Sunday, August 31, 2008

Gobbledegook - update

Last month I wrote about a 'pregnancy increases your risk of heart attack three to four fold' story in The Sun, The Star and The Daily Telegraph. Rereading the 2006 study from which the papers took their soundbite the significance of this stood out where it hadn't before:
We found a higher incidence (6.2 versus 2.8 per 100 000 deliveries) and a lower case fatality rate (5.1% versus 7.3%), however, than a recent analysis that used data from a California database.10 Because the California estimate of incidence was based on data from 1991 to 2000, our estimate may reflect improved identification of cases or may reflect a true increase in the number of cases

(sorry for the bolderising, but this is important).
So, according to the study authors, since 2000 it's plausible that identification and reporting of heart attacks during delivery has improved, leading to a higher figure for its incidence. They go into a bit of detail:
Improved identification of cases may have resulted from the advent of the widespread use of troponins, which has likely resulted in the detection of small events that were previously undiagnosed. Increased detection would explain an increase in the incidence of acute myocardial infarction and a decrease in the case fatality rate. Another possible explanation for an increase in the incidence over time is the increased number of births to older women, who may have more cardiac risk factors. Between 2002 and 2003, the birth rate rose 6% for women aged 35 to 39 years and 5% for women aged 40 to 44 years.8 Since 1981, the birth rate for women aged 40 to 44 years has more than doubled.8 Another possible explanation for the higher incidence is better ascertainment of cases in the NIS database.

all of which have me nodding my head in agreement. Two paragraphs later (and they're not very long paragraphs either, so the two statements come pretty close together):
We do not have the incidence of acute myocardial infarction for women who were not pregnant. Petitti et al,14 however, published the incidence of myocardial infarction among reproductive-aged women in a large health maintenance organization. Using the age-specific rates of myocardial infarction per 100 000 women-years derived from that study and applying them to the age distribution of the women in the present study, we would have expected to find 250 myocardial infarctions as opposed to the 859 found. Therefore, the risk of acute myocardial infarction appears to be approximately 3 to 4 times higher in pregnancy.

(the line that had the PR person so excited)(and the newspapers). Clicking on the hyperlink that takes you to the reference section, and the full title of the Petitti et al study mentioned above gives it as Petitti DB, Sidney S, Quesenberry CP Jr, Bernstein A. Incidence of stroke and myocardial infarction in women of reproductive age. Stroke. 1997; 28: 280–283. A visit to the archives of Stroke and a look at line two of the Subjects and Methods section tells us that the study was conducted
May 1, 1991, through August 31, 1994, in northern California and July 15, 1991, through August 31, 1994, in southern California.

Right, so: detection and reporting between 1991 and 2000 may have led to an underestimation of incidence in one paragraph, but two paragraphs later, the same time period is being used to estimate a three to four fold increase in heart attack risk for pregnant women. Dye not reckon that maybe the 859 cases of heart attack in pregnant women found in this study were down to improved detection and reporting, and that the 250 cases in the general female population of 1991 may have been an underestimation? Just saying.
Science and health reporting isn't a job for jobbing reporters, it's a job for investigative journalists. And while I'm at it, it's high time health correspondents abandoned their slavish respect for medical authority and started reading the bleeding studies they trumpet so very loudly.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

This one gets right up my nose

Or why journalists should read the original research paper and not just quote a scientist looking to hype up their own research. MHC-correlated odour preferences in humans and the use of oral contraceptive was published last week in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Studies, in animals and in humans, have shown that genes in the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) influence individual odours and that females often prefer odour of MHC-dissimilar males. The study in question here sought to investigate whether oral contraceptive use changes these odour preferences. The study found that women's preferences changed after they went on the pill - such that they went from preferring the odours of men who were MHC dissimlar to those of men who were MHC similar. The researchers also found that single women preferred men who were MHC similar, while women in relationships preferred those who were dissimilar. They speculate as to the reasons for this, suggesting that women in relationships might seek to improve offspring quality by seeking out other pairings. The study doesn't look into this, it's just a suggestion. The study also doesn't account for why single women might prefer MHC similar men, which is fair enough, as it's beyond its remit. Nor does it account for the possibility that the kind of woman who goes on the pill may have some behavioural, genetic, other, or combination of all three characteristics which may account for the change in preference over time; again, fair enough, that's not what it set out to do. The study certainly doesn't, in its own right, look into issues of fertility, relationship breakdown, or the possible consequences of MHC similarity for the health of future offspring; again, all these things are beyond its remit.

However, in the introduction the authors do suggest that
Mate preference for MHC-dissimilar individuals can be adaptive as it would increase offspring MHC heterozygosity, with beneficial influences on offspring viability through increased resistance to infectious disease or avoidance of inbreeding effects

referencing two previous studies, one, Potts & Wakeland, 1993, the other, Milinski, 2006.

