The seven deadly sins of health and science reporting

In almost all print media there will be articles about health and nutrition that are complete garbage.

Benjamin Franklin said two things are certain in life: death and taxes. Another one we could add to this list is that on any given news website and in almost all print media there will be articles about health and nutrition that are complete garbage.

Some articles that run under the health and nutrition “news” heading are thought provoking, well researched and unbiased, but unfortunately not all. And to help you traverse this maze – alongside an excellent article about 20 tips for interpreting scientific claims – we will look at seven clichés of improper or misguided reporting.

If you spot any of these clichés in an article, we humbly suggest that you switch to reading LOLCats, which will be more entertaining and maybe more informative too.

1. “Scientists have proven that” or “it has been scientifically proven that”

Why?: In science we never prove something, we can only improve our confidence in a hypothesis or find flaws with it.

Details: Sometimes it is possible to disprove something confidently, but that mainly works in domains like physics. Medicine is notoriously messy because it deals with changeable, complex and individual bodies. There are potential exceptions to nearly anything, and the link between two things is generally statistical, rather than clear-cut “if X then Y” relationships.

Health and nutrition is even worse because it deals with how we interact with our equally messy environment. We know about most of the big contributory causes of bad health such as starvation, disease, parasites and poisoning so arguably many new findings are smaller refinements that are hard to pick out from the “noise” of individual variation and habits. We know plenty of things, just beware of absolute certainty.

Takeaway: Discount the findings of any health or nutrition article with “scientists prove that…” by 80%.

2. X causes cancer, so it must be bad

Why?: There are no good or bad substances. Even water can kill you if you drink too much of it.

Details: There are a surprising number of things associated with slightly increased or decreased risks of getting cancer. We tend to think of things as pure/good/healthy or impure/evil/harmful, but in practice there’s no distinction. Many medications are poisonous, but they are helpful because they are more poisonous to infections or cancer cells than to the rest of the body.

Sometimes it’s the dose that makes the poison. So sleeping a lot or a little is associated with higher mortality (even when you control for depression and sickness, which of course also affect how much you want or can sleep). There can also be trade-offs between risks and benefits. Moderate alcohol intake can be good for heart health (in middle aged men, at least), but it increases the risk of pancreatic cancer and accidents. Whether something is good for you may depend on who you are, what you do and other risk factors.

Takeaway: As Oscar Wilde said, “everything in moderation, including moderation”; it is probably better to eat a diverse diet than to try to only eat “good” things.

3. [Insert natural product, spice or beverage here] cures cancer, diabetes or heart disease

Why?: There are no “natural” or magic cures for cancer, diabetes or any diseases of ageing.

Details: If these “natural products” actually worked, people consuming them would rarely, if ever, get the diseases of old age and die. The longest mean health and life spans of any sizeable population are in developed countries, and they are mainly attributable to antibiotics, vaccinations, reduction in smoking, improved sanitation, and public healthcare infrastructure. We don’t have artificial “silver bullets” either.

The reason is that most of these conditions are very complex and don’t have neat causes that can be fixed easily. Science is certainly working hard on the problem, but progress is generally piecemeal.

Takeaway: We already have many drugs that were extracted from natural things or are based on them. When the Cochrane collaboration, an international network of thousands of researchers and organisations, compiles the results of large human trials involving natural products, then it is time to take notice.

4. X gene causes you to smile/be grumpy/get diabetes

Why?: No single gene causes a behaviour trait or, except in rare cases, a complex disease.

Details: When a single gene mutation causes something, we call it a monogenic disease. Monogenic diseases include cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s disease and sickle-cell anemia. Complex behavioural traits and diseases of ageing are polygenic and multi-factorial disorders, which depend on both genes and environment. No one gene causes you to be happy, sad or diabetic.A sad case of personality. aeu04117

The same applies for brain areas and neurotransmitters: serotonin is involved in mood regulation, but it is also involved in regulating gut movement (90% of it is in the intestines). Adding more serotonin is unlikely to help either function. If you get happy by eating chocolate, it could be because you enjoy the taste and may not be due to chemical reactions within the brain.

Takeaway: If you truly want to find reasons for your traits or propensity towards a complex disease, why not compile a detailed family history?

5. Red wine, turmeric or yoga can help you live longer and be healthier

Why?: Unfortunately, there is no fountain of youth or elixir of life.

