Friday, October 15, 2010

Popular Press Spins

When I was in graduate school, way back in the 1960s, almost every news report about some scientific finding ended by trying to explain why this finding would help to cure cancer. This was the era of the War on Cancer, and scientists hoped that relating their research to curing cancer would increase their chances of getting big research grants.

In the virus course I took with Jim Watson, the exams usually included a question in which we had to explain why some newspaper report of a scientific finding was wrong, that it actually would have nothing to do with cancer. They were fun questions.

Today, instead of trying to show how new studies can help to cure cancer, most popular press stories I see suggest that the findings provide a new target for new drugs, probably hoping to increase their chances of getting funding from drug companies.

Many of the stories appearing in popular science releases like Eurekalert and Science Daily are written by PR people at the institutions where the research is done. Their goal is to call attention to their institutions, professors, and funding sources as well as to the research itself. As a result, usually more than half of the articles is garbage.

When I was a newspaper editor, we'd get tons of press releases like this, and part of our job was to rewrite them without the self-promoting garbage. But these science news sites don't do this. Most of them simply print the press releases verbatim; you can read exactly the same stories on myriad sites.

An example from Science Daily:

"Researchers at the University of Edinburgh report a new experimental compound that can improve memory and cognitive function in aging mice. The compound is being investigated with a view to developing a drug that could slow the natural decline in memory associated with aging.

"With support from the Wellcome Trust Seeding Drug Discovery award, the team has identified a preclinical condition that they hope to take into human trials within a year."

Note that in the first two paragraphs they've mentioned the institution, the potential for drug development, and the funding source. They haven't mentioned what we all want to know: what this compound is. You have to slog through a lot of other boring stuff before they'll reveal that. Some stories even list all the researchers, their degrees, and their positions at the university before they'll tell you what the new finding actually was.

Here's another one:

"University of Michigan scientists have identified events inside insulin-producing pancreatic cells that set the stage for a neonatal form of non-autoimmune type 1 diabetes, and may play a role in type 2 diabetes as well. The results point to a potential target for drugs to protect normally functioning proteins essential for producing insulin."

In this case the PR people managed to make the institution the first word of the article.

You may say, "So what!" and that's partially true. We just have to learn to skim most of these articles to get to the crux of the story. And these popular press releases are important in alerting us to new journal articles that we'd probably never know of otherwise. Most of the press releases do have links to the original articles, although in many cases we can only read the abstracts unless we want to pay.

But I think the important thing is to remember that these articles are written by PR people whose goal is different from our goal. Their goal is to publicize their institution and overemphasize the importance of the research there. Our goal is to understand as completely as possible how good the evidence supporting the claims in the summary article is.

Whenever possible, I try to get the full text of an important article. I don't make the effort for what I consider less important ones. Time is not infinite. I once spent 2 days researching the science behind a story about using lettuce and some complex molecular biology to give people insulin by eating lettuce. Most of the popular press summaries didn't really understand what the research showed.

But if I spent 2 days researching every article I read, I wouldn't be able to read very many, and in the long run I'm hoping that having a surface acquaintance with a lot of research will be more useful than having an in-depth acquaintance with just a little.

I'm sure most of you are already aware of the way the press spins news about science research. But it never hurts to examine it again.

It's a reader-beware situation out there.


  1. Gretchen, This is something I had not thought about. I generally try to ignore the type you describe once I realize that it is not an actual study with results. I may have been suckered in a few times, but now I will read with this in mind.

    A lesson well taught and I hope I remember it.

  2. Unfortunately Gretchen, it's not just the press releases that are spin; nearly every so called news story has spin now. It takes a lot of dedication to find the truth.

  3. Thanks, Bob. Most of the press releases do have a kernel of new information in them, but sometimes it's hard to find.

  4. Michelle, I agree. Often the news stories written by health reporters spout the "party line" that type 2 is caused by overweight, which they imply is the fault of the patient, and that going on a low-fat diet would cure everything.

    Progress is slow.

  5. Thank you for clearing this issue for me. From now on reading articles or in most cases "stories" will be done with your "fun question" in mind. I have added a link from my page back here I think most of my reader can find value in your words