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California to declare COFFEE a cancer risk amid claims it contains toxic chemicals

There have been many reports recently describing the potential cancer-causing (carcinogenic) properties of various foodstuffs. The headline of this article in the Mail certainly gives the impression that coffee is about to be added to this list; indeed, it suggests that California is poised to enshrine the carcinogenic properties of coffee in law. However (and this is a common theme at Research the Headlines), in this case the substance of the headline does not quite match up with the text in the rest of the article.

The main body of the report discusses the possible link between coffee and cancer in a well-balanced manner. Firstly, it identifies acrylamide as the compound of chief concern and states that acrylamide forms in certain foodstuffs when these are cooked at high temperatures. This is true: in a landmark study in 2002, a group led by Margareta Törnqvist at Stockholm University found that heating carbohydrate-rich foods to temperatures above 120 °C (by frying, for example) gave rise to significantly elevated levels of acrylamide in the final cooked products. The amount of acrylamide formed correlated well with the temperature of cooking, with temperatures of over 200 °C producing acrylamide levels of up to 4000 micrograms of acrylamide per kilogram of food (compared to a level of less than 5 micrograms of acrylamide per kilogram of the same food before cooking). The article correctly identifies starchy foods such as potatoes as being those showing the highest levels of acrylamide after high-temperature cooking.

Acrylamide has also been shown to form in coffee when the beans are roasted, and hence the potential for people to ingest acrylamide when they drink coffee made from these beans.

The article then correctly states that there exists considerable debate in the scientific community as to whether or not acrylamide is indeed a carcinogen in humans. Two separate independent sources are noted in this regard: the National Cancer Institute’s website and Dr. Robert Shmerling of Harvard Medical School. Both sources agree that the link between human cancers and acrylamide ingestion is not clear-cut at this time. This stands in contrast to studies in animals, in which a link between ingestion and cancer seems more conclusive. It is primarily on the basis of these animal studies that acrylamide has been flagged as a potential carcinogen in humans, by bodies such as the US Food and Drug Administration, the European Chemical Agency and the World Health Organization.

With this scientific background established in a clear manner, the article then turns to focus on the current legal proceedings taking place in California, under a state law called “Proposition 65”. This law requires businesses to display warning signs on their premises if they sell anything that contains substances deemed harmful by the courts. The actual wordage on these signs seems almost guaranteed to produce mass-hysteria, and would probably make an interesting “Research the Legal Disclaimer” study:

“Warning: Some products sold in this store contain chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm.”

Such signs are already displayed in coffee shops (and a host of other public spaces) across California, and there is an argument that their ubiquity diminishes the impact of their message. It is also not clear that the signs give a balanced view of the risks. As the German philosopher-physician Paracelsus said 500 years ago, it is “the dose that makes the poison”. At the current time, it is far from clear as to whether the (often) low concentrations of carcinogens present in these public spaces actually constitute a risk to our health or not.

The crux of the article revolves around whether a judge can (or should) be able to rule on the likelihood that acrylamide (and hence all kinds of foods cooked at high temperatures) is a human carcinogen, when there is no clear scientific consensus on this at the current time. The legal action in California is being brought by the Metzger Law Group, who have previously made successful claims against fast food outlets over essentially the same issue (acrylamide in their French fries). Whatever the outcome, this is unlikely to be the last we hear of acrylamide and its possible link to human cancers.

On the whole, then, this is a well-balanced and essentially correct account of the possible carcinogenic effects of acrylamide in foodstuffs, with a special focus on the legal proceedings currently underway in California regarding coffee. The piece is largely free of inaccuracies and hyperbole, although the title does not quite do the rest of the content justice. Simply changing “California to….” to “California could…” would have summed up the contents of the article much more accurately. The trouble is, there wasn’t room for this because “coffee” had to be written in capitals, to grab our attention… and ADHD, the highly successful founding member of The Black Eyed Peas and judge on ITV’s ‘The Voice’, has recently spoken to the media about his diagnosis of ADHD. ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) is a developmental disorder characterised by pervasive inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity. It is one of the most common childhood psychological disorders, affecting around 3-5% of all children worldwide. Diagnosis rates in the U.K. are lower than most European countries and the U.S., with around 1% of U.K. children diagnosed with the condition. Media awareness of the condition, particularly from successful individuals like is very positive in highlighting issues surrounding the condition. Last year there was extensive media coverage of a programme about ADHD with Rory Bremner covering his diagnosis, which helped address significant misconceptions about the condition. So how has the coverage of on this topic helped with awareness on this occasion?

