Wednesday 14 November 2018

Who is to blame for junk science? Junk scientists.

Remember the junk study published earlier this year which claimed that there's no safe level of alcohol consumption? No, not that one, or that one. This one. It was reported like this...

No alcohol safe to drink, global study confirms

Bad news for those who enjoy what they think is a healthy glass of wine a day. 

A large new global study published in the Lancet has confirmed previous research which has shown that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption.

The researchers admit moderate drinking may protect against heart disease but found that the risk of cancer and other diseases outweighs these protections.

Note the use of the word 'confirms' in the headline and the implication that most previous research came to the same conclusion when, in fact, almost all research shows health benefits from moderate drinking.

The study was flim flam from start to finish. It involved no new research and instead relied on opaque modelling of crude national data. It contradicted virtually all epidemiological evidence and relied on an implausible large association between drinking and tuberculosis - which is irrelevant in most developed countries in any case - to reach its preordained conclusion. Even after all this, the findings didn't actually support the claim that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption.

Who is to blame when such fake news stories appear - the media, the journal, or the researchers? In a article published yesterday in BMC Medicine, Alexandra Freeman and David Spiegelhalter point the finger at the latter. Using the alcohol study and a study about adrenaline/brain damage as examples of poorly communicated scientific evidence, they write...

The path from research findings to media headlines is often a tortuous one, fraught with various hazards; nevertheless, in the two cases presented above, it is possible to backtrack along the decision-making pathway. Journalists were initially alerted to these two stories by press releases. The alcohol risk study press release included the sub-headline “The authors suggest there is no safe level of alcohol, on which the press chose to focus. The adrenaline study press release stated that “Using adrenaline in cardiac arrests results in less than 1% more people leaving hospital alive – but nearly doubles the survivors’ risk of severe brain damage, with journalists choosing to literally reproduce the press release. Therefore, should the press officers be held accountable? Did they misinterpret the numbers to ‘spin’ the story? No – the press releases actually quoted the researchers verbatim, with the authors’ own interpretations of the numbers being reported.

These two examples illustrate a seemingly continuing pattern, wherein journalists’ reports are fairly accurately reproduced from the press releases they are given and press officers work hard to clearly and accurately represent their authors’ views. Therefore, much of the responsibility lies with the researchers themselves, perhaps feeling under pressure to maximise the ‘publishability’ of studies.

I'm not sure the alcohol study was about 'publishability'. It was no coincidence that it was published in the most political medical journal (the Lancet) a few weeks before the big WHO conference on non-communicable diseases in New York. In the growing war on alcohol, it is important for the 'public health' lobby to erase the health benefits of alcohol. That can only be done with junk science and it will continue.

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