Three Fixes for a Media Diet of Questionable Science

Will leafy green vegetables prevent dementia? Or does living near heavy traffic cause it? Writing in JAMA, John Ioannidis describes a media diet of questionable science and minor issues. Meanwhile, more substantial health concerns get little attention. He also offers some constructive ideas for improving the the situation.

1. Focus on Bigger Issues

Scientific articles are getting more attention these days in the media. Ioannidis looked at the top 100 papers ranked by how much media attention they received. Altimetric scores were the measure. Thus he found roughly half of the stories dealt with health and lifestyle. But the focus was mostly on trivial issues like coffee’s effect on lifespan. Even if it’s real, it’s not really big. Pointless arguments about fats versus carbs are big too.

Ioannidis says the answer is obvious. Focus on bigger issues, like tobacco and obesity. Those subjects received relatively little attention, he said. He did find one bright spot, though. Exercise is both important for health and amply covered in the media.

2. Focus on Clear Results

Because scientific controversies get so much attention, the public gets many conflicting messages. For example, Ioannidis pointed to recent controversial papers regarding red meat. Media attention, as measured by Altimetric, went sky high on these studies. This kind of food fight is unhelpful, he writes:

Some expert advocates in these fields have a large number of followers in social media that broadcast their beliefs and attack opponents as being unethical, conflicted individuals. Perhaps this behavior is based on good intentions (eg, to save lives), but heated advocacy is unsuitable for thoughtful, disinterested scientific exchange. It seems more akin to religious dedication to intolerant sects.

Promoting such conflicts in the media offers little public benefit.

3. Stop Hyping Observational Findings

Most of the high-scoring health and lifestyle articles were based on observational research. What’s more, those observational studies attract extreme news coverage. More so than randomized, controlled studies with null results. In other words, once a supposition arises from a weak observational study, even a well-controlled study might not kill it.

Ioannidis says that observational research should be rare in high-impact journals (like JAMA). Instead, they should appear mostly in journals for specialized audiences, with appropriate caveats. Press releases for such studies should fade away.

Sensation has always sold newspapers. And today, it provides great clickbait. But serious health journalists can do better. They would do well to pay attention to Ioannidis.

Click here for the Ioannidis viewpoint in JAMA.

News, photograph © Steve Eng / flickr

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One Response to “Three Fixes for a Media Diet of Questionable Science”

  1. October 21, 2019 at 1:29 pm, John DiTraglia said:

    Sometimes observational reports show big effects and are probably not ever going to be able to be studied by randomized control stidies like Aminian A et al. Association of metabolic surgery with major adverse cardiovascular outcomes in patients with type 2 diabetes and obesity. JAMA. 2019;322:1271-82.