Why is reporting on health and science so bad? Because the reporters can’t do their jobs.

Imagine this scenario: a sports reporter is asked to cover an emerging conflict in the Middle East. The sports reporter, never particularly keen on international affairs, is on a deadline and looks to see what they can use. There’s in-person video of the central events in question, but our journalist friend doesn’t have the necessary background or context to fully understand what happened. Is there something else? A press release from the US government and from one side of the conflict in the Middle East? Sounds like our sportsman is good to go! Just copy and paste the exciting bits, add in the little bit of context that our intrepid soul already has, and bingo. News has been reported!

Later, it turns out that our poor reporter has been duped! The press release from the Middle East was nothing but PR, empty words of propaganda to make things seem more important and interesting than they really are! Our friend from the sports section sighs, wishing he had asked someone who knew about this kind of thing who would have known what to look out for.

In a similar vein, Vox has an article asking why so many articles on health (and, let’s admit it, science) are junk. The culprit is identified as clearly as in our example above: coverage by those who don’t know, or don’t care. See:

The researchers found that university press offices were a major source of overhype: over one-third of press releases contained either exaggerated claims of causation (when the study itself only suggested correlation), unwarranted implications about animal studies for people, or unfounded health advice.

…When a press release included actual health advice, 58 percent of the related news articles would do so too (even if the actual study did no such thing). When a press release confused correlation with causation, 81 percent of related news articles would. And when press releases made unwarranted inferences about animal studies, 86 percent of the journalistic coverage did, too.

…Unfortunately, however, this isn’t a perfect world. Many journalists are often covering science in the morning, and the courts in the afternoon. We are under heavy pressure to meet multiple deadlines every day, and some of us lack the time, sources, or background to properly vet the studies we’re reporting on.

So we rely on scientists and on press offices to guide us through research, even though, clearly, we shouldn’t.

Wait – what? The problem is the scientists and press offices? Because reporters are too overworked or unqualified to do their job properly? It sounds from the quote above that reporters are just parroting what a press release says without actually reading the source material. It sounds like reporters aren’t doing their jobs. But rather than accept the blame, they are trying to avoid the responsibility.

Unless I am mistaken, the job of a journalist is not to overlay press releases with a thin veneer of impartiality. Their job is to synthesize new information with their existing bank of expertise in order to convey to a naive audience what is or isn’t novel or important. Conversely, the job of a PR department – which derives from the incentive structure – is quite clearly to hype new research. Does anyone think that a press release from a corporation is written to be as truthful as possible, rather than putting as good of a spin on it as possible?

If the reporter knew enough about the field, they would be able to check whether or not the things they were writing were true. Where in the paper does it say this correlation exists? Is there an exaggeration? How much?

If they are unable to do that, what are they doing? Why should I read science or health journalism if they are unable to discern fact from fiction?

Antibiotics, social status and fat

In the New York Times yesterday, Pagan Kennedy reminds us of the link between antibiotics and weight gain:

IF you walk into a farm-supply store today, you’re likely to find a bag of antibiotic powder that claims to boost the growth of poultry and livestock. That’s because decades of agricultural research has shown that antibiotics seem to flip a switch in young animals’ bodies, helping them pack on pounds. Manufacturers brag about the miraculous effects of feeding antibiotics to chicks and nursing calves. Dusty agricultural journals attest to the ways in which the drugs can act like a kind of superfood to produce cheap meat.

But what if that meat is us?

Researchers also tried this out in a study of Navy recruits…The Navy men who took a dose of antibiotics every morning for seven weeks gained more weight, on average, than the control group.

A study in mice last year found the same thing: when fed a stream of antibiotics, they slowly fattened up:

The antibiotics altered the composition of bacteria in the guts of the mice and also changed how the bacteria broke down nutrients. The bacteria in treated mice activated more genes that turn carbohydrates into short-chain fatty acids, and they turned on genes related to lipid conversion in the liver. Presumably, these shifts in molecular pathway enable fat build-up. Just as farm animals get fat, the antibiotic-fed mice put on weight.

Given that high-status individuals (well, baboons) have been shown to have enriched immune-related genes compared to low-status individuals, I wonder if social status can regulate weight gain (etc) through the composition of bacterial flora? Just a thought, and not something I know a lot about…

How social status determines your health

You wouldn’t think how people perceive you could directly affect your health, would you?  Luckily, science is here to save the day and to tell you, you’re wrong.  A pair of papers published in PNAS in the last month have investigated the interaction between social status and health, and the findings compliment each other rather nicely.

The authors of the first paper tracked baboons over thirty years and made a compelling figure (show at right) showing that low-ranking males are sick more often, and for longer, than high-ranking males.  It has been theorized that the biological effects of high social status – testosterone, high glucocorticoids, high reproductive effort – would reduce health.  After all, if these high-ranking male baboons have to spend all their time and energy making sweet monkey love, there wouldn’t be much energy left over for healing, would there?  However, they found no evidence for this.  In fact, alpha males seemed to heal faster than anyone else.

The authors of the other paper examined the different genes that are regulated in low- and high-status female rhesus monkeys.  The previous paper tracked male animals in the wild, and this one kept female animals in the laboratory.  The authors took blood samples from the monkeys to profile gene expression – though only after dominance order had been established.  It would have been great had they done so before hand to see if there were genes predictive of social status, or if expression changed in any appreciable way.  But no matter.  By using a PCA analysis – basically, finding the combinations of genes that most explained the variance in the behavior – they found that the first principle component was predictive of social status.  This tells us that gene expression is intertwined with your social status.

Almost 1000 genes were found to be associated with rank, 535 of which were more enriched in high-ranking individuals and 452 of which were more enriched in low-ranking individuals.  So a lot is going on in there and getting changed!  Consistent with the previous paper, there was the largest cluster of enriched genes were immune-related.  This included interleukin signaling, T-cell activation, and chemokine/cytokine inflammation.  Perhaps, then, the reason high-ranking males heal faster is because the right immune-related genes were enriched.  But that leaves the question, why should that be so?

The paper included an excel spreadsheet of the enriched genes which can be a bit fun to scroll through; following on something I touched on in the previous post, I expected to find dopamine receptor genes enriched in one of the conditions but I didn’t.  Something to keep in mind.

I guess the moral of story here is: socializing is dangerous.  Or maybe not socializing is dangerous.  Either way, watch out!

References

Archie, E., Altmann, J., & Alberts, S. (2012). Social status predicts wound healing in wild baboons Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109 (23), 9017-9022 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1206391109

Tung J, Barreiro LB, Johnson ZP, Hansen KD, Michopoulos V, Toufexis D, Michelini K, Wilson ME, & Gilad Y (2012). Social environment is associated with gene regulatory variation in the rhesus macaque immune system. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 109 (17), 6490-5 PMID: 22493251