looking at the website address? If you haven't heard of it already there is a blog by the British doctor Ben goldacre called Bad Science on subjects very similar to this, might be a good idea to check it out!

But yes there are far too many reports like this around the media, I have taken to refusing to read science stories in any non-science newspaper just due to the overwhelming amount of things they say that aren't true or just are so massively misinterpreted.
Yes, NZ quite correct. I am familiar with Ben Goldacre's work too, just trying to spread the word.

Unfortunately you are correct about the frequency of such reports... but we can't avoid them at all, and I hope that every little bit of further information will help people to think independently (and critically) about what they see in the newspapers and on TV.
How can i start a blog too. :rolleyes:
Sorry for the slow reply. You can start by clicking the ADD ENTRY button near the top right of your page

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