The latter study, reviewing the literature on the possibility that choosing an MHC dissimilar mate may be adaptive, reports that findings have been equivocal:
Many of the studies that demonstrated or implied MHC-dependent mate choice found that the choosy sex prefers partners with somewhat dissimilar MHC alleles (e.g., Bonneaud et al. 2006; Egid & Brown 1989; Eklund et al. 1991; Freeman-Gallant et al. 2003; Landry et al. 2001; Ober et al. 1997; Olsson et al. 2003; Potts et al. 1991, 1994; Richardson et al. 2005; Wedekind & Füri 1997; Wedekind et al. 1995; Yamazaki et al. 1976, 1978). MHC disassortative mating may function to increase the resistance of offspring to infectious diseases by increasing their MHC heterozygosity (heterozygote advantage hypothesis; e.g., Apanius et al. 1997, Potts & Wakeland 1990) and/or it may operate to prevent kin-matings (inbreeding avoidance hypothesis; Brown & Eklund 1994, Potts et al. 1994), because this can have fitness benefits (Arkush et al. 2002, Meagher et al. 2000). Some correlative field studies supported the heterozygote advantage hypothesis (e.g., Carrington et al. 1999, Thursz et al. 1997) while others did not (e.g., Hill et al. 1991, Paterson et al. 1998). Also experimental studies beginning with Doherty & Zinkernagel (1975) provided ambiguous results as a recent meta-analysis showed (Penn 2002).

and concludes:
A heterozygote advantage per se has not been found by a number of studies and it is not necessarily expected either. Furthermore, as recent models have shown, a heterozygote advantage on its own fails to explain the high degree of polymorphism of the MHC (De Boer et al. 2004) in contrast to predictions of earlier models. Mate choice just for dissimilar MHC alleles would not necessarily improve the resistance of offspring nor would it help to maintain MHC polymorphism in the population.

There's a reason why journal articles contain references - it's so the reader may, if (s)he so wishes, check out the veracity of statements contained in that article. So, this one line in the introduction of the study under discussion, the only one, in fact, in that study to suggest that pairings of MHC similar mates may result in less than optimal offspring, is not, in fact, supported by the literature.

Which brings me to this:
Going for genetically similar men, detected from body odour, may increase a woman's risk of difficulties trying to conceive, miscarriage and of long intervals between pregnancies.

(from The Independent, UK - Why women can't sniff out Mr. Right when they're on the pill)
It's that 'detected from body odour' that's the outrage. It suggests that this study found this to be so. It didn't. While the science may support the idea that genetic similarity in partners is not good for their offspring, the science behind MHC similarity/dissimilarity does not show this to be so; as demonstrated above, the literature is equivocal, and certainly does not run to finding an association between MHC similarity and such dramatic outcomes as fertility problems and miscarriage. This is outright nonsense. Dangerous nonsense.

Which brings me to the reason I'm so very angry about this article. Of course, had the journalist done some research he would have turned up what I'd turned up. Had he read just the original research paper he would have realised that extrapolating wildly was inappropriate; had he read just the last three lines of the paper (again! journalists! read the conclusions! they're so very short, and so terribly important) he would have found his entire article written for him, And in this case, the conclusion even helpfully exaggerates the findings somewhat, so he wouldn't even have had to hype it himself:
We do not know whether the change in preferences related to pill use is sufficiently strong to influence partner choice, but it could do so if odour plays a significant role in actual human mate choice. Some studies have suggested that women consider the olfactory domain to be an important factor in their assessment of potential partners (e.g. Havlicek et al. 2008). Although we were unable to replicate the effect, Wedekind et al.'s (1995) demonstration of an association between MHC dissimilarity and the reminiscence of current or previous partners suggests that the influence of MHC-odour cues may extend beyond the laboratory. If this is the case, our results indicate that use of the contraceptive pill could lead to choice of an otherwise less preferred partner.

But look what we have here, a quote from Dr. Craig Roberts, one of the researchers on the study:
The preferences of women who began using the contraceptive Pill shifted towards men with genetically similar odours. Not only could MHC similarity in couples lead to infertility problems but it could ultimately lead to the breakdown of relationships when women stop using the Pill, as odour perception plays a significant role in maintaining attraction

Had he included this bit of speculation in the research paper submitted to Proceedings of the Royal Society B he would have found it rapidly run through with the editor's pen. His findings do not support this conclusion; the scientific literature does not support this conclusion; there is nothing to support this conclusion but his desire to hype his own research.
There are hundreds of reasons why a woman might choose a mate; there are equally hundreds of reasons why this mate may or may not choose to be chosen; these choices carry with them hundreds of implications, and we're a long way from unpicking the resultant 100sx100sx100s (that's lots and lots then) of possibilities that go into making babies and what those babies are like. It's unlikely many women will go off the pill as a result of this study, but if even one does, and finds herself with an unwanted pregnancy because the condom broke, then Jeremy Laurence and Dr. Craig Roberts should both be very very ashamed.