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Looking Back on Research the Headlines in 2017

It has been another trying year for evidence-based journalism. Research the Headlines was set up in 2013 to examine how research was portrayed in the media, and to give the public helpful advice and tools when trying to get to the heart of a news story. This task seems positively leviathan in our current climate.

Trump and Brexit still dominate the media cycle. We have watched as political actors have attempted to sideline and distort evidence-based research, and legions of social media trolls and bots have swamped our feeds with spam, lies and propaganda. This information war can only erode the public’s trust in scientific evidence, setting society onto a path with unambiguously disastrous consequences.

As a small team of academics with heavy workloads and family lives, it has seemed daunting at times to stand with others against this overwhelming current of misinformation (and disinformation). We have kept to our original promise of scrutinising sensational headlines, whether they be about autism, ADHD, volcanic eruptions, the supposed Scottish origins of dinosaurs, and even albatross conservation.

I’ll admit that I have found it difficult to keep my temper when reading some newspaper articles touting “research”, such as the so-called “perfect woman” articles that keep circulating like a bad smell, poisoning our cultural expectations of women. As a father of a very young daughter, I took great pleasure in excoriating a recent offering left in a curled pile by one news outlet.

There are grounds for optimism. Fake news is a phenomenon now well recognised by the public – we’ve talked about tools to protect yourself against it. More and more academics and intellectuals are using their voice to shape the public discourse (see our Talking Headlines series). The tidal wave of so-called “s**t-posting” by trolls and bots may be finally hitting flood prevention systems. They’re far from perfect, but I am hopeful that social media will continue to mature into a platform where evidence and rational debate are the most prized.

At no other time in our history have politicians, journalists and researchers faced more careful and intelligent scrutiny by the public they serve. If this continues, I think 2018 and the years beyond will show a newfound respect for clearly evidenced, rational thinking.

Social media, depression and suicide

This article was co-authored by Sinead Rhodes and guest writer Tracy Stewart

A link between use of social media services, such as Facebook and Instagram, and mental health is frequently discussed in the media. Invariably, an association between the two is interpreted as time spent online causing mental health problems. The current discussion centers on a study which examined depression and social media engagement. So how did the media handle reporting of this study?

Headlines varied from those that stayed close to what the study methodology could infer: ‘study links excessive digital screen time among teens to depression, suicide’, to the more inaccurate ‘screen time might boost depression, suicide behaviours in teens’ to the completely sensationalist headline ‘social media is making teen girls suicidal’. The latter conclusion cannot be inferred from the design of the study reported in this paper.

What did the study do?

The study involved a survey carried out by researchers at San Diego and Florida State University. The researchers analysed the results of two nationally representative surveys for U.S. teenagers aged 13-18 years conducted with over 500,000 teenagers. Different children were tested at each age point rather than the study involving a follow-up of the same children.

The surveys examined information relating to depression symptoms, and suicide and suicide related outcomes; in addition the researchers looked at National Statistics for suicide. The surveys also asked about time spent using electronic games, time spent on social media, and time spent on other non-screen activities such as exercise.

The researchers conducted what is known as a correlational analysis which looks for an association between two factors, between depression and suicide, and screen and non-screen activities. The researchers reported that “Adolescents who spent more time on screen activities were significantly more likely to have high depressive symptoms or have at least one suicide ­related outcome, and those who spent more time  on non-screen activities were less likely”. The authors also reported that depression levels and suicide increased between 2010 and 2015 alongside an increase in using electronic games and social media. The authors interpret the findings as suggesting that high levels of screen time is a risk factor for depression and suicide.

The difficulty with this interpretation lies in the fact that it is underpinned by a correlational and not a causal analysis. As we mentioned in our How To Research the Headlines series, correlation is not causation.

