Here at Research the Headlines, we have frequently written about environmental factors that may be linked with developmental disorders such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). We have done so because the media frequently reports on such studies. So is there really evidence for a link between ADHD and mothers being exposed to air pollution during their pregnancies as current media headlines would suggest? Read more…
Over the last few months, many of our Research the Headlines contributors have produced some “top tips” to help you to “Research the Headlines”. We’ve compiled the full How to “Research the Headlines” series below, so please do continue to read, share and feedback.
At Research the Headlines, our aim is to examine “the way in which research is discussed and portrayed in the media”. So, whether you have some background in research or none at all, we hope the short tips are interesting, and that they might help you to get closer to the latest research reported in the media.
- Part 1: Don’t stop at the headline, by Alan Gow.
- Part 2: What did the researchers actually say?, by Alan Gow.
- Part 3: Are independent experts featured in the article?, by Sinead Rhodes.
- Part 4: Does the media article link to the where the work is published and the original research team?, by Ross Forgan.
- Part 5: Are associations/causal links handled correctly?, by Duncan Forgan.
- Part 6: How to assess the risk?, by Stewart Smith.
- Part 7: Is a news article biased? Is the entire news outlet biased? Why might they be biased and how can we tell?, by Subramanian Ramamoorthy.
- Part 8: No study stands alone – research findings must be put in the context of the wider body of research, by Sinead Rhodes.
- Part 9: Is this media article consistent with others?, by Alan Gow.
- Part 10: Exaggeration and opinion versus research evidence, by Sinead Rhodes and Alan Gow.
The human health benefits (or disbenefits) of milk and dairy products continue to grab the headlines. Recently the media reported on a study in the British Medical Journal relating milk intake (liquid and products) to the risk of bone fractures and mortality in men and women. So is this the final evidence that means school milk will never darken our doors again? Well the answer to that would appear to be no, and on the whole the press coverage of the original study was fair and balanced. The reports point to one of the main conclusions that drinking (a lot) of milk may have some health risks with the headlines ranging from Milk might not be as good for us as we thought to Three glasses of milk a day can lead to early death. In reality the most accurate of the headlines reporting this study was High milk diet ‘may not cut risk of bone fractures’. Read more…
We’ve now reached the final post in our How to “Research the Headlines” series, and our last tip is about news stories that appear to be based on evidence gathered from a research study or studies, but on closer inspection range from simple exaggeration to unsupported opinions of the writer or some other source. This shaky factual basis for reporting can easily happen when a researcher has been speaking about their recent findings and goes beyond what their data can actually support, often simply because of over-enthusiasm for their latest piece of work. It can be more serious, however, if there’s genuinely no research basis for a story that’s being reported as such. So here are a few pointers to help you sort the fact (all we mean by “fact” in this context, of course, is that the story is based on some published research; the nature of a fact is beyond our scope today!), from the fiction (opinion or hyperbole masquerading as research).
The observation that autism prevalence has been increasing, beyond what would be explained by improved diagnosis alone, has launched the quest to identify the factors responsible. In spite of an increasing list of such factors, few can actually stand up to serious scrutiny. However, the media rarely miss a chance to report any potential risk factor, most of the time based on inconclusive studies, which can then have dramatic effects on health choices. The most extreme example was the suggested link between MMR vaccinations and autism, alimenting the anti-vaccination movement and leading to measles outbreaks. The list of putative risk factors includes mercury, pollutants, parenting strategies, dairy products and video games. Emily Willingham, scientist and blogger, has reviewed up to 50 factors, inclduing relevant references, in this caustic post, and Research The Headlines recently covered a story suggesting siblings born closer together are at higher risk for autism.
The punchlines almost write themselves…
As someone married to a non-native English speaker, I feel duty-bound to attempt to learn my wife’s language. But, as with so many things in life, my motivation to actually knuckle down and learn is ever an issue. Perhaps because of this, the Daily Mail’s online headline “Yes! Oui! Si! Learning a new language activates the same part of the brain as SEX” certainly caught my monolingual eye. It goes on to further claim that “A new study suggests that learning a new language stimulates the same part of the brain as having sex or eating chocolate.” So how do these claims match up to the science behind the story?
“We object to the claim that brain games offer consumers a scientifically grounded avenue to reduce or reverse cognitive decline when there is no compelling scientific evidence to date that they do.” That’s how a group of the world’s leading researchers interested in the brain and how it ages signed off a consensus statement this week. In it, the researchers highlighted how the claims made by those marketing brain training games and products currently go well beyond the accrued evidence, and therefore seriously questioned whether the industry was fairly representing the benefits that these games might bring. Read more…
Through our How to “Research the Headlines” series, we’ve provided some simple suggestions to assist with your critical consumption of research reported in the media. Most of the time, we’ve focused on specific things to look out for when reading any particular media article. Given that many of us get our news online, it is of course easier than ever to access multiple reports about the same topic. If more than one media outlet has covered a story, how might the consistency of reporting, or indeed inconsistency, help us to better appraise that research? Read more…
All too often, public perception rather than actual scientific data sway policy over the use of certain chemicals. Aspartame, Bisphenol A and fructose have all taken a pasting in the last decade, and it now looks like acrylamide, a by-product of cooking starchy foods, is set to join this unhappy brethren. So with claims of carcinogenicity and a lawsuit on the way, is acrylamide a genuine problem or just another example of chemophobia?
Here at Research the Headlines we have been working hard on developing a How to “Research the Headlines” series and have now posted 8 top tips. We used the first of these tips – ‘Don’t stop at the headline’ – to pilot our next public engagement project ‘Rewrite the Headlines’. In this project, we aim to help children learn from a young age to be media savvy about how scientific research is described in the media. Read more…