The Times does a reasonable job of reporting on this story, by the way.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The fat kid fumble

Clumsy children more likely to become obese as adults, study finds. Physical control and coordination in childhood and adult obesity: longitudinal birth cohort study by Walter Osika and Scott M. Montgomery was published yesterday in the BMJ. It's part of the National child development study in Great Britain, a longitudinal cohort study of children born between 3rd and 9th March 1958 and living in Great Britain. The study in question here gathered assessment data on hand control, coordination and general clumsiness, as assessed by teachers when the cohort was 7 and 11. Data were available for 7990 children at age 7 and 6875 at age 11. An association was found between teacher reports of 'clumsiness' and subsequent obesity (as measured by Body Mass Index) at age 33. It reads:
Among 7990 cohort members at age 7 years, teachers reported that poor hand control, poor coordination, and clumsiness "certainly applied" more often among those who would be obese adults.

Similar results were found for the cohort measured at age 11 years.
The authors caution:
Many other environmental or individual characteristics could explain the associations.

and go on to suggest, as an example, that individuals with poor motor control may be less likely to exercise, thus increasing the risk of obesity. They conclude that while the study adds to the body of evidence associating poorer cognitive functioning with obesity, neither this study nor any other which has found such a link, can tease out how or why this should be. They conclude:
Rather than being explained by a single factor, an accumulation throughout life of many associated cultural, personal, and economic exposures is likely to underlie the risks for obesity and some elements of associated neurological function.

265 words. And it took me all of twenty minutes, including the time taken to read the paper, to write. The Daily Mail gives it 221 words. I'll reproduce them in full:

Clumsy children are more likely to be obese in later life because they exercise less, research says.

A study that started 50 years ago found youngsters with poor hand control and co-ordination are far more prone to piling on the pounds during adulthood.

This puts them at higher risk of heart attack, stroke and diabetes.

The findings, published online by the British Medical Journal, found children who performed worse in tests assessing their cognitive and physical function were more likely to be obese by the age of 33.

Those who were obese were 57 per cent more likely to have suffered poor hand control aged seven, more than twice as likely to have suffered poor co-ordination and almost four times as likely to have been clumsy.

The study adds to evidence of a link between poorer cognitive function in childhood and obesity and Type 2 diabetes in adulthood.

Researchers said cognitive impairment in obese adults was assumed to be a consequence of obesity.

However, the study indicates obese adults and those with Type 2 diabetes may already have had lower levels of cognitive function in childhood 'consistent with a subtle developmental impairment'.

The research, whose authors are from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and Imperial College, London, is based on 11,042 people taking part in the ongoing National Child Development Study in Great Britain, which began in 1958.

And again, this time with nimby commentary:

Clumsy children are more likely to be obese in later life because they exercise less, research says.
fair enough

A study that started 50 years ago found youngsters with poor hand control and co-ordination are far more prone to piling on the pounds during adulthood.

This puts them at higher risk of heart attack, stroke and diabetes.

The findings, published online by the British Medical Journal, found children who performed worse in tests assessing their cognitive and physical function were more likely to be obese by the age of 33.
Why not just say association? What's wrong with it? 11 letters, 1 more than 'more likely' and without the connotations and grammatically questionable see-sawing between temporalities.

Those who were obese were 57 per cent more likely to have suffered poor hand control aged seven, more than twice as likely to have suffered poor co-ordination and almost four times as likely to have been clumsy.
This is where it gets seriously wonky. The odds ratios reported in the study were 1.57 (95% confidence interval 1.13 to 2.20; P=0.008) for poor hand control, 2.30 (1.52 to 3.46; P<0.001) for poor coordination, and 3.91 (2.61 to 5.87; P<0.001) for clumsiness (in the age 7 cohort); and 0.88 (0.81 to 0.96; P=0.003) for copying designs, 0.84 (0.78 to 0.91; P<0.001) for marking squares, and 1.14 (1.06 to 1.24; P<0.001) for picking up matches (a higher score indicates poor function in this test) for the age 11 cohort. Now, it should be clear, first, that the measures used to assess the two cohorts were different, and so can't be aggregated. We'll assume Daily Mail Reporter knew this, and chose to focus on the age 7 cohort. How can we assume this? The figures: the 57% figure came from one of two places. The first option is a misreading of 1.57 as 0.57 (perhaps (s)he blinked while reading). The second option comes from one of the study's results tables, which contains the number 5.7 as the incidence of teacher reports that the child 'certainly' had poor hand control. At the top of the table, and in the body of the text, it is explained that the figures in the table are percentages. Taking a look at the hard numbers, we see that there were 912 obese 33 year olds in the study, of whom 52 were reported to 'certainly' have poor hand control age 7. 52/912 x 100 gives us 5.7%. 5.7, not 57, and certainly not 57% more likely. Going back to option one, the odds ratio of 1.57, that's not 57% more likely in anyone's book

The study adds to evidence of a link between poorer cognitive function in childhood and obesity and Type 2 diabetes in adulthood.