If participants were placed at random into two groups whereby group A spent a significant number of hours on screen time and group B did not, instead spending this time doing a non-screen activity, and group A had higher levels of depression and suicide when tested afterwards (where there were no other pre-existing differences between the groups), then we could infer that screen time was a risk factor for depression.

However, with the design the current study used, it is not possible to determine what the direction of effect is. It is equally likely that having depression, a core feature of which is withdrawing from social situations, leads teenagers to spend more time online possibly looking for support for their psychological functioning.

The researchers note in the discussion section of their paper that “It is possible…..that mental health issues increased for some other unknown reason and depressed  teens  were more likely to spend time on screens”. The problem is that the design of their study does not enable a directional, cause and effect, interpretation of the link between the two factors. Depressed girls in the study may have deliberately spent more time online at a time when they feel the need to physically withdraw from their peers, and they may of course have been looking online for sources of support rather than seeing information that was making them more depressed. So the depression may pre-date the screen use…….

Depression figures may have risen not because more parents were buying their teens iPhones, but because there is more awareness amongst teens of depression symptoms and less stigma about having these symptoms (but note we have a long way to go here yet). Regardless, it is imperative that the media are careful when reporting on depression and suicide especially in vulnerable populations such as teenagers. It is also essential that researchers engage fully with the media about their methodologies so that alternative explanations of the findings are considered.

Media reporting on this study also raises further issues. One concerns the incorrect reporting of mental health prevalence data in the media. One of the articles that covered the study also suggested it followed on from another they reported on in September. Linking back to that article it was suggested that “one in four British schoolgirls suffer from depression at the age of 14”. This high prevalence claim was first reported in the Guardian who asserted that “government funded research had found one in four girls to be clinically depressed by the age of 14 and that this has sparked new fears of an epidemic of poor mental health in young people in Britain”. The Guardian article claimed the research found 24% of 14-year-old girls and 9% of boys the same age have depression. In fact the research, which formed part of the Millennium Cohort Study, reported that 24% of girls and 9% of 14 year of boys had self-reported ‘symptoms’ of depression.

While symptoms of depression can, in some cases, lead to a diagnosis of clinical depression, prevalence rates of clinically diagnosed depression in adolescence is around 4-5%, not the 24% reported here. This example of course highlights a further issue – the cyclical nature of inaccurate, sensationalised headlines!

Dyslexia, eyes, light and hype

This week a story on dyslexia, my main research interest, has dominated the media, and I could not ignore it. Dyslexia is a specific difficulty in learning to read experienced by about 5-10% children in the UK. The causes and mechanisms leading to dyslexia are yet to be made clear and an effective universal treatment is not available. Every now and then, as it is often the case for childhood disorders, a miraculous cure is proposed ranging from videogames, to  coloured lenses or even electric therapy.

These announcements usually follow small sized studies reporting small effects but which regularly make big headlines. Rarely the results are independently replicated and confirmed in follow-up studies. And even if they did, the negative results would not make it in the news. Providing any findings describe a genuine effect and a particular treatment could have beneficial effects for some individuals, it is very unlikely that a universal remedy could resolve dyslexia given it varies along a spectrum and has individuals with the condition show differences in their patterns of difficulties.

But let’s see what the latest story is about. This time it is not about cure but cause. Most of the news outlets have headlines declaring that the “real cause” of dyslexia is in the eye (e.g. The cause of dyslexia lies in the eyes for The Sun or in eye spots confusing the brain for the BBC) with a few articles also alluding to a cure (e.g. Dyslexia treatment potentially discovered in The Independent). They refer to a paper published in the Proceeding of the Royal Society B journal. The authors, Albert Le Floch and Guy Ropars, are based at the University of Rennes 1, France, in the Physics Department and have no previous track record in the field of dyslexia.

Briefly, the study analysed 60 students divided in two groups defined as normo-readers and dyslexics. The authors describe the “dyslexic” group to have a reduced ocular dominance which they suggest to be linked to a reduced structural asymmetry in the retina when compared to the normo-readers. The authors conclude their article by stating that the “lack of asymmetry might be the biological and anatomical basis of reading and spelling disabilities in people with a normal ocular status but with dyslexia, perturbing the connectivity of different regions in the brain and inducing the observed common visual and phonological difficulties. Our results suggest early anatomical diagnosis of dyslexia in young children and possible compensation for their potential lack of asymmetry, especially during the critical period.”

