Skip to content

The devastating potential of volcanic eruptions: An explainer

In recent weeks there have been lots of of stories in the news about volcanic eruptions that are currently occurring, most notable Kilauea, Hawaii and just last week Fuego, Guatemala. Both of these eruptions have been devastating in one way or another for the local populations who live in the shadow of these two volcanoes, but the risks at each volcano are different.

The questions I am being asked by my non-geology friends are; what are the differences between these eruptions and is the frequency of eruptions increasing?  In comparison, my volcanology-related friends were initially complaining that the media were reporting lava eruptions from Fuego, which had not yet occurred. What has been really nice to see here, is that the incorrect usage of terminology was fed back to the media via through various routes, and at the time of writing I cannot find any reports on lava eruptions from Fuego.

So what is lava and why were the scientists upset by the use of this terminology?

Lava is molten rock erupting at the surface, often at high temperatures (800-1200 °C), and has the ability to flow like a river. On cooling, the lava solidifies, often forming hard and dense igneous rocks (Figure 1). Eruptions of lava are often effusive and are generally much quieter, passive eruptions as volatiles in the magma can escape. Although dangerous, the resulting lava flows can be monitored and tracked. In comparison, explosive eruptions are much more violent, as any trapped volatiles suddenly depressurise, expelling rocks, gas and ash potentially hundreds or thousands of meters in the atmosphere. These eruptions can often blanket large regions with volcanic debris in a matter of minutes to hours.

The eruption of Kilauea has been lava dominated, whereas the eruption at Fuego resulted in pyroclastic flows.  These are hot clouds (typically between 200-700°C) of rock, ash and gas that descend down the side of volcanoes at great speeds (approximately 70-200 mph). Both type of eruptions have the power to cause devastation but in different manners.

Let’s start with Hawaii. Kilauea volcano is a shield volcano that makes up over 10% of the land mass of Hawaii’s Big Island, with an active lava lake at its summit. The eruption of Kilauea is not new, it has been erupting for the last 30 years, what has happened in the last few weeks is the magma migrated and started to erupt in a new location that is unfortunately in a residential area of the island. At the same time, explosive eruptions have occurred at Kilauea summit vent, sending plumes of ash skyward. The current eruption in the Leilani Estates commenced on the 3rd May 2018 and a month later active fire fountains and lava flows are continuing to pour out, destroying homes and communities in the southeast of Hawaii’s Big Island, displacing many families.

The eruption at Fuego has resulted in heart-rendering images being beamed around the world of local communities that have been utterly devastated. Initial reports suggest little warning of an imminent eruption was observed, but reports appearing in the media currently e.g. BBC and El Periodico, suggest some signs of a potential eruption may have transpired. As it stands no notice of evacuation was given and hence when the eruption occurred, the resulting pyroclastic flow raced down the side of the volcano, sweeping through villages giving no time for the locals to escape. The result being families and local communities were utterly changed within moments. The images coming from the region reminds us just how unpredictable and powerful volcanoes are, and just how much devastation they can cause in a short timescale.

So with the media reporting on these volcanic eruptions, back to the question my friends have been asking. Are the number of volcanic eruptions increasing? Personally, I would argue this is unlikely, technology and the way we communicate has changed drastically over the last few decades. Where once news would have to sent by mail and may takes weeks to arrive, today we share global events almost instantly. As we lack a complete record of past volcanic eruptions, it will never be an easy task to answer this question. In recent years there has been much work to try and catalog known eruptions and to investigate whether there has been changes in frequency. There has been many published reports on this. A database of Holocene eruptions can be found at the Smithsonian Volcano Database.  One of the most comprehensive reports that is freely available to all, is the Global Hazards and Risk Book, originally written as a report for the United Nations For Disaster Risk Reduction  led by Sue Loughlin of the BGS and Steve Sparks of the University of Bristol.