Details: Articles that state eating something or doing something can help you live longer generally make their case using a long-lived or comparatively healthy population such as Japan. In these populations, the effects of eating or doing something can be explained by their homogenous genetics and environment. Even so, these people still live the normal maximum human lifespan, which is about 100 years.So innocent. Public domain photos

Science has figured out a lot about how ageing works, and some researchers work on slowing it down. However, there is still a vast step from what works on a small lab animal to a useful pill for humans. Stay tuned.

Takeaway: If you want to live longer, don’t smoke, take recommended vaccinations, exercise and just try to enjoy life.

6. A new study from [insert elite university name here] …

Why?: Science, unlike religion, doesn’t work based on authority. Don’t assume that an experiment is well constructed and executed because it’s from an elite university.

Details: Less elite universities can of course do bad research but “brand names” apply in academia as they do elsewhere. Some universities have or can afford bigger press teams than others. Journalists are trained to provide accurate, nuanced and unbiased analyses to the public. This is regularly practised in the political domain with reports on political scandals and other investigative journalism. We need the same for science.

Takeaway: Would you still read this article if the research was performed at the University of Never-heard-of-them in Where-in-the-world-is-this city?

7. Just-so stories

Why?: In science, laboratory results seldom make simple stories. This is especially true when dealing with biology.

Details: It’s easy to believe a good story, such as how diet habits like those of your ancient ancestors are healthier for you or that women think in a certain way because they were gatherers rather than hunters. It sounds plausible. Unfortunately, sounding plausible often has almost nothing to do with actually being true.

Takeaway: If you come across a neat little just-so story, it is likely over-simplified and stripped of its contextual underpinning, or just plain wrong.

Our aim isn’t to undermine the value of science but to become more critical reporters and readers. The list is by no means exhaustive and if you feel we have missed an important cliché, please comment below, email or tweet us. In the meantime remember, if you want to live longer, have fun and do nothing.

The authors do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article. They also have no relevant affiliations.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.

We're here to help you through the mass of poor science writing out there. Photo: Getty

Avi Roy is a PhD student at the University of Buckingham and Anders Sandberg is a James Martin Research Fellow at the University of Oxford.

Photo: Getty Images/Ian Forsyth
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The big battle in Corbyn's Labour party will be over organisation, not ideas

Forgotten and near-moribund institutions of the parliamentary Labour party will become vital once again, explain Declan McHugh and Will Sherlock. 

“Decidedly downbeat” was Chris Mullin’s assessment of the first Parliamentary Labour Party meeting following the 2001 landslide General Election victory. Blair was “received well, but without elation … the managing director was treated to some blunt warnings that this time around the boys and girls on the shop floor expect to be treated with more consideration.”

Assuming he wins the leadership, Jeremy Corbyn’s first PLP meeting will be anything but downbeat. The ‘shop floor’ will be more akin to a Lions’ Den. Labour’s new figurehead will face a PLP overwhelmingly opposed to him. Many will question the legitimacy of his election and some will reject his authority. From day one, he will face a significant number of Labour MPs not merely against him but actively out to get him. There has probably never been a situation where a leader of the Labour Party has been so far removed from the parliamentary party which he supposedly commands.

The closest historical parallel with Corbyn is arguably George Lansbury, another ardent socialist who took charge of the party after serious electoral defeat. But the comparison doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. Lansbury may have been on the left but he had been a leading figure at the top of the party for many years. Corbyn has never been anything but part of the Labour fringe – rarely even attending PLP meetings.

Nevertheless an immediate move to oust him is unlikely. Whatever their concerns about the circumstances of his election, the scale of the contest will make MPs nervous about executing a coup. And crucially there is no obvious alternative leader waiting in the wings.

The internal battle against Corbyn will instead be more drawn out and fought through the internal structures of the party. The number of Labour MPs showing a sudden and hitherto undiscovered interest and expertise in the PLP Standing Orders is an indication of what is to come. When Labour is in government, journalists pay little notice to obscure internal committees. Now they are going to be the centre of attention. The PLP may be energised on an organisational front in a way that it never was during the Blair, Brown and even Miliband years. Conflict is likely to be focused in the following arenas:

  • Shadow Cabinet

Corbyn is now understood to populate his shadow cabinet by appointment, but opponents in the PLP are seeking a return to the system of elections. That will not be straightforward. Although the 2011 decision to end elections was primarily achieved by means of a PLP vote to change Standing Orders, it was subsequently agreed by the NEC and passed into party rules by Conference. It will be harder to undo that constitutional knot than it was to tie it. The PLP can vote to change Standing Orders again but the NEC and Conference will need to reflect that in further amendments to party rules if the decision is to have constitutional authority. That sets the scene for a messy clash between the PLP and the NEC if Corbyn chooses to defy the parliamentary party.