The study has been openly criticised by scientists working in the field of dyslexia who are puzzled as to how it managed to get published in a respectable journal and pass the peer-review process. For an extensive critique see this blog by Prof Mark Seidenberg at Columbia University that received supports by many other scientists who shared it on Twitter. Some of the key problems with the study are a very small sample size which could easily lead to biased results, lack of details on how the “dyslexia” group was identified and the over-interpretation of the results by the authors.

So any exaggerations in the headlines seem to build on already over-interpreted results by the authors themselves.

As we have seen many times in the past, quite often the headlines are not just the product of poor journalism, but the direct results of hyped press releases which involve the contribution of the scientists themselves (e.g. see the claim of a link between c-sections and autism). In this case, I was not able to identify a press release by the University of Rennes and most news outlets quoted their source as a press release by AFP which I could not find either. However, while I do not speak French and my judgement is based on Google Translator, the author themselves appear to declare in this interview, with demonstrative videos, “ to have understood the mechanisms at the basis of dyslexia and found a way to correct it” using particular light conditions. This reinforces the message that, while undoubtedly the headlines offering a definitive diagnosis and hope for a cure are sensationalist, once again the scientists themselves should avoid spreading irresponsible claims that have the potential to ultimately damage people with dyslexia.


Original paper: “Left–right asymmetry of the Maxwell spot centroids in adults without and with dyslexia” by Albert Le Floch, Guy Ropars in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 2017

DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2017.1380.

Parallel realities: media reports on climate change research

Reducing carbon emissions to minimise climate change is a global challenge, which 195 of world’s countries have agreed to work towards. Unlike most human modifications of the planet, the effect of carbon emissions is truly global, and can only be avoided through global cooperation. Based on overwhelming scientific evidence and substantial negotiations, the Paris agreement set the target of keeping global average temperature increase below 2°C, while attempting to limit it to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. The agreement opens scientific questions as to whether this target is achievable, and, if so, how it could be achieved. This study set out to answer these questions using carbon cycle models and emissions scenarios. The results caused a media storm of divergent reports.

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Talking Headlines with Theo Koutmeridis: Media, Brexit and the Scottish Economy

Dr Theodore Koutmeridis is a Lecturer in Economics at the Adam Smith Business School at the University of Glasgow. He holds a PhD in Economics from Warwick University where he was a Royal Economic Society Junior Fellow and an Onassis Scholar, and he has recently been a Visiting Scholar at Columbia University. His work on economic inequality and crime has been recognised with various awards, such as the Sir Alec Cairncross Prize, the 1st Prize of the ‘European Science Days’ Interdisciplinary Award, the British Academy Rising Star Award, grants by the ESRC, and has been featured in the media and various symposia, such as his TEDx talk on ‘The Underground Economy’. His contribution to the YAS Brexit Report highlighted the opportunities and risks of Brexit to the Scottish Economy, and also the role of the media in communicating socioeconomic issues.

During the Brexit referendum, there was a lot of talk of the impact of EU migration, and migration in general, on the job prospects and incomes of UK born workers. You have described this as a ‘misuse of evidence’. Can you explain what you mean by this, and how the media reporting influenced this?

 My feeling is that several advanced economies are looking inward, following an anti-globalising sentiment, which has been influenced also by the current migration crisis. The Brexit advocates and the believers of other xenophobic campaigns, such as Trump’s supporters, focus on the sensitive issue of migration and emphasise its perils on the labour market outcomes of native workers. Instead of examining the evidence to shape their opinion, such campaigners are prepared to misuse the evidence to support their preconceptions, ignoring the detrimental consequences that this may have. I am highlighting this as almost every study suggests that migration at large, or EU migration do not influence much the employment prospects or the real wages of UK-born workers (e.g., work by the London School of Economics). To the contrary several studies argue that restrictions in migration will reduce per capita GDP in the UK post Brexit. If these findings, and in particular the misuse of evidence regarding migration, had been reported impartially in the media, the referendum outcome might have been different. The result so far has been that Brexit voters have not received the promised benefits and at the top of this they must face the ugly truth of reduced income for the next decade or so. This is a bad deal.

