Tag Archives: journalism

Ban reporters from scientific meetings.

I’m serious.  Scientific meetings should be for scientists to disseminate results among themselves and plan future research.  Meeting coordinators need to stop holding press conferences and distributing press releases.  What is their goal?  Influencing funding?  All that seems to be accomplished is the proliferation of articles exaggerating or completely misinterpreting the results.  Studies presented at meetings are often pilot studies, preliminary analyses, and exploratory projects.  There’s no peer-review beyond selection of which studies are presented based on very brief abstracts (summaries).

An example:

AD retina

Your eye doctor could look at your eye and tell if you are developing Alzheimer’s Disease?!


The studies described compared people with full-fledged Alzheimer’s Disease to people without the disease.  This is far from detecting it early.   In fact, based on the article, the test missed 15% of AD patients and misdiagnosed 5 – 15% of unaffected controls.

That’s another problem with reporters covering scientific meetings — we can’t read the actual source paper presenting the results because it doesn’t exist yet.  At a meeting, results are either presented as a short platform presentation with Powerpoint slides or as a large poster.  Sometimes results and conclusions change by the time the full paper is published which could be months to years later or even never.  In this case, I had to read four articles before one actually named the meeting:  Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Copenhagen.


Math is hard.

When my children were young, math was patterns.  This persists quite far into elementary school with increasing complexity.  At least one CBC reporter is still having difficulty with putting things in order of increasing value.

In an article about a report ranking cities according to how expensive it is for an expat to live there, the author notes that “Vancouver was the 96th most expensive city in which to live, up from 64 in 2013”.

In what world is dropping from a ranking of 64 to 96 considered to be moving “up”?

What’s interesting is that nowhere does the report or the article give any information about how much is actually costs to live in Vancouver for a year.  The information is all relative.  Vancouver may be ranked lower because the cost of living there fell or because the costs in other cities increase.  Unless you are trying to decide which of the ranked cities you should move to, the ranking is rather useless.

There are too many reporters trying to fill up too much space with something.

Junk Food Junk Headline

According to the National Post headline, “Eating junk food before getting pregnant spikes risk of premature birth: researchers”.

No, it doesn’t.

The study “Preconception dietary patterns in human pregnancies are associated with preterm delivery” (JA Grieger, LE Grzeskowiak, and VL Clifton) was e-published ahead of print in the Journal of Nutrition (April 30, 2014).  They concluded that nutrition before pregnancy was associated with pre-term birth.  This was a retrospective, cross-sectional study which means that the 309 pregnant women were surveyed one time about what they ate during the 12 months before they got pregnant.  They were never asked about what they ate during pregnancy although they cite other studies showing that the two are typically similar.

Problem 1:  The results could just reflect that diet during pregnancy affects risk of premature delivery.

After a lot of complicated analyses, the researchers identified three dietary patterns (high-protein/fruit, high-fat/sugar/takeaway, vegetarian-type) and assigned a score to each woman based on how she compared to the average score.  They didn’t categorize mothers into separate groups and compare the incidence of pre-term delivery.  The overall pre-term rate is 10%.  What is the risk for those eating “junk food”?  We don’t know.  This type of analysis could result in complete different findings with a different group of moms.

Problem 2:  Even the researchers acknowledge in their discussion that the results of this study “may not be generalizable to other populations”.

The article and the headline clearly overstate the findings of this study.  I wouldn’t equate an odds ratio of 1.5 to a “spike” in risk.  As long as associations are being used to make dietary recommendations, they could have emphasized that the meat-based, high-protein diet was associated with lower risk of pre-term birth while the vegetarian diet showed no benefit.

Health reporters need to make much more liberal use of the words “may”, “might”, “suggests”, etc. and the headline writers need to stop being so sensationalistic.