The first link is to a well-written story on using the scientific method to sort Alt Med claims. The journalist seems to understand the subject and is given sufficient space to write about it properly, two things that I think tend to be missing from the mainstream media outlets in the UK. He also explains things like this: RCTs – “In such trials, scientists randomly assign patients to treatment or control groups with the aim of eliminating bias from clinician and patient decisions”; Size of study – “The smaller the sample size […] the greater the risk of error, including false positives and false negatives”. It just seems to me to be less, well, dumbed down than the UK MSM reports.
The second piece is entitled “Searching for Clarity: A Primer on Medical Studies” and is very interesting indeed. They use the example of Frankie Avalon defending the antioxidant Beta Carotene to illustrate the importance of weighing up the evidence and assigning appropriate significance to the most important available evidence (if this were a UK paper, they’d probably be uncritically reporting Cliff Richard’s views on antioxidants). They attempt to answer this question: “That, of course, is the question about medical evidence. What are you going to believe, and why? Why should a few clinical trials trump dozens of studies involving laboratory tests, animal studies and observations of human populations?”, using the examples of Beta Carotene and the Women’s Health Initiative. At the end of this first page, they refer to compliant pill-takers – I’ll mention these compliant pill takers again a little later on.* You will note that this article has two pages. You see, NYT (unlike the UK MSM) gives sufficient space to health and science stories. The article by Gary Taubes I link to below is nine pages long, for example. I think this provision of space is helpful, but you need more than that to provide decent reports on health and science – such as journalists who have some knowledge of the subject they are writing on.
Here’s a recent story: Vitamin C and cancer drugs. The Daily Mail had a 283-word piece that seemed fairly reasonable – but they captioned their picture of some oranges “Vitamin C supplements could reduce the effectiveness of cancer drugs”. I think it’s daft to caption a picture of oranges with a scary note about vit C reducing effectiveness of cancer meds, when the authors of the study (as the Daily Mail wrote) said that patients should eat a healthy diet (i.e., they should eat fruit and veg containing vit C rather than take pills). The caption was the right one – but for the wrong picture. The Telegraph had a 345-word piece that quoted the researchers, but ended with a vitamin pill industry spokesperson pointing out that “It is important to note that this study was conducted in cancer cells, and in mice, in a laboratory setting. The researchers did not give vitamin C to human beings.” Which is a rather ironic quote, given the vitamin pill industry’s love of in vitro studies when they have positive results. I think the reason they gave space to both the researchers’ vies and the spokesperson’s views is probably for “balance”. As if a pill industry spokesperson’s opinion and research findings should carry equal weight. The NYT goes for a 391-word piece that is free from spurious attempts at balance and daft picture captions. To be fair, though – there’s not a huge difference in the way these three newspapers reported the story.
* The bias of compliance popped up in this article by Gary Taubes on epidemiology – “Do We Really Know What Makes Us Healthy?” – and is something we should think about next time a vitamin pill salesman assures us that people who take vitamin pills live longer and are healthier, because it offers an alternative explanation to the one that is preferred by the pill salesman. See also Patrick Holford on the Gladys Block study: I blogged it here (albeit somewhat inadequately).