Your Brexit Report contribution highlighted that the impact of Brexit will be heterogeneous across the Scottish economy, with some industries doing better than others. Can you give an example of this?

Indeed the impact of Brexit is expected to be heterogeneous across the various industries of the UK and the Scottish economy. Nevertheless, most of the related work overlooks such heterogeneous outcomes, as researchers, policymakers and media representatives have not examined such mixed effects adequately. Identifying that Brexit is going to generate several threats but also some moderate opportunities is the key for a smooth exit from EU that can minimise the losses. Just to give some examples. Several industries, such as those related to healthcare, require skill-diverse human resources, and migration over the past few decades supplied such workers to the UK and to Scotland. Brexit is estimated to harm disproportionally the health sector compared to other sectors. In contrast, the depreciation of the British pound is expected to make some Scottish and UK industries, such as those related to tourism, more attractive to foreigners and EU citizens. In fact visiting the UK and Scotland becomes cheaper and therefore after the Brexit vote the tourism sector is expected to grow more or get harmed less compared to other sectors.

Do you think this has been well portrayed in the media?

The media have described the situation in some of these industries in isolation but they have not focused on such heterogeneous effects across several industries, which could offer a unified framework to analyse the impact of Brexit. Also, the media have focused primarily on the risks related to Brexit, disregarding the modest opportunities that might appear. In my opinion it would be important to examine the costs and opportunities both across sectors but also within sector. As we have already discussed health services and tourism offer examples of heterogeneous effects across different industries. The Higher Education sector can offer an illustrative example of costs and opportunities within a particular industry. In this case, and holding other things constant, the depreciation of the British pound due to Brexit will make college degrees cheaper and thus more attractive to EU citizens. In contrast, the reduced job opportunities for graduates might make Higher Education institutions in the UK less attractive to EU citizens. Such positive and negative effects leave the overall outcome of Brexit on Higher Education uncertain. Notice that my oversimplified analysis abstracts from many other key aspects, such as the role of EU funding or the importance of EU staff in UK universities that will be influenced by Brexit too. I feel that the media can contribute more meaningfully to the Brexit debates if they focus precisely on quantifying such conflicting effects.

How do you see economic arguments continuing to shape the Brexit debate, in terms of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ Brexit?

Following the recent elections the interest around the type of Brexit has been rekindled. The economic arguments point to a clear direction, as I have emphasized in the YAS Brexit Report. Analyses from various different sources, such as the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), the HM Treasury and the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics, consistently indicate that Brexit will have a negative impact on the economy. In particular, Brexit is expected to reduce GDP by anything from 1.3%, in the case of soft Brexit within the European Economic Area, to 9.5% in the case of hard Brexit with free-trade agreements. Even so, such forecasts should be treated with care in the absence of appropriate counterfactuals for comparisons between Brexit and Bremain, it seems that a soft Brexit is what the UK government should try to achieve. However, we should bear in mind that EU has no interest in supporting a soft Brexit, as such an agreement might lead other EU members to follow the same soft exit route, endangering the future of the continent and threatening European integration. Concluding, it seems that UK wishes a soft but EU might force a hard Brexit and even worse is that UK has an inferior bargaining position in these negotiations.

How does this compare with the ‘revenge of the disadvantaged’, as you have termed the political behaviour of those that seem to vote against their economic interests?

The type of Brexit is a key factor and the UK should aim not only at reducing the overall costs but also at mitigating the uneven distribution of costs and the sharp socio-economic inequalities. When I started writing my report I realised that a fundamental factor has been overlooked by scholars, politicians, businesspersons and the media. This fundamental factor relates to disadvantaged groups who feel that they are the losers of globalisation. Such disadvantaged UK citizens suffer in the labour market due to global competition and xenophobic anti-globalising campaigns that target migrants offer an easily digestible narrative to them. In several cases the following Bob Dylan lyric describes their voting behaviour quite well: “when you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose”.