One of the things these databases and reports are highlighting, is the complexity of recording volcanic eruptions. Not only do they highlight the difficulty in identifying all volcanic eruptions in the geological history, the reporting of volcanic eruptions during world events (e.g. world wars) are also shown to decrease. Thus, one thing is for sure; there is not a simple answer to the question “is the frequency of volcanic eruptions changing”. So let’s leave you with a fun fact, whilst you have been reading this blog, it is likely that 20-40 volcanoes globally have erupted, but the majority of these will not have been reported in the media.

Brain differences in children with ADHD

This post was written by Margarita Kanevski and Sinead Rhodes

A few weeks ago we spoke about the media coverage of Richard Bacon’s diagnosis of ADHD. A second ADHD related story was covered in the media within the same timeframe. The headline ADHD sufferers have smaller brains’ and Children with ADHD have smaller brain size, study says’  appeared in the news. These headlines relate to recent findings that 4-5-year-old pre-schoolers who showed ADHD symptoms had lower cortical volume than children without signs of ADHD.  So what is the evidence behind the headlines?

What did the study do?

The study initially involved 129 4-5-year-old children recruited from the community, nurseries and paediatric offices. Parents were asked to complete various reports about their child’s behaviour using interviews and questionnaires.  Based on this, children were assigned to either (1) an ADHD group, or (2) a typically developing group. In the final groups, there were 52 children in the ADHD group and 38 controls (90 had usable MRI scans).  Both groups were comparable on gender, age, race, IQ, language abilities and parent education and occupation.

Children were then assessed on their language and attention, and they undertook a brain imaging (Magnetic Resonance Imaging/MRI) scan. MRI is a brain imaging technique that uses magnetic waves to create a detailed 3D image of the brain.  Using these scans, the researchers calculated inner and outer brain surfaces, total cerebral volume and volume in specific brain regions.  Results of the study showed that children in the ADHD group had lower grey matter volume in areas of the brain known as the frontal, parietal and temporal lobes than the typically developing group, and these irregularities were linked with ADHD symptom severity. The brain regions have been strongly linked with processes involved in controlling behaviour (known as executive functions).

A few things to bear in mind…

To qualify for the “ADHD group” the child had to score below a specific score on a behavioural questionnaire (based on parent responses), have had symptoms for at least 6 months (based on parent interviews) and show impairments across various situations (again, as per parent reports). Note that at no stage was a formal examination conducted by a clinician, which is key to providing an accurate diagnosis. This means that an ADHD diagnosis in this study was based solely on parental reports and not corroborated by a teacher which is an essential part of the diagnostic process. This is problematic, as parents who already feel that their child might have some behavioural problems could potentially have provided biased answers to affirm a diagnosis. Additionally, the young age of the participants (4-5 years) means that we need to be particularly cautious to infer the child would eventually receive a formal diagnosis of ADHD.

Although the study found lower volume in brain regions associated with executive functions, when we look more broadly at research in this area, less than half of children with ADHD actually show difficulties with this process. This implies that we cannot generalise these findings to every child with ADHD. Additionally, the researchers did not find volume reductions in the cingulate cortex – an important brain region that is consistently linked with ADHD.

Despite its limitations, the study adds to our knowledge of brain differences in children reported to show ADHD-like symptoms early on in childhood. It is important though to take a step back and reflect on the potential stigma carried by bigger-smaller brain “neuromyths”, and thoroughly consider the evidence behind them.


The STEM gender equality paradox- from fallacies to facts

This post was written by Margarita Kanevski and Sinead Rhodes

During a recent school visit, Prince Harry and his fiancé Meghan Markle embarked on a journey to urge young girls to take up STEM subjects. STEM is an acronym that stands for the learning of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) and royalty are not the only ones pushing to narrow the gender gap across these subject areas. With consistently growing technological innovations, the demand for STEM skills is rising, yet there is an alarming shortage of female students and employees in STEM fields, further fuelling the gender wage gap.

In recent years, STEM has become a huge buzzword among teachers, researchers and policy makers. Promoting STEM education in girls has been a national priority for many western nations including the UK, USA, Australia, Finland, Switzerland and Norway. Yet, with international women’s day not too far behind us, these nations have found themselves ambushed by rather discouraging headlines like: Fewer women want to be scientists in wealthy, equal, countries, “The West is way behind Iran and Saudi Arabia when it comes to women in science”, and More gender equality leads to less women in STEM.

