Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Responsible Scientific Reporting

This post over at Corpus Callosum is worth reading. The question of whether mental illness is becoming an epidemic, increasing at a rapid pace in the last century, has been raised by a number of people. (ex. here's one book by Fuller Torrey) . Due to the confounds of changes over time in stigma, diagnoses and diagnostic criteria, etc., it's hard to determine if there has been a surge in mental illness, if mental illness is now over-diagnosed, or if mental illness has always been pervasive yet under the radar.

I don't know what the answer is. I do know, however, that irresponsible or misguided journalism has resulted in people believing and responding to a lot of "facts" that are unsubstantiated or that have been misrepresented. Pharyngula and Orac recently posted about this issue in response to a Salon article on the Autism and Vaccine link.

I'm not going to get into the argument of whether or not I believe heavy metals in vaccines can cause autism. I am going to point out, however, that the media jumped on this like pigs on shit, and now we have parents pumping their children full of heavy metal chelating agents when there is no evidence of benefit over cost for this treatment.

My advice is to always go back and read the original research papers. I know that they can be rough to get through, but after you have read a few of them, it gets easier. Look at the real data and think about what you have read. There's nothing wrong with using the regular media and news organizations for info on scientific discoveries and health-related issues. Just don't use that as your only source when forming opinions or when deciding on treatments, etc.

6 Comments:

At 11:11 AM, Blogger Murky Thoughts said...

If we're just talking rule of thumb and not the particular case of the alleged thimerosal/autism link, then I'd advise people to read review papers in addition or instead. What if the original article they pick up is tendentious and bad science? Sometimes you really have to be in the know to appreciate what a hunk of junk a particular paper is. Also there are those subtle indicators like whether the journal is a prestigious one that generally publishes through and/or high-quality stuff, which a person from outside the discipline wouldn't know.

 
At 11:21 AM, Blogger she falters to rise said...

Good points. Review papers are generally easier to take in and, usually, encompass and discuss the entire body of evidence for a particular finding. I also agree that some journals raise the bar for themselves while others could be used as bathroom reading.

Regardless of the quality of the paper, however, reading the original source is better than relying on a media report of the original data.

 
At 11:57 AM, Blogger Murky Thoughts said...

If your "media repor" is a news story in Science or Nature or even Scientific American I think you'd get a more well rounded perspective from that than you will, as a general principle, from a single research report. Those articles are written by journalists, but they're science beat journalists and they tend to solicit input from the researcher's peers, so they tend to be pretty right on. I have several friends in journalism, so you can take that either as a basis of knowledge or a conflict of interest as you like.

 
At 11:58 AM, Blogger Murky Thoughts said...

Heck, not just "well rounded." Better!

 
At 12:58 PM, Blogger trisha said...

I can't even get through the salon.com article. Makes me want to vomit.

 
At 1:24 PM, Blogger she falters to rise said...

I agree with you Murky on the Science,Nature, etc. media reports--I wasn't classifying them under "regular" media since most of the people who write those articles have a PhD (or at least a masters) in science and, thus, are trained in reading and sifting through the data. Also, they tend to report on research published in more reputable journals so there is some filtering that goes on. I guess I should also state that, regardless of the journal, science is still not perfect and findings that have been replicated are always better than the first, hot-off-the presses reports. I remember a pretty famous paper on ecstacy/amphetamines that made waves in both the media and at the bench. Although it was published in a highly esteemed journal, it had to be retracted later on due to an error on the drug supplier's part...

 

Post a Comment

<< Home