Scientific news coverage should be more precise


Angela Sun, Editor-in-Chief

Parabiosis. It’s the technical name for a procedure which involves surgically joining two individuals together, and it’s recently been in the limelight as a result of a 2005 study from UC Berkeley which examined its effects in mice and which inadvertently kicked of a chain of events culminating in a statement from the FDA, released in February, warning against the dangers of so-called “young blood” transfusions.

Popularized in the 1950s for its implications in aging research, the theory behind parabiosis was that by surgically joining two mice, one young and one old, via their circulatory systems, the older mouse would be able to live longer. That 2005 study discovered that this was true to some extent—when attached to the younger, certain tissues in the older mouse appeared to become younger. Broadcast news quickly seized upon the story, reporting that science had discovered a veritable fountain of youth. The creation of several startups attempting to actualize these benefits in humans via blood transfusions from younger donors increased the buzz, resulting in the FDA taking a stand against what it deemed a “significant public health concern”.

It’s a bizarre but not altogether unfamiliar tale. In fact, instances of science run amok as a result of media coverage are all too common—while exaggerated headlines advertising a new fad diet or health trend may serve as a milder example than the situation with young blood, both point to an overarching disconnect between the realities of scientific research and the demand for sensational or interest-provoking headlines.

A study by PLOS One, a peer-reviewed science journal, found that coverage of biomedical papers widely favored initial studies and often did not report on the results of later meta-reviews of the evidence, which more often than not disproved or failed to support the results of initial studies. Moreover, only 75 of 1475 newspaper articles examined reported on negative or null findings. What this reveals is that important aspects of the scientific process are being routinely omitted from news coverage: while at best this is an injustice to scientists who have always been transparent in their work and findings, at worst it can result in undue harm being done to civilians as a result of, say, a contaminated young blood transfusion.

So just what can be done to prevent such outcomes? Some have argued that the lack of scientific literacy on the part of news consumers is the greatest issue at stake. However, as recent data from the Pew Research survey suggests, Americans are on average more scientifically literate than a few vocal flat-Earthers might have you believe. More importantly, that same survey revealed that higher science literacy is not actually a good indicator that a person’s science policy beliefs will correlate with those favored by most scientists.

This suggests that, rather than focus purely on educating consumers about science, we should seek to forge a greater understanding between scientists and civilians about the positions they each hold and the work scientists actually do.

As Dr. Rima Rudd, a health literacy researcher at Harvard University, noted in an interview with the New York Times, the communication between health professionals, institutions and patients is vital to patient understanding of their own healthcare. Similarly, in the scientific field overall, where journalism is the bridge between results obtained in a laboratory and the general public, good, holistic news coverage whose focus is not only on the novelty but the fidelity and limitations of scientific results is vital.