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Misinformation and You: When Nuance Gets Lost in Translating Science

Illustration of human head with science icons flowing into itHave you ever seen one of those TV commercials for lawsuits warning of the hazards of a specific drug? Did you believe the dramatic and sometimes heart-wrenching claims without much thought? Or did you completely ignore them?

A few years ago I saw a commercial encouraging women to file lawsuits if they had taken a specific antidepressant during pregnancy. This suspect drug, part of a common antidepressant class known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI), was allegedly linked to autism in a lawsuit against the manufacturer of this SSRI.

Normally, I’d tend to pay attention to what commercials like these are saying. But just a few weeks earlier, I happened to read a research paper on the topic that gave me pause.

The paper showed that SSRI use during pregnancy does increase the risk of having a child with autism. While the results of the paper were significant in terms of statistics and definitely eye opening, the magnitude of this effect was small. How small? Taking an SSRI during pregnancy increases the risk of having a child with autism as much as being a male increases the risk for autism. To put this in perspective, the Centers for Disease Control estimates that boys are four to five times more likely than girls to have autism. Yet the absolute risk certainly is not high enough to dissuade most women from having children, or to encourage most women to try to avoid giving birth to boys.

So the next time you see one of these commercials (particularly one that applies to you), I encourage you to take a closer look. When you delve deeper, pay attention to important details such as study size (smaller studies may not have enough participants to make believable conclusions), composition (sampling may be of a specific ethnicity/gender/age, which may influence results) and magnitude of the effects found (what percentage of patients had side effect x and how severe were their symptoms). Provocative commercials with dramatic storylines often distort actual study findings and mislead the public.

It’s important for consumers to heighten their awareness of potentially suspect claims and to seek out the proper tools to evaluate them. The next time you’re watching a commercial or reading a news article or press release, make it a point to find the back story.

Since starting my studies toward my Ph.D., I have begun to realize the overwhelming discrepancy between what the public “knows” and what scientists know. This does not stop at autism or even biomedical sciences, but is a problem throughout the sciences. I’m not suggesting that scientists know it all. But most are aware of, and required to state publicly, the limitations of their research. Unfortunately, important nuances may fail to reach the public consciousness.

I became interested in biomedical research to help advance scientific knowledge in order to benefit people. But what good are these advances if they aren’t being conveyed to the public accurately?

I routinely read about or hear of examples—on issues ranging from cancer to climate change—where science is being ineffectively communicated. The problem is that most findings (with their often complex but important qualifications and perspective) are reported in journals that aren’t easily accessible to the public. Most are locked away behind pay walls too expensive for most consumers to scale. When the general public does reach them, it often discovers findings written and displayed in such a way that only an expert can truly understand them. The result: information gets misinterpreted and can cause unnecessary panic or paralysis.

While I don’t have a definitive answer, it’s clear that more open access to journal articles could definitely help. This way anyone could easily find them without paying high fees per article. While it’s true that many articles become “free” one year after publication, it’s during the first weeks or months after publication that access to complete information is critical, because new study findings are often heralded by the media.

Additionally, scientists can publish their findings in other media, including blogs such as https://www.firstauthorblog.com. Platforms such as this one—aimed at communicating scientific discoveries in lay terms—open up a dialogue between scientists and the public.

Ultimately the more lines of communication that are opened among scientists, the public, and the media, the better chance we have of creating truly effective science communication that informs and allows reasoned decision making on critical health and science issues. Everyone benefits from openness and transparency.

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  • Dr. Elyas Fraenkel Isaaccs January 14, 2014, 5:05 PM

    For over five years, I’ve worked with the New York State Department of Health following my efforts on nuclear emergencies and disasters and after meeting with the Fukishima, Japan, nuclear emergency engineers who were on site during and after the power plant meltdown and not long after the tragic tsunami. We met during an important and historic conference and meeting at Columbia University reviewing, analyzing, and studying the many issues and needs which developed during the terrible nuclear emergency. Over those five years plus, I’ve been absolutely overwhelmed and astounded at the huge number of errors and omissions found throughout all of New York State’s heath care data including that of such emergencies as Hurricane Sandy and during a number of tests at the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant.

    For example, from my work with the Manhattan seniors’ community, I discovered while looking at diabetes health data and specifically the CBG test that the test administers knew neither the measure units nor the test name itself. These are the med techs who must preserve and protect the lives of the seniors they test and serve. How could anyone not know hematological test unit measure? And exactly how, may I ask, can a presumed skilled and careful tester not know what the tests are? This is ridiculous!! This is foolish!! This is an impossible state of reading health care data and its understanding!! I must ask you all to think what would happen if your data were this bad!! Obviously, nothing good would accrue from such impossible data and its resulting consequent health care information.

    It is time now for all health professionals to check their data handling abilities and see exactly what standards are used and applied in their laboratories and clinical care settings. Thank you.
    Yours, Dr. Elyas Fraenkel Isaacs in the City of New York

  • Kevin Shi February 9, 2014, 7:09 PM

    I don’t like how science communication in mainstream media is often watered down, distorted and severely twisted to fit an agenda. Part of the problem is the lack of science education and awareness that leads to lack of scientific knowledge on the public’s part.. I think a larger focus needs to be placed on stimulating scientific interest in young kids in the hopes that they will actively pursue a basic understanding of science in the future, if not out of career necessity then out of interest. I also think that there is a need for the breakup of the media oligopoly in place in the western world so that media companies do not have such free reign to twist stories to their agendas. However, I see no easy solution for this problem. What do you think?