This week we ventured out for our first HYH talk of 2018! We were invited to join the line up at a Public and Patient Involvement event hosted by the University’s very own Centre for Primary Care. As some of you may know, Public and Patient Involvement in research refers to research which is developed and conducted in conjunction with patients or members of the public who have real life experience or an interested in the topic the scientists are researching. Now, with that in mind, it’s fair to say that our audience were all actively engaged in the world of research. This made them a great group to gather further ideas from, following our successful pilot with Didsbury SciBar, they were able to give us more insight into the types of things they look for when judging whether to believe what they hear or read about in the news. As well as the tips featured in our toolkit, articles were judged more reliable if they were published in well-known, high quality journals, and also if the research was reported in a similar fashion by a number of different newspapers or websites. Continue reading
Today the Daily Express leads with this headline: Eat CURRY to beat Alzheimer’s: THIS spice boosts memory and may stop onset of dementia.
Now it’s safe to say I am sceptical of this. Curcumin, found in turmeric (hence the link to the curry) is a real trigger-point with many scientists as, despite countless suggestions in the headlines that it can be a miracle cure for almost anything that ails you (Alzheimer’s, cancer and lupus all in 2018…), there is currently no evidence of any effect in humans (see this useful blog for a summary). “But why not at least try it? What’s the harm?”. Well unfortunately curcumin has the unenviable history of actually killing someone due to unregulated use. So I’m on the back foot with this already but it’s important to look through this article nonetheless, let’s break it down using the HYH toolkit.
- The title is indeed outrageous. People living with dementia were not tested at all and there is no way they can make these claims. Additionally, no-one was given any curry. They were given a pill containing curcumin which is a substance that is in an ingredient that is in curry. Making this link is false.
- Reading further things look up. The research has been published (but there is no link) in a reputable journal and it does appear to be open-access. Thumbs up.
- The study is well-designed. The trial (done in humans ) included randomisation and blinding and the discussion section of the paper includes a healthy segment on the (many) limitations of the study.
- There is a quote from an impartial source which provides an excellent voice of reason – pointing out that these are early-stage results and that no-one should be taking curcumin just yet.
- There is definitely an issue with correlation-causation. The paper essentially makes the statement. Indians eat curry. Indians are less likely to develop dementia. Therefore curry stops dementia. This is backed up by some weak studies with poor statistics and is a dangerous point to make.
As usual this is actually a fairly well-written article with a naff headline. Another classic hallmark is some excited quotes of how great the study is – by the lead author. One example is this “Studies indicate a lower prevalence of Alzheimer’s in Indian people who consume curcumin in curry.” – which is misleading as I point out in number 5 above.
Overall we can make the usual (but boring) conclusion – interesting study, more research needed. I’m going to give this a 4/10 (7/10 without the headline).
Does your brain work on fibre-optic or is it stuck in the dial-up era? A recent article posted by the Daily Mail (originally appearing in a fuller, pay-walled, form on the Sunday Telegraph) claims that we communicate in part through a wi-fi-like system between brains. Sound a bit too bizarre to be true? Well, that’s because it is not just an exaggeration but quite simply wrong.
As social creatures we pick up on a myriad of cues from others around us and use this information to guide how we respond to others in familiar or unfamiliar situations. It is this information, alongside our own prejudices and experience, which provides kindling for what we know as ‘gut feelings’. It is not, as the author of the above article suggests, because our brains work in a similar way to the router in your living room.
Besides the bizarre title, why should we be cautious about this article? Here are the first things which raised alarm bells in my head:
- The article only had a single expert (the same one who put the wi-fi idea forward) talk about the issue. This is not necessarily terrible practise but with bold claims you want to have a broad range of informed views to feel more confident in the article. If someone with no vested interest in the results can also support them, and provide evidence to back them up, then this should help quieten the initial pseudoscience claxons.
- The ‘evidence’ for the article’s claims are original thoughts of the researcher from their recent book. These claims are supported by research which does not appear directly linked to the points being made in the article.
- On the theme of evidence, the only support for the claims being made are in the form of a link to a pay-walled news story from another newspaper. No research to backup the claims of the researcher and the article makes it hard to determine whether what is being said is true and based on evidence.
- Sometimes ridiculous titles do a dis-service to a reasonably written article. This is not one of those times. This title is misleading and quite simply wrong.
- Finally, the author of the article failed to spell the researcher’s name correctly. Journalists (and most other people with jobs) have strict deadlines but the name of the researcher the piece is about should really be spelt right. It might seem like a minor point but if they can’t get the name of the most important person in the piece right, they likely did not research the topic in sufficient detail for any reader to comfortably trust on face value alone.
It’s been at exciting time at for HYH recently. Following countless planning meetings, emails, and rehearsals we finally ran our first session!
The HYH team went to SciBar at the Albert Club in Didsbury to run a pilot session on science and the media – specifically on what tools we can use to clear the haze between the sensationalist headline and the (much more boring) science behind it.
Now we know what you’re thinking – we’re just preaching to the choir! Whilst that is admittedly true we were hoping to use the folk at SciBar as ‘guinea pigs’ for a test run and get some ideas on what we should change for the future. We sure learnt a lot!
The session went really well! We learnt about how people decide whether to trust a news article sometimes this is down to the source but sometimes it’s just a matter of whether the subject may affect your family. We also learnt about what sources can be classed as ‘reliable’ and heard first-hand how, as a scientist, your research can be misrepresented by the media. Finally we played a game attempting to match the news headline to the scientific paper title – it’s harder than you think!
Importantly, we got the chance to introduce our HYH Toolkit – 4 quick steps to get a better idea if you can trust what you are reading or if you should be a bit wary. Check it out here.
Overall we had a great time at SciBar and we are looking forward to getting our next session in. If you are interested in hosting a HYH session, please get in touch. Watch this space!!