These claims follow recent findings that women in countries with greater gender equality tend to be less likely to graduate with a STEM degree than women residing in less gender-equal countries. What is behind these headlines? There may be more to this. For example, the alleged front-runners (according to one of the outlets), Iran and Saudi Arabia were not included in the study’s analysis, raising questions about what is actually going on here.

What did the study do?

The study involved the analysis of available data from 472,242 adolescents (15-16 years) from 67 different countries regarding their academic achievement or strength in science, maths, and reading. The study also examined their attitudes towards broad science learning, that is, their interest in, enjoyment of and their beliefs about personal ability to succeed at science (what is referred to as self-efficacy beliefs). They also used data from UNSECO on how many students from those countries graduated with a STEM degree between 2012-2015. Countries were also ranked on gender equality using the Global Gender Gap Index that assesses the extent to which women fall behind men on things like wages and life expectancy. Lastly, overall life satisfaction in each of the 67 regions was extracted from United Nations Development Programme (2016).

The researchers found that countries with a higher degree of gender equality such as Finland and the Netherlands, had a lower percentage of female STEM graduates than countries with higher gender inequality such as Tunisia and United Arab Emirates. In general, adolescent girls performed as well as and sometimes even better than boys on science literacy. A closer look at the data revealed that despite being equally good at science, when the adolescents were compared on their individual academic achievement or strength, 38% of boys were the strongest on science, 42% had an individual strength at maths, with reading as their weakest subject in 80% of cases. In contrast to this, 51% of girls had an individual academic strength in reading, compared with just 24% and 25% of girls having science and maths as their personal academic strength, respectively. So even in cases where girls outperformed boys on science on the national average, within their own subject range girls tended to do better at reading than science/maths whereas boys tended to score higher on science and maths as opposed to reading. A science advantage that favours boys was more apparent in more gender equal countries where STEM degrees are predominantly male. Boys also reported having more interest and enjoyment (self-efficacy belief) for science related subjects and were more confident in their abilities to pursue science – this difference was again stronger for gender equal countries.

So it is not the case that ‘gender equality leads to less women in STEM’ but rather, it appears that girls in more gender-equal countries are making higher education decisions based on their individual strengths and preferences. But this still doesn’t explain why countries like Finland and Norway that scored very high on the STEM gender gap, had a relatively high proportion of girls whose personal strength was actually science (24% and 18%, respectively), meaning other factors must be at play.

The authors speculated that girls living in gender equal countries have better economic security. As a result they do not actively seek out higher paid STEM occupations as much as girls where gender inequality is high and state funded financial insurance is not an option.  To test this the researchers conducted what is called a mediation analysis – an analysis that is used to find out about which factors could be causing an association between two things; in this case between gender equality index and gender differences in STEM graduation rates. The authors used overall life satisfaction to represent women’s economic security and found that overall life satisfaction only partially predicted the relationship between gender equality index and gender differences in STEM graduation rates. Additional, unknown factor(s) were also likely to be causing the findings to emerge. Until we have numbers to support these assumptions we should be reluctant to assume that young women’s career choices are guided by welfare state commodities. Furthermore, the researchers did not isolate the variable of “economic pressure” so we should be cautious in accepting overall life satisfaction as a true measure of the social safety net that the authors refer to – especially at a day and age where other sources of economic data are so readily available for research purposes.

Other things to bear in mind…

Confounders – it is important for us to take a step back and consider other potential factors that weren’t taken into account during in the study making the conclusions far from categorical.  For example, could it be that STEM jobs are more culturally desirable and/or more readily available in the less gender equal countries?

The analysis was conducted on data from 67 and 195 of the world’s countries, constituting only about a third of the world’s regions.

Psychology, education and healthcare are just some of the science related programs not included in the study that are generally dominated by women. Although these are not exclusively defined as STEM subjects, they do require STEM skills like statistics and maths and this is something the media interpretations do not acknowledge.