Researchers said cognitive impairment in obese adults was assumed to be a consequence of obesity.
No they didn't

However, the study indicates obese adults and those with Type 2 diabetes may already have had lower levels of cognitive function in childhood 'consistent with a subtle developmental impairment'.
The study does not indicate this. This line comes from the introduction, and references two previous studies: Chandola T, Deary IJ, Blane D, Batty GD. Childhood IQ in relation to obesity and weight gain in adult life: the national child development (1958) study. Int J Obes 2006;30:1422-32 and Olsson GM, Hulting AL, Montgomery SM. Cognitive function in children and subsequent type 2 diabetes mellitus. Diabetes Care 2008;31:514-6. The line in question even has hyperlinks to the part of the reference section the studies are cited in, saving the bother of scrolling down the page to find them.

The research, whose authors are from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and Imperial College, London, is based on 11,042 people taking part in the ongoing National Child Development Study in Great Britain, which began in 1958.

Most of the words and phrases needed to report on medical research are right there in any given study. Often, the authors helpfully include a little three or four line 'Conclusion' after the discussion section that outlines the findings and puts them in context. Mangling figures does not add to the public's understanding of a study. It simply adds to the word count, pushing out space for the all important caveats and contextualisation needed in any science story. Including them for the sake of appearing learned and sciencey is about as convincing as donning a white coat, a pair of novelty thick rimmed glasses and mussing your hair up to look like Einstein.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Good news for fat rats

'The pill that lets dieters eat what they like'. 'A pill which may 'lock in' the benefits of dieting...has been discovered by scientists'.
Point the first: the pill in question is alpha-lipoic acid, a dietary supplement that has been around for quite a while (here it is at; there's even a book about it which shows up 10th on the google search page if you type 'alpha lipoic acid' into the little box and press enter)(in case you don't care to follow the link, the book is called 'Alpha Lipoic Acid Breakthrough: The Superb Antioxidant That May Slow Aging, Repair Liver Damage, and Reduce the Risk of Cancer, Heart Disease, and Diabetes' and it was published in 1998).
Point the second: the study in question was conducted on rats. The researchers divided the rats into a number of groups - some on supplemented calorie controlled diets, some on unsupplemented versions of the same; some on unrestricted supplemented diets, some on unrestricted unsupplemented diets; they also changed the conditions during the study, taking some rats off the unrestricted unsupplemented diets and putting them on the calorie controlled supplemented diets; taking others off the calorie controlled unsupplemented diets and putting them on supplemented unrestricted diet - and this is where the story comes in. The rats in the latter condition were found to live as long as those who had been on the calorie controlled unsupplemented diet from the beginning (calorie controlled diets have an association with longevity in rats*). Conclusion: the extended survival benefits of the calorie restricted condition persisted in the unrestricted supplemented condition. Final word (in the study):
whether this compound would induce similar effects on survival in other species used as model organisms to study ageing is not known

Point the third: (from The Independent)
Simply adding the supplement to the diet has no effect. It seems that alpha-lipoic acid fools the body into behaving as if it was still on whatever diet it was following before the supplement was added. We found there was an anti-obesity effect as well. Although weight does rise when you come off the restricted diet, if you take alpha-lipoic acid, even though you are eating normally again you still have a reduced weight

said Professor. Goyns.
'You', indeed. 'You', the rat?
Point the fourth: The print version of this article ends on this note, although it does point out that the research was conducted on rats. The online version, however, includes some words from Goyns' co-author, Brian Merry:
It is an unusual and interesting finding and it needs repeating in further research. That was as far as I was prepared to go, but Malcolm [Goyns] wanted to apply it to humans. I said I didn't agree with his interpretation and we had to wait for further studies.

People have been buying this stuff and taking it for years as a dietary supplement. I don't think anyone knows what its effect is. There have only been two studies in rats and mice [before our study].

Interestingly, Goyns is director of Immorgene Concepts, and has a book to flog at the moment, while his two co-authors, Brian Merry and Austin Kirk, simply work for the school of Biological Sciences at the University of Liverpool.

Point the fifth: Why was the most significant part of the article, namely Merry's response, left out of the Irish print version of this story?

Point the sixth: What, exactly, is Malcolm Goyns's game? He does have an actual academic post, at the University of Sunderland, a fact which makes his exaggeration of his own research particularly egregious.

Update: hmm, can't be quite sure Professor Goyns is actually employed by the University of Sunderland, as he doesn't show up on their staff pages, although he has collaborated on research with people who do.

