There are constantly contradictory science news articles in the papers, particularly surrounding our health. Aspirin, milk, breast-feeding, money, sex and pizza have all been reported in the main stream press to both cause and prevent cancer (amongst many other things; this website is well worth a read!).
Take, for example, statins. This week it was reported that they can reduce complications after surgery. This may confuse you; didn’t the same papers warn us this year that statin use may be killing hundreds? Although, don’t statins cure prostate cancer? And make women angry?
Statins are the most commonly prescribed drugs in the UK. They are used to lower cholesterol levels, and as such help prevent cardiovascular disease. Sir Roger Boyle, the government’s former National Director for Coronary Heart Disease, claims that statins save 9,000 lives a year in the UK alone (I have been unable to find a source for this claim however, so cannot guarantee its accuracy).
However, while it is well established that they are effective in high-risk groups, the evidence for their effectiveness in low-risk groups isn’t as strong. Two papers in 2013 suggested that statin use in low-risk patients did more harm than good, but both of these papers have been heavily criticised, and the authors of both have retracted statements regarding the frequency of side-effects. A large review of the literature confirmed that statins were safe and effective at reducing heart attacks and stroke in low-risk groups, but that the benefits were quite small, and that more could be done through life-style changes than statin prescription.
The point of this blog is not to write about the use of statins however; it is to highlight the terrible way in which it is reported. A cursory glance at the infographic above shows how confusing the reporting on statins is. As the graphic shows (click image for expanded view), in the Daily Express alone there has been 15 separate stories about statin use this year, 8 negative and 7 positive. The Daily Express isn’t alone in this. The Telegraph had 7 stories (3 positive and 4 negative) and the Daily Mail had a staggering 27 (14 positive and 13 negative).
The current consensus is that statins do far more good than harm, however poor reporting such as this causes people to stop taking their medication. This happened in Australia following a documentary into statin use, when an estimated 60,000 people stopped taking their prescription. This almost certainly led to fatalities. Shortly after that, an investigation concluded that the documentary had breached standards of impartiality, and the programme was withdrawn. We have seen the same pattern with vaccine use, among other things.
Science is an ongoing process and studies into things such as health must be put in to perspective. Most stories in science need to be seen in context, something which rarely happens in tabloids. Reporting on every little study, regardless of the quality of the study, can leave people with the impression that disagreement within the scientific community is much greater than it actually is. This can lead to problems, as we have seen in climate change and vaccines for example.
Science communication and reporting is absolutely vital for generating enthusiasm in science, which itself is essential for progress. The more scientists and engineers we have, the better.
Unfortunately, people are too easily persuaded to stop taking their prescriptions, or to stop vaccinating their kids. It is true that there must be some public oversight of health interventions, but the pages of tabloids is not the place for this. Unfortunately, scare stories and testimonies of miracle cures sell papers, so this is a problem that we may unfortunately be stuck with.