10 WAYS TO BE A CRITICAL CONSUMER OF ‘SCIENCE’ INFORMATION
BE A CONNOISSEUR
In 2019, the BBC formed the Trusted News Initiative (TNI), a partnership between prominent news agencies such as The Washington Post, Reuters, The Associated Press, The European Broadcasting Union, Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal and Big Tech such as Microsoft, Google, Youtube, Twitter and facebook. The TNI aims to fight misinformation (false information resulting from human error with no intention of harm) and disinformation (information intended to mislead and manipulate).
Ironically, the ‘trusted’ media is also guilty of sharing false information. The only way to resist this is to be more critical consumers of information.
Let’s use the below example to learn how to navigate the misinformation minefield we live in, particularly in relation to science information.
The BBC recently published a ‘science’ article entitled ‘Alzheimer’s drug Lecanemab hailed as momentous’. Alzheimer’s disease is marked by progressive loss of memory, and cognitive and communicative abilities. Families with loved ones suffering from any dire condition, such as Alzheimer’s, hang onto the thinnest thread of hope. Misinforming them comes at a great emotional and physical human cost.
BE ON THE LOOKOUT FOR HYPERBOLES
The Lecanemab article employs hyperbolic writing or the use of exaggeration.
“The first drug to slow the destruction of the brain in Alzheimer's has been heralded as momentous”, “a new era of drugs”, “a triumphant turning point.”, "historic" and “optimistic”.
The use of multiple hyperboles makes the reader overlook important details such as, the new drug has “a small effect” and only “works in the early stages of the disease”.
Sensationalism is the antithesis of balanced journalism. And more importantly, science is never sensational. The use of sensationalism is anti-science.
BE DEMANDING OF THE EVIDENCE
The scientific study, behind the article, refers to moderately lower loss of cognitive abilities at 18 months while 26.4% of participants experienced side effects and 12.6% had abnormal fluid build up in the brain. A Lancet paper further suggested that this reduced loss of cognition “might not be clinically meaningful”.
Is all the hype in the BBC article in line with the scientific evidence?
BE CAREFUL OF BIASED INFORMATION
Look for other interesting information in other sources for a more complete story. Another article on Lecanemab states that the drug was linked to two deaths. It also has a hefty price tag of USD20,000 per year making it a very lucrative business. Would you say these are important omissions by the BBC article?
The BBC article mentions that “the research breakthrough ends decades of failure” without any details about the possible reasons for this failure.
Are you curious to find out?
It turns out that all previous anti-Beta Amyloid drugs have failed so far to treat Alzheimer’s disease. The Beta Amyloid hypothesis postulates that the deposition of Beta Amyloid proteins around the neurons in the brain causes Alzheimer's symptoms. Lecanemab, an anti-Beta Amyloid drug, consists of synthetic antibodies that bind to Beta Amyloids, in turn signalling the immune system to clear these proteins from the brain.
Source with added annotation
Is it possible that these drugs haven’t been successful because the Beta Amyloid hypothesis is not well supported?
In fact, the Beta Amyloid hypothesis is contested by many scientists as the presence of Beta Amyloids in the brain is not correlated with cognitive decline. Some scientists have even argued that the brain images from an influential study in 2006, used to support the Beta Amyloid hypothesis, were tampered with to better fit the hypothesis. (see How Many Scientists Fabricate and Falsify Research?)
Does this make you wonder why a scientist would fabricate data to support a hypothesis from which the drug industry benefits?
BEWARE OF WORDS LIKE ‘COULD’
The BBC article goes on to make promising statements. Words like ‘could’ and ‘plausible’ consist of pure speculations in the absence of scientific evidence.
“it could equate to an extra 19 months of independent life”
“It is even scientifically plausible that the effectiveness could be greater in longer trials.”
Is it fair to give people false hope?
BE CRITICAL OF UNETHICAL CALL-TO-ACTION
The BBC article encourages people to test early for the presence of amyloids in order to start early treatment. Is this call for early medicalisation ethical given that it is based on preliminary findings of low benefit, high risk of adverse events and a contested hypothesis?
BE ON THE LOOKOUT FOR PATTERNS
See the flood of articles on Lecanemab in the media during the same period also making hyperbolic statements such as “this drug is a monumental step in the right direction”, or “based on mid-stage trial data indicating the drug's effectiveness [with no qualifier], a price between $9,249 to $35,605 per year represented a good value” and others CNBC, NPR News and Sky News.
Do you smell anything fishy?
While articles like this misinform the public, they do a big service to the manufacturers. They may lead to more research funding, increase consumer interest, normalise early medicalisation, and most importantly improve their bottom line.
BE AWARE OF THE ASTROTURF PROBLEM
WATCH this TED Talk By Sharyl Attkisson: Astroturf and manipulation of media messages
“Veteran investigative journalist, Sharyl Attkisson, shows how astroturf, or fake grassroots movements funded by political, corporate, or other special interests very effectively manipulate and distort media messages”
BE AWARE OF AN EVEN BIGGER PROBLEM
“Although the problem of spreading false information is usually conceived of as emanating from the public, … governments, corporations, supranational organisations and even scientific journals and academic institutions have contributed to a false narrative.”
Don’t accept the conclusions that are prepared for you by the media. Analyse all the information, trust your critical thinking and draw your own conclusions.
Public trust in the Media has seen its biggest drop over the last five years and rightly so. Be a connoisseur. Don’t ingest everything they put on your plate. You’ll suffer from an information indigestion.
Many thanks to Chris Gordon and Domini Gordon for their feedback.
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About the author
Abir Ballan is the co-founder of THiNKTWICE.GLOBAL — Rethink. Reconnect. Reimagine. She has a Masters in Public Health, a graduate degree in special needs education and a BA in psychology. She is a children’s author with 27 published books.