*see e.g. Fontana & Klein, JAMA, 2007;297:986-994. Academic login required.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008


'Pregnancy heart risk' says The Star(site under redevelopment); 'Mums in heart attack risk' as The Sun has it; 'Pregnant women 'four times as likely to have a heart attack' for The Daily Telegraph (note the quote marks for something that is being said for the first time. By The Daily Telegraph). The NHS's Behind The Headlines service has a better analysis of the science behind the study than I can offer, so go there for that.
What I can add is only this: the press release associated with the study states
Although acute myocardial infarction (AMI) is rare in women of child-bearing age, pregnancy can increase a woman's risk of heart attack 3- to 4-fold, according to a study published in the July 15, 2008, issue of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

The journal issue containing the study is still embargoed meaning I haven't been able to read the full text, so they may well use just that sentence, and report just that finding. What's interesting, though, is another study, from 2006, and published in Circulation whose abstract states:
Although acute myocardial infarction is a rare event in women of reproductive age, pregnancy increases the risk 3- to 4-fold.

Eerily similar, eh. As the Behind the Headlines piece explains, the current study wasn't comparative, so no relative risk increase can be inferred. They also report that the authors note that other studies have found a 3 to 4 fold increase in risk (that's our friends from 2006 then). So...the headlines, the story, the new findings et cet et cet, are all based on a line copied and pasted by a PR person from the abstract of a 2006 study and nothing to do with this one. I've heard rumours that Germany has invaded Poland - I wonder when the papers will pick up on it.

Thursday, July 3, 2008


Newspapers, newspapers, newspapers...The Irish Independent, reporting on a new survey from the employment law firm, Peninsula, tell us that,
77% of males in the Irish workplace experience sexual harassment from women, with 84pc of them too afraid to complain to their employer

Yuk, granted, (freely).


Neither the Irish nor the UK Peninsula websites publish either the methods or results of the survey, nor do they have an e-mail address to which one can address queries; consequently I'll have to wait til the morning to ring them and ask for both aforesaid. What interests me here is the Irish Independent and their cottoning on to the new fangled convention of linking to sources. Go. Go to their report on this story.

A survey from employment law firm Peninsula Ireland

Deadly, a link to the survey, or a link to Peninsula's website. Oh. No.

The results below may not be related to your keyword search. As the search is automated, unrelated links or stories may appear under the above keyword but in fact relate to other persons or events of a similar name.

Alan Price (head of Peninsula Ireland) gets the same treatment.

The results below may not be related to your keyword search. As the search is automated, unrelated links or stories may appear under the above keyword but in fact relate to other persons or events of a similar name.

For the love of monkeys, what, I ask you, What, is the (monkey loving) point of linking to a page that then links you back to the page you've just read? There's an old saw that old media is loth to direct readers to other sites in case they, eh...suddenly discover there are...other sites (Google, what is this goo ig gill? Noh, noh! no make sense there is more to internet machine than noopapers inside light box) but me myself, I'd shrugged it off as being no more than the theory of those conspiring to convince themselves that there are those out there conspiring to conspire. Parently not, though, (seems).

And why 'Ireland' and 'Alan Price' but not 'Peninsula', 'discrimination', 'employment law' or 'the'?

Update on sexual harassment study tomorrow; when I've spoken to a receptionist in Peninsula and been told I'll have the survey data by close of business and (using my supersonic hearsight) deduced from the scratching pen sound audible through the phone line that she's writing 'Daddy? Or chips?...Daddy or chips...Daddy or chips.....Chips', and given it up for a cause as lost as the data.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

It's not That important, but... and The Irish Independent carry the story that

One-third of Irish adults are not getting their "three a day" servings of dairy to help protect teeth and bones, according to a new survey

On foot of this finding,

The National Dairy Council is now to embark on a 15-week advertising campaign to show people how to improve their calcium intake by eating a range of dairy products

Good for them. What neither outlet notes is that the survey (pdf) was commissioned by the NDC (and carried out by tns/MRBI)

Based on the overall need to strengthen the position and image of milk and dairy products

and it was carried out in April, so it's not new. And it's in the news today because the NDC is undertaking a 15-week advertising campaign to promote dairy products!

The Herald, gets it right:

Almost one-third of Irish adults don't get enough dairy in their diet, according to a survey commissioned by the National Dairy Council

The Dairy Council has published the figures to coincide with a new campaign to raise awareness about the importance of milk and other dairy products

It's not a big deal, so why be weasely about it?

was commissioned by the NDC for the purpose of establishing baseline indicators on current consumer attitudes
amongst the adult population (15+ years) in Ireland. The fieldwork was undertaken in April 2008 by TNS/MRBI and
involved a nationally representative sample of 1,017 adults.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

This is all very confusing

The Times (June 20th) along with 407 others (according to Google News) reports that

Australians are...leading the way as the heavyweight champions of the world - with arguably a greater proportion of obese citizens than even the notoriously supersized Americans

60% of the Australian population is overweight, apparently. That's nine million people, according to the study, 'Australia's Future Fat Bomb' (seriously).

