Health News Review

This is like the old game of telephone. Communicate a message from person to person to person and watch how the original message disintegrates.

The message in question started as a basic research paper in the journal Medicinal Chemistry Communications – entitled:

The synthesis and functional evaluation of a mitochondria-targeted hydrogen sulfide donor, (10-oxo-10-(4-(3-thioxo-3H-1,2-dithiol-5-yl)phenoxy)decyl)triphenylphosphonium bromide (AP39)

That journal is not quite on the regular reading lists of newsrooms around the globe.  Ah, but that’s why universities issue news releases.

And, in what appears to be a news-release-driven story, that research at the University of Exeter in the UK is drawing attention around the globe – apparently because a university news release about the research stated:

“It may smell of flatulence and have a reputation for being highly toxic, but when used in the right tiny dosage, hydrogen sulfide is now being being found to offer potential health benefits in a range of issues, from diabetes to stroke, heart attacks and dementia.”

The news release said “The research is being conducted in several models of disease, and pre-clinical results are promising,” but didn’t explain what those models were. I’m going to bet that many of the journalists who wrote about this don’t even know that pre-clinical means this isn’t human research.

Nonetheless, journalists were provided an opening, and the jokes – and simplistic coverage – came with great stench:

  • Time.com headline:  “Ridiculous Study of the Day Says Smelling Farts Might Prevent Cancer.”  Really?  What made the study ridiculous?  Here’s what is ridiculous:
    • inaccurately stating that the scientists “insist that smelling farts could actually prevent cancer, among other diseases.”
    • ending your story with:  “So thank the guy in the elevator. While it might have seemed like the ride from hell, IT MIGHT JUST SAVE YOUR LIFE. Or not.”

I was pleased to see a story on News.Mic set the record straight, “No, Smelling Farts Won’t Actually Prevent Cancer.”  Excerpt:

In what could have been the most ridiculous scientific “discovery” of our generation, TIME and a number of other media outlets reported on Friday that a University of Exeter study had concluded that “smelling farts would actually prevent cancer, among other diseases.”

And they got it totally wrong.

“Although the stinky gas can be noxious in large doses, the researchers seem to think that a whiff here and there has the power to reduce risks of cancer, strokes, heart attacks, arthritis and dementia by preserving mitochondria,” TIME reported.

Within hours of publishing, the story went viral, garnering hundreds of thousands of Facebook likes and shares. In other words, people were excited to smell farts and prevent cancer (weird, right?)

But there’s a problem: That’s not what the study actually says.

Bingo.

The last time we experienced such an odiferous assault of silly stories and headlines was when journalists grabbed a chance to put “balls” or “testicles” in their headlines.

Meantime, the assault on journalistic credibility…and the unwarranted assault on science by journalists who miscommunicate findings and then ridicule what they miscommunicate…continues.

And the public has just been provided another media-driven reason why they shouldn’t pay attention to any science news they hear.

But I also hope that the university and the researchers learn that what you put in a news release may leave you wide open for criticism.  A researcher quote in the news release that may have led journalists astray:

“Although hydrogen sulfide is well known as a pungent, foul-smelling gas in rotten eggs and flatulence, it is naturally produced in the body and could in fact be a healthcare hero with significant implications for future therapies for a variety of diseases.”

I added the emphasis.  Still, it does not appear that ANY of the stories went beyond the news release.  There was no evidence that any journalist actually tracked down the research papers or interviewed the researchers directly.

Addendum:

On the morning of July 14, 3 days after they originally posted their “ridiculous” piece, TIME.com changed their headline and published a correction, saying “An earlier version of this article incorrectly summarized the findings and implications of this study.”

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Comments

Medical Quack posted on July 14, 2014 at 12:21 am

Good article Gary:) E-Patient Dave and I were talking about how stupid studies are getting to be one way or another and I agree with using the word “science”. Anything that gets to be complex is now called “science” and I said a couple months ago, when is health insurance going to be called a science:)

We all know that major media is looking for money and they are looking at ad exposure for revenue streams so yes title like this get clicks, aka known as “click bait”. I see so many studies that talk about what we used to call common sense. I big cancer institute put out a study that those with insurance get better care for their cancer, duh? We know that and it shouldn’t be that way but nothing new there. Even the White House is using junk science and I popped that out there too with their Climate Control campaign as when they throw in “junk” science numbers that nobody can predict, they shoot themselves in the foot.

http://ducknetweb.blogspot.com/2014/06/junk-science-appearing-everywhere-even.html

It’s all about click bait so we see some real bait out there today for sure.

Michael posted on July 22, 2014 at 10:37 am

The key words you’re missing in most of these headlines are: Could, might, may, etc. Nobody is making any actual claims here. Who is stupid now?

    Gary Schwitzer posted on July 22, 2014 at 11:26 am

    First, saying that something could/might/may do something is, indeed a claim.

    Second, the key concept you’re missing is that the study didn’t reach the “could/might/may” conclusions that you are defending. Stories using those terms were inaccurate. Period.