Also, if we consider that the average age of an EU graduate is around 27, this means that there was at least 10 years’ difference between the adolescent respondents (15-16 year in 2015) to those graduating with STEM degrees in 2012-2015. This gap is rather concerning and we would need to see STEM data from those same 16-17 year olds when they graduate in around 2020 to be able to move the gender paradox from fallacy to fact.

Richard Bacon and his diagnosis of ADHD

This post was written by Margarita Kanevski and Sinead Rhodes

More and more celebrities are publically speaking out about their ADHD – Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder – diagnosis. ADHD is a common childhood disorder, figures vary across the U.K. but many reports converge on a figure of just under 1% of school-aged children diagnosed with the condition in the UK. Our previous blogs posts on this topic have included those about – a famous American musician, and Rory Bremner – a Scottish comedian and impressionist. This week another public figure caught the eye of media headlines – Richard Bacon, an English TV and radio presenter, recently diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 42. Bacon is probably best known for his high profile role in the children’s show Blue Peter from which he was dismissed following revelations about illegal substance use. In a recent interview with The Sun the TV star opened up how having ADHD symptoms affected him: “I was going out too late and drinking too much…” he said “It was causing pain and chaos and I was tired all the time.” Bacon went on to talk about how his life has improved since his recent diagnosis “I’m so much better, I’m sleeping a lot better, only drinking a couple of times a week and a lot less… If I’d been diagnosed in my twenties the cocaine debacle wouldn’t have happened.”

These thoughts reflect the general evidence in this area. Children with ADHD are at greater risk for substance abuse and dependence during adulthood than their typically developing peers. One compelling explanation for the relationship between ADHD and substance use has been that adolescents and adults with ADHD use drugs to help manage their mood and attention. Arguably, early diagnosis and intervention is crucial if we want to alleviate ADHD symptoms such as inattention, impulsivity and hyperactivity and hopefully prevent, often damaging coping strategies such as use of illegal substances.

Media coverage such as Richard Bacon’s story is undoubtedly critical for raising awareness of how ADHD affects people’s lives and the importance of early diagnosis. Some misleading information however has crept into the media reporting.  Several outlets went on to mention that Bacon underwent a brain scan which revealed he had ADHD, but the condition cannot be diagnosed using a brain scan. ADHD is expressed differently from one individual to another and a brain scan cannot categorically tell whether a person actually meets criteria for an ADHD diagnosis. We often seen brain similarities on brain scans across different conditions. For example, low activity in the frontal area of the brain is often observed in individuals with ADHD, but is also present in individuals with dementia.

The diagnosis of ADHD involves an assessment by a clinician (usually a child psychiatrist but sometimes a paediatrician) who assesses whether the child meets criteria for ADHD using a formal checklist of symptoms that focus on inattention, impulsivity and hyperactivity. Children with ADHD can be diagnosed with (1) inattentive, (2) hyperactive-impulsive or (3) combined types.  The child’s difficulties in these areas are evaluated against what is expected of children at that developmental stage. To answer this question clinicians also collect a range of information including the child’s behaviour (e.g. speech and temperament), medical history (e.g. mother’s pregnancy and labour). Importantly, they gather this information from parents about the child’s functioning at home and from teachers about the child’s behaviour and functioning at school. Those diagnosed with the inattentive subtype often find it hard to focus attention and follow instructions, get easily distracted and are typically described as forgetful, disorganised, and careless. Those diagnosed with the hyperactive-impulsive subtype have difficulty in engaging in a task, talk and move excessively, and are often restless and impulsive (i.e. act/speak without thinking).   The combined type is the most common type of ADHD and includes a mixture of inattentive and hyperactive-impulsive symptoms. It was also expressed in the media reporting that Bacon had been diagnosed with ‘two types’ of ADHD. It is unclear in relation to the above as to what was meant by that.