The Age, at least, points out that the BMI index is a crude tool for measuring how overweight someone is (it doesn't allow for any differentiation between muscle and fat).
Neither The Financial Times, The Telegraph, The Mirror, or The Times note this. None of the newspapers mention that the sample used to estimate the figure was highly unrepresentative, as it consisted of 14, 000 people who attended a National Blood Pressure Screening Day, that is, 14, 000 people who were worried enough about their blood pressure to have it checked; or 14, 000 of whom a higher than average proportion could probably be assumed to be overweight, as the two conditions are correlated (or, more importantly, commonly known to be correlated, such that if you are overweight you're more likely to be worried about your blood pressure). Also, the age distribution of the sample may have been skewed such that people of middle age and older were over-represented.
The report itself is obfucatory on this issue - it states that 'close to 14, 000' Australian adults aged 18 to 95 participated - close to? The authors have no qualms in printing figures like 7, 352, 529 (number of Australian men aged 18 and over) and 2, 412, 192 (the number of Australian women 'likely overweight'), so why so coy when it comes to piddling tens of thousands? They don't give figures for each of the age ranges they examine, except for the 45-64 age group, of which there were 5, 873. It makes me wonder if perhaps the older age groups (45+) were heavily over represented in the sample, something the hard figures, had they been provided, would have made clear thus (further) undermining the claim that 60% of the Australian population aged 18 and more is overweight.
Further, according the the Australian National Health Survey 2004-2005, the age group 45 - 64 has the highest proportion of people who are overweight (50% women, 72% men aged 45 to 54; 58% women, 72% men aged 55-64 compared with 28% women and 36% men aged 18-24). If this group, and those older (56% women and 58% men overweight aged 65-74 - though they're roughish figures as the graph isn't entirely clear) made up the main body of the sample of 14, 000, then it raises serious questions about the usefulness of this study in estimating the proportion of the Australian population that is actually overweight.
Page 10 of the study notes that 'Although the full methods and results of this study are in preparation for publication they have been accepted for presentation by Dr Carrington at the prestigious European Society of Cardiology Scientific Meeting in Munich (September 2008)'. Which is fair enough, but doesn't seem like a good enough reason to hold back on either methods or results before releasing the report on the world with the schlocksome title 'Australia's Future Fat Bomb'. Like most things, if and when the methods used and results obtained are questioned by the authors' academic peers, it won't be picked up by the press, and the uncertain figure of 9 million fat Australians will have taken on the status of commonly accepted fact.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The biggish picture - or why this blog exists

Significance of science in the media

Numerous studies have shown that the media is the primary source of scientific information for the public after they leave school (Detjen, 1995; Nelkin, 1995; in an Irish context, Trench, 2007 - although he admits that this claim is difficult to test rigorously). Conrad (1999, p. 285) says 'Science journalists [are] gatekeepers for the infusion of scientific information into the public sphere'. Not alone does coverage of science issues have an effect on the lay public, it may also influence the process of science itself. Journal articles covered in The New York Times received 72.8% more citations in the science literature than control articles in the twelve months following that coverage (Phillips, Kanter, Bednarczyk & Tastad, 1991). The effect of the coverage of science issues on public attitudes and behaviour is difficult to assess, for many reasons (Gregory and Miller, 1998) but there is evidence that the media can influence people's behaviour in some instances (Miller, 1999; Grilli, Ramsay, Minozzi, 2002) - for example, coverage of the ozone controversy led to people buying fewer aerosol sprays (Nelkin, 1995) or, anecdotally, the decline in MMR vaccine take-up coincident with the most fevered reporting of its alleged link with autism (Health Protection Agency (Britain), 2005). Logan, Fears & Wilson (1997), in an examination of coverage in the late 1980s of risks from exposure to electromagnetic fields, argue this coverage influenced the implementation of regulatory statutes in several US states, despite a National Academy of Sciences review concluding that the available research was equivocal on the link between exposure and health risks. They suggest that 'journalists can inadvertently initiate a process in which legislation gets ahead of scientific evidence'.

Scientists vs journalists: an overview

The clash of cultures between science and journalism has been the subject of long debate in the science communication literature (Trench, 2007). Science is slow and precise, while journalism is fast, short, and often imprecise (Hartz and Chappell, 1997). The language used in each field is quite different. The language of science is guarded and qualified, while journalists make much use of metaphors, and are principally concerned with making their writing readable, simple, understandable and entertaining (McCall, 1988; Anton and McCourt, 1995; Nelkin, 1995).

Scientists have frequently pointed out that the media ignore both the process and the substance of science (Nelkin, 1995). The reliance of journalists on pre-packaged information such as press releases and staged events for science information has come in for a good deal of criticism (Shepherd, 1979; 1981; Nelkin, 1995; Agnell, 1996; Saari et al., 1998), as has the tendency to cover science in an episodic fashion, with an emphasis on 'breakthroughs' and 'magic bullets' (Wilkins and Patterson, 1987; Logan, 1998). The tendency of the media to cover emerging, or 'breakthrough' science as fact, despite its preliminary data being, perhaps, very tentative has also been frequently criticised (Nelkin, 1995; Logan et al., 1997; Logan et al., 2000b).


