Opinion: Science in the media

One of the reasons we chose to begin this blog was to have a place to discuss interesting stories we see in the media, but to dissect the stories that seem slightly far from the truth. In today’s world of health conscious individuals, there seems to be a constant bombardment of new, conflicting advice on a daily basis about what to do and not to do. It’s often pretty impossible for laypersons to be able to distinguish the fact from the fodder. In some cases, this can simply mean unnecessary effort to avoid certain foods or behave in a certain way. But in worst cases this can result in misleading information affecting peoples lives for the worse. The most famous example of this is the MMR vaccine scandal of the late 1990’s – a topic for a whole post of its own! In brief, Dr. Andrew Wakefield of Austin, Texas presented information in The Lancet that the combined MMR vaccine was linked to autism in children, resulting in many parents refusing the vaccine, with uptake dropping from 92% in 1996 to just 61% in 2003 (Murch, 2003). The results of this were a sharp rise in cases of measles, mumps and rubella – the effects of which are still being seen today, most recently with the measles epidemic in Wales.

The point of this example is that this was improper and even fraudulent research that was picked up by new outlets, resulting in mass hysteria because the information was not properly laid out for individuals to make their own judgment. Reading back on this original research now it is beggers belief that this improperly controlled research has affected so many lives all over the globe to such an extent. This issue is, the sources of research are often not made available to the general public. On top of this, news is made to sell. Thus an unbiased argument is often not made available to the public to make their own judgment. I think even if research was to be publicly presented then it would still be troublesome to decipher – I often struggle with this and it takes time to critically evaluate a paper.

What’s the solution then? To be honest, I don’t think there is a quick answer. Science outreach is a topic I am very passionate about but it is difficult to achieve. News outlets are not only to blame – there are recent stories about government advisors being fired (and often bad mouthed along with it) when they present an argument the government doesn’t want to hear. The case of Prof. David Nutt a particularly high profile case of this. I was lucky enough to hear Prof. Nutt speak at my university about this and I am glad to say he has not been affected by the ordeal. He takes a rather lighthearted view of the situation that I think makes him come out as the better party. I admire the fact he was not dampened by the situation, and has even formed his own independent drugs committee the ISCD – a base for independent and unbiased information about recreational drugs without the scare mongering propaganda – a much more useful service in my opinion.

I think if more scientists make a concerted effort to present unbiased evidence accessible to the general public, coupled with improved government policy and better news regulation, we may be a step closer to better presentation of science in the public domain.

 

More information of the ISCD can be found at http://www.drugscience.org.uk/

References

Murch S (2003). “Separating inflammation from speculation in autism”. Lancet 362(9394): 1498–9. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(03)14699-5PMID 14602448.

Written by Livvi Harris

Livvi Harris

I am a first year PhD Wellcome Trust PhD student at the Cambridge Stem Cell Institute currently carrying out a year of rotations, so I can’t quite tell you what my PhD is in yet! I am an ex-pharmacologist (or maybe current?!) from the University of Bath, with 15 months experience of industry after working for the oncology pharmacology team at MedImmune in Cambridge for my placement year.

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