The bottomline is the continued coverage of celebrities’ diagnosis and experience of ADHD – individuals who the general public are often familiar with/admire/identify with – can be inspiring for those with ADHD as these well-known figures show examples of having an ADHD diagnosis and achieving success.  Several support groups and organisations include reference to celebrities like this on their webpages. These celebrities’ openness about the condition also helps to normalise the reality of having a diagnosis of ADHD.

Autism and vitamin D in pregnancy

This post was written by Amanda Gillooly and Sinead Rhodes

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder associated with difficulties in social communication and social interactions and an engagement in restrictive and repetitive behaviours. Media coverage regarding childhood disorders and risk factors associated with their development has increased significantly in recent years. While this increased awareness can have clear advantages, this can also lead to heightened and at times unwarranted anxiety among parents. This week the media has reported on evidence of a link between vitamin D deficiency in pregnancy and the development of autistic behaviours in children. Headlines have included “children born to mothers with low vitamin D levels may develop autistic-like behaviours”), “low vitamin D linked to autism behaviours” and the more stronger assertion “vitamin D deficiency can put children at risk of autism”. These headlines suggest a link between vitamin D deficiency and the development of autism. The use of phrases such as “at risk”, potentially make these headlines alarming to pregnant mothers. Here, we will delve further into the actual research study behind the headlines, to clarify precisely what the study showed and the context of this research.

What did this study do?

Researchers from the University of Western Australia and the Telethon Kids Institute conducted the study using a sample of rats. They examined the effects of a vitamin D deficiency during pregnancy and lactation (i.e. breast-feeding in humans) on the brain development, social behaviour and thought processes of the offspring (i.e. reflecting an infant’s response). The rats were split into two groups. One group of rats were placed on a vitamin D deficient diet and the other group were placed on a vitamin D rich diet for a period of 5 weeks prior to mating. Using a range of behavioural and what are known as cognitive tasks (that tap into thinking processes), the researchers assessed the brain function, social interaction skills and cognitive skills of the offspring. The researchers compared the performance of the rats between these two groups and reported that the rats in the vitamin D deficient group scored poorer than the rats in the vitamin D rich group. These differences were observed on a measure of social interaction skills and on a cognitive assessment which required them to switch their attention from one object to another.

How did the media handle reporting of this study?

Several positive aspects from the media’s reports on this subject are evident, including the clear use of a definition of autism spectrum disorder, the use of direct quotations from the research team and reference to the source of the original research article. As we have noted in the Research the Headlines “How to tips”, the use of direct quotes can reduce the risk of the research findings being misinterpreted. Openly stating the source of the original article provides the reader with the opportunity to look further than these brief media reports and draw their own conclusions about the study.

As this study involved the assessment of a sample of rats, it is important to be careful when making generalisations as to whether the findings cross over to human experience. To be able to conclude that this effect also applies to human infants, we would need to examine this directly. This would involve recruiting a sample of mothers who had a vitamin D rich diet prior to pregnancy and a sample of mothers who had a vitamin D deficient diet prior to pregnancy. By subsequently examining the social and cognitive skills of the infants between these two groups, we could then draw conclusions on whether vitamin D deficiency is linked with children’s development. The media articles we reviewed did acknowledge this need to take care when generalising the findings, however, this was often only noted at the end of the article. In order to reduce potential alarm among pregnant mothers, a headline which captures the nature of this animal research study would have been more appropriate. This is evident for example in a post published by the ‘Conversation’ where the authors used the headline “animal study hints at link between vitamin D and autism, but don’t start supplementing yet”.

Across some media reports there is also reference to the potential impact of these findings on pregnant mothers’ health and the need to consider ways to increase vitamin D supplements during pregnancy. This was a single research study which used a relatively small sample of 15 rats per group. In order to make interpretations which could inform health decisions replication of study findings is key. It is essential that further research studies are conducted to investigate the effects of vitamin D during pregnancy to see if these findings are replicated.


With health related articles attracting increased interest within the media, it is vitally important to interpret these findings with caution by looking further than these initial headlines. This will help readers to be more informed about the nature of the study and its findings and help to minimise undue anxiety.  This study seems to suggest a link between vitamin D and autism and points to the need for further research in this area.

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?

Read more…

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.