Many surveys have found that scientists' main complaint about press coverage is that it is inaccurate (Dunwoody, 1993) or incomplete (Tankard & Ryan, 1974; Pulford, 1976; Borman, 1978; Pellechia, 1997) especially when it comes to methodological details (Dunwoody, 1986; Goldstein, 1986; Pellechia, 1997). This view is not unanimous, however - Wilkes & Kravitz (1992), using interviews with first authors of science papers, found that 86% rated coverage of their studies as accurate. This echoes previous findings that accuracy ratings are higher when scientists are asked to evaluate news reports of their own work than when they are asked to evaluate science reporting in general (Dunwoody & Scott, 1982; Pulford, 1976; Tichenor, Olien, Harrison, & Donohue, 1970). However, Bubela & Caulfield (2004) in an analysis of gene discovery stories in the Canadian print media (one which was not based on interviews) found that 82% of the newspaper reports assessed contained 'no significant technical or scientific errors'.

While journalists may be largely successful in correctly reproducing the figures produced in journal articles, they are less successful in putting these figures in context. Methodological details are crucial if the results of a study are to be rendered meaningful (Tankard & Ryan, 1974). Despite this, Singer (1990), in a comparison of news reports of scientific studies in the American media with the original research articles found that 48% gave no mention of research methods at all; of those that did mention research methods, 35% gave inadequate information, and 7.1% presented methodolgical information that was simply wrong.

Another 1990 study found that it was not common practice in either to include methodological details in newspaper reports (Evans, Krippendorf, Yoon, Posluszny & Thomas, 1990); a finding replicated by Pellechia (1997) in an analysis of three prestige US newspapers over three decades. Also frequently found to be lacking in science stories are qualifiying statements or other information that would limit the findings or conclusions of the research (Dunwoody, 1986; Goldstein, 1986). Adequate information is crucial 'to meet the needs of an intelligent nonspecialist who wants to evaluate the situation being reported on' (Klaidman, 1990, p.120). In the absence of such information, it is hardly surprising that Hargreaves et al. (2003) found 79% of respondents reporting that they at least occasionally 'felt confused about scientific issues'.

Public Relations and Press Releases

A number of studies have examined the correlation between a research report being press released by a major science journal and its subsequent coverage in the press. De Semir, Ribas & Revuelta (1998), in a study of 142 newspaper articles referring to studies published in the British Medical Journal, Science, Nature and The Lancet found that 84% referred to studies that had featured in press releases. Entwistle (1995) found a similar congruence, with studies in the BMJ and The Lancet which had been press released accounting for 86% of subsequent newspaper stories. Bartlett, Sterne & Egger (2002) found an even more extreme correlation, with every article in The Times and The Sun which reported on studies from the BMJ and The Lancet having been press released.

Public relations officers and press releases are seldom quoted as sources in newspaper reports - in the Hargreaves et al. (2003) survey above they are quoted as a source in 1%, 6% and 5% of MMR, GMR and climate change stories respectively. Bubela & Caulfield (2004) found a similar reticence in citing press releases as source - only 2 articles out of 627 studied did so.

This is interesting in the context of a (possibly unrepresentative) quote from a science journalist in Hargreaves and Ferguson (2000):

“Scientists are useless, which is why there are armies of PR people in universities, research

councils and funding agencies. In fact when you are not dealing with a straight good news

science story, and instead with any kind of story with an implication for how science appears

or what it plans to do, it is almost impossible to get past the PR people and talk to a real


It is conceivable, therefore, that a story may 'quote' a scientist, but that this quote has been derived from PR personnel or a press release drawn up by the PR department of the institution the scientist works in. However, health correspondents interviewed by Entwistle (1995) said they would not rely on press releases alone as a source for their stories, and regarded access to the full text of the journal article as essential to provide them with adequate information for their story. As these claims were self-reported, they are, perhaps, questionable. Woloshin & Schwartz (2002) found that of 127 press releases issued by 7 high profile journals, only 23% noted study limitations, while industry funding was noted in only 22% of 23 studies receiving such funding. In light of this finding, it would seem essential that journalists do not rely on press releases alone.

Sources: Unpublished research, Opinion and Maverick Science

Not all newspaper coverage of medical issues is based directly on published research in academic journals. The credibility of reporting on health issues is further undermined by pre-emptive coverage of studies which have not yet been published, and of clinical trials that have not yet reached completion. Schwartz, Woolshin & Baczek (2002) studied news stories on research abstracts presented at scientific meetings, including the 12th World AIDS conference, the meeting of the American Heart Association, and that of the Radiological Society of North America. They found that the studies presented at the meetings, despite not having been published or validated, received substantial attention in the media. They also found that many of these studies had weak designs, were small, or were based on animal or laboratory studies; 25% of the abstracts which were covered in the media remained unpublished 3 years later. Pre-emptive coverage may also impact on the public's perception of the validity of the scientific method. Between 1997 and 2002 the drug Pleconaril was widely reported as being a miracle cure for the common cold, despite still being in clinical trials (Schwitzer, 2003). The drug never got past this stage and onto the market as it failed to win FDA approval. 'This kind of story...allows the public to distrust becomes easy for people to feel that scientists don't know what they're doing' (Dr. Ronald B. Turner, in Schwitzer, 2003).

