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Bad luck, bad journalism and cancer rates

Wasn’t it a surprise to find out that cancer wasn’t our fault after all? It was just the runes, the stars. It was Karma, Kismet, chance and all that malarky? Not so fast. A nice article in The Guardian (following a bad one, it has to be said) explains the myth behind the hype. In essence what the data really showed was that some of the variation in the risk of cancers could be explained by chance mutations. What it didn’t say was that all of the risk could be explained by that mechanism. In other words, not how it was being reported in the press at all.

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So it’s all the journalists fault, right? Not quite either. I recall interviews with the authors and they were not exactly refuting the journalistic interpretations being applied. So yes we do need to be better at the way science is relayed to the non-scientific public, but there are changes need on both sides. Hyping of fact to make better copy is a pitfall of all journalism. If one channel is making a slightly dull story about stem cell division rates sound like we’ve found life on Mars, then what are the other channels going to do to stop people switching over? They get on the band wagon and start hyping the same story. This happens with much, if not most, reporting to one degree or another. So in that sense: plus ca change! 

But the scientific literature also has questions to answer. Frankly getting published in Nature and Science is at least partly about how much of a headline it will generate for what is a competitive publishing environment. They’re ‘journals’. The clue is in the name.  Their editors and journalists can fall prey to the same pitfall of over-hyping as their counterparts in the general media. Press releases and the handling of how potentially headine-grabbing manuscripts are delivered to the public is as much a responsibility of the journals and scientists as anyone else. Honest reporting starts with honest science. It’s not about fraud, this was excellent science; it’s just about over-statement of fact. Science is usually incremental. And incremental doesn’t usually make the 10 o’clock news.