Bad science reporting is hard to swallow

By Callum

Why does a quick google search of ‘red wine and cancer’ reveal the article “Cancer Risk: Bottle of Wine Equals 5-10 Cigarettes?” alongside “Can A Daily Glass Of Wine Help Prevent Cancer?”?

The relationship between science and the media is often overlooked, but is highly important. Most people use the to stay up to date with key developments in scientific fields, which can then lead to shifts in their opinions, lifestyle choices and possibly even how they vote. One field that is very often badly reported on is dietary science, since it seems that every day we are bombarded with shocking and often contradictory statements about what you should and shouldn’t eat and drink. 

We are bombarded daily with shocking statements about our diets

Part of the problem seems to be with poor reporting of scientific issues by the media, such as the cherry picking of the most shocking studies (rather than the most rigorous), the assumption of causality from associations, and the misrepresentation and misunderstanding of scientific issues in the media. Even relatively simple issues in dietary science are very often confused and misreported; a great example of this is the 2015 World Health Organisation (WHO) report on the cancer risk associated with eating different types of meat. The Guardian reported the story with the headline “Processed meats pose same cancer risk as smoking and asbestos, reports say” whereas in The Mirror readers were likely to be shocked by the headline “Eating bacon is ‘as likely to cause cancer as ASBESTOS’”. 

This is simply not true. Even a cursory look over the report will reveal that processed meats were classified as a “Group 1 carcinogen”, which means that “there is convincing evidence that the agent causes cancer”, since the groups are categorised by the amount of evidence that exposure to the material causes cancer, not the likelihood that the material will cause cancer. Therefore, the fact that processed meats are in the same group as asbestos, tobacco and plutonium does not mean that eating bacon poses the same “cancer risk” as these other substances, a fact that was widely available throughout the report and on the WHO website. 

Since this fact was so widely available, it seems unlikely that any journalist that actually read the report would fail to understand this. Therefore, it seems that the report was purposefully twisted in order to seem more shocking, a clickbait tactic which is often deployed in other types of journalism, but that it is disappointing to see so often in science journalism.

For me this highlights the requirement for not only more scientifically literate journalism, but also more scientifically honest journalism, since not only are people’s lifestyles and opinions influenced by the way in which science is reported, but the credibility of science itself may also be harmed.

Image by Didriks via Flickr and Creative Commons

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