A 2003 British Economic and Social Research council report on media coverage of three major science news stories - the MMR-autism controversy, climate change and cloning/genetic medical research - found that journalists quoted a scientist as the source of information for their story in 36% of cases for MMR, while the public was cited as source in 20% of cases. This contrasts with scientist as source in 58% of cases for Cloning/GMR stories and the public in just 11% of cases (Hargreaves, Lewis and Speers, 2003) This is notable: the MMR story was one with which the public could engage very directly, while GMR stories are more abstract and distant from the every day lives of the public. As Hargreaves et al note: 'the use of the public as a source in science stories would seem to be particularly important in any attempt to engage people with science stories...It is a way of signifiying that the topic is of public interest'. In neither case were the public better placed to argue the scientific merits or demerits than scientists, but because of the public's perceived engagement in the MMR controversy, their opinions were given greater parity with scientific opinion than in the case of GMR.

The appeal to the public for information is indicative of the media's strategy of balancing views in controversial stories. While this is a central journalistic value (see e.g. Westersthahl's 1983 model of objectivity in journalism which has balance as a core element), its effect in this controversy 'tended merely to indicate that there were two competing bodies of evidence rather than offer[ing] more substantive evaluations of the case for or against a link [between MMR and autism]' (Hargreaves et al., p. 23). Going beyond the problems with using this balanced 'political model' (Check, 1987) of reporting, even defining the boundaries of legitimate science can be problematic, as in the case of 'maverick' science (Dearing, 1995) - wherein an individual scientist may propose an unorthodox theory which receives wide coverage despite having a brittle or non-existent evidence base. Reporters seldom ask how sources know what they know, or what evidence this knowledge is based on (Tavris, 1986).


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Genetic sex difference guff

On June 20th The Irish Independent lifted a piece from the London Times reporting on a new study investigating differential gene expression in male and female brains. The Times manages to include the caveat, from the study's authors, that 'their work needed to be followed up to examine whether any human behavioural or health differences were related to the sex-specific gene expression profiles'. This is lopped out of the Irish Independent article, leaving us only with the impression that ' Women and men may genuinely think in different ways, according to research that has found subtle genetic variations between their brains'.
The press release for the study even contains the very specific warning that 'the study does not determine whether these differences in gene expression are in any way functionally significant. Such questions remain to be answered by future studies'.

It starts with a cheese sandwich

6.5 2 7t 100

where W equals the thickness of Cheddar in millimetres, b the thickness of bread, d the dough flavour modifier, s the thickness of margarine or butter, m the thickness of mayonnaise, c the creaminess modifier, v the thickness of tomato, p the depth of pickle and l the thickness of the lettuce layer.

The Star has it: 'Boffins' cheesy formula'.

The formula is the result of research conducted by senior research fellow Geoff Nute and colleagues at the university’s Sensory & Consumer Group in the Division of Farm Animal Science. Using human assessors and complex technological measuring devices, Geoff’s team has successfully ‘mapped’ the flavour profile of hundreds of samples of Cheddar.

Geoff explains: “We used specially trained human taste testers to sample a range of Cheddar cheeses in a carefully controlled environment and combined results from these tests with instrumental data obtained using colorometers and pressure sensors to obtain precise measurements of variants such as yellowness, crumbliness, creaminess and tanginess.

“The results of our research have been extrapolated to produce a formula which takes into account modifying characteristics of individual cheeses and the ratio of popular fillings and achieves a mathematical balance of flavours in order to gauge the correct thickness of the Cheddar.”

Philip Crawford, chairman of the West Country Farmhouse Cheesemakers group, adds: “We are very proud of our authentic farmhouse Cheddar which we make by hand on our farms using only milk from our own cows. This means each variety of West Country Farmhouse Cheddar has a unique character and we were fascinated to know which combinations of sandwich fillings work best with each cheese. Collaborating with Mr Nute and his team we have managed to create the Cheddarometer and reveal the blueprint to everyone’s perfect cheese sandwich.”

(From JD's World)

Geoff Nute's staff page on the University of Bristol website lists his most recent research as being an analysis of the 'Eating quality of pork loin steaks from light slaughter weight boars and boars vaccinated with IMPROVAC™' presented at a conference in Spain.

I don't doubt the research was done, I'd just like to see it if the West Country Farmhouse Cheddar are to trumpet the academic credentials of their cheddarometer.