Thursday, July 28, 2011

Spinning Science News

Science Daily recently (well, sort of recently) had two stories about the same research, one put out by the PR department at Johns Hopkins and the other distributed by the PR department at the University of East Anglia, in the UK. See if you can tell which is which.

1. ScienceDaily (June 14, 2011) — People who use a mist inhaler to deliver a drug widely prescribed in more than 55 countries to treat chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) may be 52 percent more likely to die, new Johns Hopkins-led research suggests.

2. ScienceDaily (June 13, 2011) — An inhaler designed to help chronic bronchitis and emphysema sufferers breathe could be significantly increasing their risk of dying, according to new research by the University of East Anglia (UEA) and three US universities.

Right you are! The Hopkins PR department didn't even mention the UK university and the UK university dismissed Hopkins as just one of three US universities.

These press releases that get published by Science Daily and then picked up by newspapers are released not only when some research group has a real breakthrough, not only when some research group has something slightly new to say, but often whenever a clever PR person at the research center can figure out how to put a positive spin on something that might or might not be confirmed with future research.

The lead invariably mentions the institution. The next few paragraphs often describe the researchers and give all their titles. I usually skip reading all this. Then there are a few paragraphs giving background, for example, giving the differences between type 1 and type 2 or once again describing the "obesity epidemic."

The real news is often far down in the article, sometimes only a sentence or two. Then come quotes from the researchers saying how important this work is and how it either suggests the need for more research (the researchers want more grants) or suggests the need for the development of new drugs on the basis of the work (the researchers want to patent something).

[These two articles did have more meat than some others, and the safety concerns are, in fact, newsworthy. It was the leads that were so obviously PR-department generated.]

When science news is spun just like political news or "sold" by PR departments like a new type of plastic kitchenware, how can we trust anything we read on these news sources? There are zillions of scientific journals out there today, and no one can read even the tables of contents of them all. We have to trust science journalists to notice the important stuff and let us know about it.

But if all they do is reprint press releases from PR departments, is there any point? I suppose these press releases are better than nothing. They do alert us to the possibility there's something new there, and they usually give links to the source, so we can check it out ourselves.

But wouldn't it be wonderful if we could read real science news without having to scrutinize it for spin?

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