 

Even if elections are restored, it is not clear how Corbyn’s opponents in the PLP will respond. MPs seeking the return of shadow cabinet elections hope to run a slate of candidates who will work to emasculate the new leader. But others have already resolved to boycott the front bench, regardless of how it is selected. Corbyn’s opponents face a dilemma. On the one hand abandoning the shadow cabinet may be viewed as walking off the pitch at a time when others are prepared to get stuck in and organised. On the other, it will be impossible to take a shadow cabinet post without signing up to some level of collective responsibility. That means undergoing the daily grind of defending the party line in front of the 24 hour media spotlight, with all statements scrutinised and recorded by Conservative researchers for future use.  How many Labour MPs would be willing to support a Corbynite line on foreign affairs, defence and economic policy? The new Labour leader will soon find out.

 

  • PLP meetings

The Monday evening meetings of the PLP are a weekly arena in which the frontbench and the party leadership are held to account by the wider parliamentary party. In the Kinnock, Smith and Blair days, although occasionally raucous, there was a degree of deference to the Leader. That has waned of late but will likely be non-existent under Corbyn. No one can remember the last time the PLP voted on a matter of policy, but Standing Orders permit it to so – expect opponents of the leadership to use this device.

 

  • PLP Chair

John Cryer, the current PLP Chair, will have his work cut out trying to manage what are likely to be stormy meetings. Moreover, the annual election of the Chair is an important barometer of the parliamentary party’s mood and the easiest means of organising a proxy vote on confidence in the leader. Importantly, the Chair of the PLP approves what motions can be tabled at the weekly PLP meeting. 

 

  • Parliamentary Committee

The parliamentary committee are effectively shop stewards for the backbenchers and the election of representatives is similarly a reflection of political sentiment in the PLP. New elections won’t happen until next May but the PLP could decide to initiate earlier elections. Labour MPs will ask whether the current committee, which includes one Corbyn nominator, is representative of the majority view. If not, a slate opposed to the leader could be organised. The Parliamentary Committee has executive powers that it rarely uses but this may change and will be significant. 

 

  • Departmental Groups

The PLP’s internal policy committees have been in decline since the early years of Tony Blair and have rarely made waves but have potentially important powers, including the right of Committee Chairs to speak from the Despatch Box. MPs may use these bodies to challenge frontbench policy positions in a way that no leader has experienced, promoting alternative agendas at odds with the leadership line on foreign affairs, defence and the economy. The Chairs have not yet been elected and this could be a key focus in the autumn.

 

  • Whips Office

The idea of Jeremy Corbyn directing the PLP to follow three-line whips is, to many, a source of amusement. A man who regularly topped the charts of rebel MPs will struggle to maintain the traditional system of party discipline – and indeed he has already indicated that he has no intention of “corralling” MPs in the traditional way. Most likely the whips will play a distinctly different role in the future, acting more as shop stewards for backbench MPs who want their concerns made clear to the Leader’s Office. And the likely deputy keader Tom Watson, who hails from the right wing union tradition but is close to some of the left, will play a major part in trying to balance the needs of the new leadership with the real anger of backbench Labour MPs.

Corbyn’s lack of authority and support within the wider parliamentary party puts a major question mark over his long term prospects as Labour leader. He would certainly lose any direct trial of strength against the PLP.

But the Corbynite group will seek to avoid confrontation inside Westminster. They believe their strength lies in the party outside Parliament and in the new influx of members and supporters. Their agenda will be to capitalise – though they might not use the term – on the leadership triumph by instituting rule changes that will revive the left within the party machine. Not just inside the NEC, the Conference and the party HQ but in the regional and constituency party organisation.

Most particularly, they are likely to seek to convert supporters into members, with a role in the selection of parliamentary candidates. By such means they will seek to apply external pressure on MPs from their own constituency parties. Labour members may be understandably wary about moving to decapitate a new leader so soon after his election. But they face a race against time to prevent him and his supporters from reshaping the party machine in ways that will undermine them from below.

 Will Sherlock and Declan McHugh are former Labour special advisers who now work at Lexington Communication.