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Is Islamic State Medieval?

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Over the course of the last few weeks, we’ve read in dozens of headlines and opinion pieces across western media that those who profess allegiance to Islamic State (or ISIL), and the actions they have been carrying out in its name, not least the beheading of American and British journalists, are ‘medieval’, and that we are witnessing some sort of return to the Middle Ages in the Near East. Read more…

Ebola outbreak: is this the beginning, middle or the end?

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The name ‘Ebola’ strikes fear at its mere mention; not just in areas where outbreaks are known to occur, but across the globe. Ebola is a lethal viral pathogen causing hemorrhagic fever, where case fatality rates average 78%. West Africa is currently experiencing the largest ever outbreak of the disease, as it moves its way through Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, amd Nigeria. Last week Senegal reported its first case. As of 1st September 2014, the number of cases was reported to stand at around 3000, with 1500 deaths. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently estimated that case numbers might rise as high as 20,000. But what do we really know about this Ebola strain, its transmission and how the outbreak is likely to play out over the coming months? Read more…

Will Studying the Higgs Boson Really Destroy the Universe?

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I used to enjoy reading articles in the press regarding the thoughts and ideas of Professor Stephen Hawking, an incomparable physicist and cosmologist, and an uncompromising science communicator. Any man who can reach such dizzying theoretical heights and still write a challenging but accessible book like A Brief History of Time ranks high in my estimation.

However, I fear that his reputation is falling victim to his own PR machine. The latest news item regards comments he makes in the preface of a new book, Starmus, that scientists studying the Higgs Boson could “destroy the Universe”. While it makes for some juicy headlines, and it will no doubt help sell copies of this book which accompanies a festival celebrating our exploration of space, the media coverage is a little concerning.

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Brain Training on Trial: Passing Judgement

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The global industry for products designed to monitor or improve brain health is currently estimated to be worth over $1 billion. That is expected to increase six-fold by 2020 (source: SharpBrains.com, “an independent market research firm tracking health and performance applications of neuroscience”). “Brain training” products, packages of games or puzzles that have generally been developed and marketed to improve the brain’s function, make up a large proportion of this industry. But does brain training train your brain? Read more…

Suicide diagnostic kit or media hype?

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Wouldn’t it be beneficial to be able to identify individuals at risk of suicide with a blood test? This idea has been widely covered in the media following the publication of a genetic study in The American Journal of Psychiatry at the end of July. The study reported the identification of genetic markers on a particular gene (called SKA2) that appeared to be associated with suicidal behaviour. Read more…

How to “Research the Headlines”: Part 7

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In a highly connected world, information is being produced continuously and made available in unprecedented quantities. As researchers, we see information being produced in primary sources – papers in rapidly growing numbers of journals (to the point that even experts in narrowly defined areas may sometimes find it hard to keep up with all that is being said); secondary sources – commentary in traditional and new media (which comes with its own peculiarities, such as that social media can very quickly become ‘echo chambers’); and eventually in policy and strategy documents that aggregate or interpret such sources.

In such a world, the media plays a powerful role in focusing our attention on specific issues and more generally in organizing this information. What is said and how it is presented has tremendous power in shaping discourse. With such power comes the question of whether it is being used fairly. Read more…

Curing Cancer with Salt?

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Cancer is a highly emotive subject and horribly prevalent disease, so miracle cures are often the subject of considerable media coverage. The Daily Mail in particular is well-known for articles detailing the latest “cure”, or indeed reporting the newest cancer causing scare, with eagled-eyed bloggers cataloguing lists of cures and carcinogens (note the number of substances that the Mail believes both cause and prevent cancer). So with the latest headline “Salt injection ‘kills cancer cells’” published by the Daily Mail and others, is it really that simple?

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Research the Fringe…

Some of our readers (those not in the UK or who live under rocks) may not be aware that in August, the City of Edinburgh hosts the World’s largest arts festival, commonly known as the Edinburgh Fringe.  As a number of the contributors to Research the Headlines are based in Edinburgh (and one is actually performing) we thought we would provide some listings of events that may be of interest to our readers.   These might be research related, or include aspects of skeptical/rationalist thought, or just be very entertaining.  Either way, we hope this will be helpful for any readers of the blog who are in Edinburgh for the festivals.  If we’ve missed anything out that you would like to highlight then please let us know in the comments.

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“2 minutes exercise will stop you ageing”

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Headlines reporting medical breakthroughs or general health-related stories are often particularly attention grabbing. A justification could be that by their nature, such stories are about things that might potentially save or shorten your life. When those headlines are combined with being splashed across the front page of a major newspaper, it’s certainly worth taking note. This week, The Daily Express led with “2 minutes exercise will stop you ageing” (or “Two minutes exercise a week can beat ageing” for the online version). Just two minutes of exercise per week? That’s something even I could probably manage!

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How to “Research the Headlines”: Part 6

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Part 6: How to Assess the Risk?

Some of the most common forms of media story that catch our eyes at Research the Headlines are those that report studies of risk, particularly in terms of lifestyle choices that have been shown to increase the likelihood of developing disease.  Unfortunately this is also where the media can often get it wrong in a way that causes unnecessary concern to many people.  In the chapter entitled “Bad Stats” of his excellent book Bad Science, Dr Ben Goldacre states:

Newspapers like big numbers and eye-catching headlines. They need miracle cures and hidden scares, and small percentage shifts in risk will never be enough for them to sell readers to advertisers…

In this latest part of our How to “Research the Headlines” guide we look at how risks are often reported in the media and why these can be misleading.

Read more…

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