These less-privileged citizens are prepared to take a risk and vote for Brexit but they end up finding themselves in a worse situation. The revenge of the disadvantaged describes that fact that poor citizens seem to prefer to act in a way that destabilises the economy and harms the elites, instead of securing moderate benefits for themselves. This highlights the importance of relative position in determining their vote, despite the fact that even marginal income declines might have detrimental consequences for such marginalised groups. Overall, as I highlighted in the report, UK and Scotland need inclusive growth based on a healthy middle class, labour market reforms to support low earners and more affordable education to allow intergenerational mobility. The political arena occasionally allows the less privileged to transfer some of the risks they face on a daily basis to the rest of society. It is essential to recognize this and view Brexit as an opportunity to build a less divided society.

How do you see the media’s role in helping to build this less divided society?
This is a good question. I strongly feel that it is in the interest of the media to build a prosperous, sustainable and equitable society. Nevertheless, in several cases the media focuses on attracting attention by generating short run impressions, which might divide further our already segregated communities. I consider key the realisation that the media is the fourth power, after the legislature, the executive and the judiciary ones, and this fact is interlinked with both privileges and societal obligations. The construction of a coherent and well-informed society must be a target of the media in modern democracies and citizens should evaluate this when deciding which media to follow. That is why your own work that Research the Headlines and other evidence-based approaches to journalism, can contribute significantly to the creation of a healthy society. On the pressing issue of Brexit, I feel that it is critical to focus on examining carefully the evidence and exchanging knowledge across the media, the academic, the policy and the business worlds. This can help not only in securing a smooth exit from the European Union but also in addressing the sharp socio-economic inequalities that UK and Scotland in particular are facing.


Sometimes the Science is Irrelevant : Dissecting the so-called “perfect woman” article

Every so often, an article comes along that purports to be based in quantitative research, where we in RtH don’t particularly care whether the research is represented well or not.  A good example is the recent Daily Mail piece on “the perfect woman“, which collates quantitative measures of various aspects of the female body in an attempt to find what features are “the most attractive”.

At this point, I would normally attempt to find the research quoted, describe it to you and then review the journalist’s attempts to convey the same information. I’m not going to do that here, for a host of reasons.

Firstly, the article is a grab bag of various research papers/press statements, none of which are linked to or cited appropriately.  There is no discussion of how features are determined to be “attractive”. After all, attractiveness is a property that varies greatly between cultures, and most studies use participants falling into the WEIRD category (White Educated Industrialised Rich Democratic). Also, the article relies on explanations harking back to cave-people, which should immediately raise alarm bells, as these “just-so” explanations using early humans often have little to no basis in established fact.

Finally, even if the science contained is sound, the article’s ultimate aim is negative. The use of this research to objectify women, deconstructing them into their component body parts and identifying “the best”, goes against decades of efforts to prevent body dysmorphic and eating disorders in women and girls. The Mail article does try to offer balanced body statements, such as suggesting that underweight body types are “less attractive”, but I find it difficult to believe such statements would be helpful to women struggling with body image issues.

<sarcasm> I look forward to the accompanying article deconstructing male attractiveness <\sarcasm>

Babies sleeping in separate rooms

For parents of newborns grappling with limited sleep, a headline such as ‘babies who sleep in separate rooms from their parents…..get more shut eye’ is bound to raise an eyebrow. The latest findings, at first glance, seem to challenge official guidelines that babies should sleep in the same room as their parents until at least 6 months. Indeed the reporting specifically claims the findings challenge the guidelines. On closer inspection though, the headline and the article is riddled with misinterpretations of the study findings. So what does the study actually reveal?

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Research the Fringe 2017

Dear readers, as it’s August again we would like to welcome you to another roundup of research related shows on at the various festivals hosted in Edinburgh this month. These include the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, its more prestigious elder, the Edinburgh International Festival, the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and the Edinburgh International TV Festival. As we have done in previous years (2014, 2015) we would like to provide suggestions for research-related shows and events for any Research the Headlines readers who may be visiting Edinburgh this month. Read more…