The media prophet and its monthly ‘cure’

Readers need to become fiercely critical of - and voracious for - the representation of scientific results in the media.

Quynh Nguyen

One thing of the things I hate most is misrepresentation of scientific research in the media.

If you are a big Google News fan, you might have seen the medical study on red wine extract that extended the lives of fat mice and improved their health. The study was reported by a variety of news sources, claiming, “Red wine Ö is poised to become a cure for the ailments brought about by being fat.” Many articles reporting this study suggested that drinking red wine could negate the effects of a high-fat diet. Right.

As soon as I saw these news articles with pictures of French fries next to a glass of wine, my brain hurt. This study on resveratrol (the extract in red wine that were given to the mice) does not undo the decades of research on nutrition and physiology, and does not go back and suddenly change how a balanced diet plus exercise equals fitness.

I can see people happily eating unbalanced diets and trying to stay healthy by drinking the occasional glass of red wine, all because the news media outlets failed to distinguish between “red wine” and “red wine extract.” The study administered resveratrol (not wine) and not once did the mice ever get drunk. Regardless, most articles on this topic depicted a yummy meal being courted with a glass of wine. In order for humans to get the same amounts of resveratrol that the mice took, they would have to drink 100 glasses of wine a day. Gee, thanks, media, as if the medical community needs further health complications to take care of in the population. Would you like alcoholism with those fries?

I am pretty excited by the prospects of finding ways to prevent this country from being overtaken by obesity. I just can’t take the way the media sells us exaggerated solutions and points fingers at scientists when things don’t work out the way their sensationalism did (think Atkins diet and the low-calorie diet).

Two caveats completely left out in all reports on this study: This resveratrol study did not test on human subjects, nor have these same wondrous effects yet been found in other studies involving humans and red wine intake. But media went on a blitz and loudly exalted this study as a possible cure for the effects of bad diet habits.

I think it is a cruel thing to give people false or premature hope by reporting positive scientific research as a miracle cure on the horizon. My poor insulin-dependent, diabetic fiancé used to get so excited when he read about the development of insulin inhalers or the possible revival of islet cell function by stem cell therapy. After years of hearing about “miracle cures on the horizon,” he’s become jaded, skeptical and pessimistic.

Many people are hoping for a functional diet pill or some magical scientific discovery that will be able to subvert our evolutionary drive to consume and retain fat. A “cure” from the diet industry arises every two years or so in the form of crazy diets, exotic forms of exercise and diet pills with pretty names. At some point, people trying to get fit get fed-up with all the scams, failed hopes and well-marketed-yet-plain-silly forms of exercise out there that don’t seem to work. Add insult to injury when news media basically lies to us with exaggerated and extrapolated research findings.

Taking graduate-level scientific articles and making their conclusions accessible to the general public is a tremendous undertaking, and inevitably some details will be left out of the picture. But when it comes to health, health professionals can’t mess around and neither can the media.

The fun thing about scientific research and publishing research articles is that there are few – very few – set-in-stone discoveries made today, and most study findings that suggest more research needs to be done before any conclusions can be made.

In the scientific community, new research is published, evaluated and cross-examined with established research by other scientists. When the media reports new research findings, older research is suddenly forgotten, never mentioned again. Conclusions are written with a tone of finality, the opposite of how research reports are written. It’s one thing to report and say, “Hey, there’s some interesting preliminary results, let’s do more research in that area” than it is it say, “Wow, they induced cancer by marinating rats in aspartame, therefore any aspartame is cancerous!”

From media’s perspective, reporting scientific results can be frustrating. How can so much be expected of media reporters when it takes a scientist to report this stuff accurately? If the scientific community sees media misrepresentation as a problem, why aren’t more scientists writing for the general public to read? If the public attention span is only good enough to get the gist of things, what is the point of putting in nitty-gritty details?

I think the only way any of this can change is if we readers become fiercely critical of – and voracious for – the representation of scientific results in media. Otherwise, media will continue to insult our knowledge and best interests with poorly reported slop. That said, I highly recommend checking out the University’s own Prof. Gary Schwitzer and healthnewsreview.org, a site which picks apart the flaws in health media. You shouldn’t believe all that you read but, thankfully, there are some great minds out there helping us sort out truth from misrepresentation.

Qyumh Nguyen welcomes comments at [email protected]