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Technology vs albatross: focusing on satellite imagery loses the big picture

Access to high-resolution satellite imagery has allowed scientists to count virtually an entire species of albatross from space, as shown by a paper published this week by New Zealand and British scientists. However, the technological advances seemed to dazzle the media so much that the conservation message was lost.

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Did dinosaurs originate in Scotland? Probably not.

Written by Young Academy of Scotland member Steve Brusatte

Last month, a Guardian headline proclaimed: ‘Radical shakeup of dinosaur family tree points to unexpected Scottish origins’.

The article referred to a sensational new study of dinosaur genealogy by Cambridge University PhD student Matthew Baron and his colleagues, which was published as the cover article in the March 22, 2017 issue of Nature. The crux of that peer-reviewed study was a new family tree of dinosaurs, which broke with 130 years of consensus among palaeontologists by placing the meat-eating theropods (T. rex and kin) in a group with the beaked, plant-eating ornithischians (Triceratops and its cousins), rather than with the long-necked sauropods (the Brontosaurus group).

The new genealogy has sparked intense debate among dinosaur researchers, and generated news coverage across the globe. Some of these headlines were more hyperbolic than others, but most referenced the main conclusion of the study: that the dinosaur family tree may need to be redrawn.

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Mind the Gap

By Neil McLennan, alumni member of the Young Academy of Scotland

Within Scottish education just now, “MIND THE GAP” is on the minds of everyone – practitioners, policy makers, researchers and the press. It seems the gap will be closed, no matter what. It is the key focus of Scottish education policy currently, and preys on the minds of those involved with supporting young people’s education in this country.

Last week The National (“Figures show progress on closing attainment gap” Wednesday 12 April 2017) carried a headline which would have piqued the interest and delighted many of those involved in the exercise of closing, or at least narrowing, the attainment gap.

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ADHD in the news: Rory Bremner

Rory Bremner, the well known impressionist and comedian, has been in the media over the last few days in relation to his diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). The media coverage has come about because of a Horizon programme ‘ADHD and me with Rory Bremner’ which is on tonight  (Tuesday 25th April) on BBC2 at 9pm. So how has the media handled coverage of this programme and the topic of ADHD in particular?

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Autism and mother’s anti-depressant use in pregnancy

Just over a year ago we addressed how research that had been presented in the media had linked Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) with the maternal use of anti-depressants during pregnancy. For a full read of that post see below. The issue has been raised again in the media following the publication of a meta-analysis (a big review of studies) on the topic. So how has the media handled reporting of this topic on this occasion?

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The science of science in the media

Our blog’s typical pieces cover how science headlines in news outlets tend to favour sensationalism over accuracy in the reporting of scientific studies. This time instead, I am going to take the opposite approach and cover a scientific paper about media reporting which received relatively little media coverage. This study, conducted by a team at the University of Bordeaux, looked at more than 5000 articles about risk factors for different categories of diseases and how their results were covered in the media. The study analysed the extent of media coverage distinguishing between the initial results versus following follow up studies. The key message of this French study is not really surprising, yet quite revealing, even for us at Research the Headlines who are used to deal with this phenomenon.

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How to protect yourself against fake news and poor journalism

When we started Research the Headlines all the way back in 2013, we aimed to explore the relationship between academic research and the media, to help the general public know when the media was doing a good (or bad) job of portraying the latest discoveries about the world around us.

In 2017, we now face a new challenge – the so-called “fake news” phenomenon.  We’ve seen the fragmentation of news media allow for extreme bias in media outlets.  The speed at which the news cycle now operates allows websites to break a story based on false accounts, photoshopped images or bad data, and never be corrected.  Worst of all, the way we consume news means that it can be very hard for us to see unbiased journalism, as we have carved social media bubbles for ourselves.

The Research the Headlines team can only address so many news stories, as our time and resources are limited.  That doesn’t mean there is no hope – a piece of fake news is doomed to fail if the reader is vigilant.

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Does Vaping Increase Your Risk of Heart Problems?

The use of e-cigarettes has exploded in the last ten years, with some 2.2m people using e-cigarettes or vapourisers. This shift towards “vaping” is expected by some to have health benefits over using tobacco cigarettes, as many of the carcinogens in tobacco and the cigarette’s filter papers are not present in the aerosol mix that vaping provides the user.

A good deal of research confirms the view that switching from tobacco to e-cigarettes does carry net benefits, as we explored on RtH all the way back in 2014.

But vaping is still a new phenomenon. The dangers of tobacco took decades to identify, and required researchers to see the full life cycle of patients who smoke to find links between tobacco smoking and increased risks of lung cancer, cardiovascular disease and many other ailments.

A new study claims to provide some of the first evidence that vaping does possess its own health risks, particularly to the heart. But how can they show this after only 10 years?

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Daily life or panic as volcano erupts?

Volcanoes are fascinating and people are drawn to them. My classes this week have involved discussing with the students the biased nature of the geological record and how important it is that we understand how the nature of reporting volcanic eruptions has changed with time. We also touched on the possibility that in recent times more eruptions have been recorded as our technology has improved and today we have a more mobile population. The ins and outs of this discussion is a debate within itself. What we concluded was that the record was biased and we had to take care to accurately report eruptions.

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Thin end of the wedge?

The emergence of extremely drug resistant bacteria could prove to be the first of many.

In the last week, two publications have appeared in the press describing the worrying emergence of bacteria that are resistant to many of the drugs we normally use to treat such infections. A lot has been written in the last few years regarding the threat of antimicrobial resistant infections, but it is clear, the more we look for these infections, the more we find them and the more dynamic the organisms causing them appear to be. Drug resistant infections are a global problem and the movement of people around the world can lead to the dissemination of drug resistant bacteria and both of these reports highlight this as a problem.

The first report was In the USA Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in their ‘Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report’, which was described widely in the press (Daily Mail, The Independent and the BBC Website).

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