Daily Read: Critical Medicine

In this article from Vox, Julia Belluz uses the example of medical research to highlight the problems with mainstream media reporting on science. The article points out that reporters have a different idea of what is newsworthy than scientific researchers do, and that is reflected in the way medical “breakthroughs” are reported. Scientists write their reports and articles for a very specialized audience, while reporters must present scientific findings in ways that are accessible to the public. Furthermore, reporters are looking for a hook in their reporting – something that will get eyeballs on their stories. This means that there is often a profound disconnect between the actual findings of scientific research, and the way that research is reported to the general public. The upshot, according to Belluz, is that the general public needs to take reporting on medical studies with a grain of salt because many, if not most, of the most apparently breathtaking findings turn out to be undermined or disproven by further research. This is also true of the seemingly endless stream of reports on diet, exercise, supplements, etc. I can’t stress enough that revisions and refinements of existing research are actually the biggest strengths of science; yet, when the media reports that previously promising treatments or techniques turn out not to work, the general public loses faith in the scientific community. I empathize with Velluz’s rumination on whether it’s a good idea for these studies to even be reported: “I often wonder whether there is any value in reporting very early research. Journals now publish their findings, and the public seizes on them, but this wasn’t always the case: journals were meant for peer-to-peer discussion, not mass consumption.” She is right that early reporting is harmful for the false hope it can give people and for the damage it does to people’s faith in science.

This is why you shouldn’t believe that exciting new medical study

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