Everybody needs an editor – especially in health news stories

A story in the San Diego Union-Tribune describes testing of “an experimental therapeutic filtering device being developed.”

Think about it. It hasn’t been proven therapeutic yet if it’s still experimental.

Lawyers use a term, “therapeutic misconception,” which is important for everyone to know about and think about. It refers to study participants perhaps having the misconception that the purpose of the trial is, indeed, therapeutic – when that hasn’t been established yet.

I see news stories commit this error all the time.

Please don’t call something a therapy when it hasn’t been established as a therapy yet. Call it “experimental approach” or something that doesn’t convey that the fat lady has already sung.


Different story – similar need for editing. A reader pointed this out to me.

The Los Angeles Times reports, “Military suicides linked to low Omega-3 levels.” The story says the finding suggests “powerful psychiatric benefits.”

Only in the final 28 words of a 536 word story does a crucial caveat appear:

“The authors of the current study stress that its design has limitations and that more research is needed before the role of DHA levels in suicide is clear.”

It took way too long to defuse some of the enthusiastic language of the headline and first sentence.

It was an observational study. It can’t establish cause and effect. All observational studies should come with some reminder to this effect for readers’ comprehension.

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Daniel S. Goldberg

August 25, 2011 at 6:53 pm

The “therapeutic misconception” as a phrase was actually coined by a group of physicians in 1982, and is not really limited to legal discourse (it’s a major topic in bioethics, for example).
While the TM it’s quite prevalent among patients and research subjects, it is also, interestingly, common among physicians and clinical investigators, whom we might imagine ought to know better.
Thus the reasons why the TM seems so common are important if we think the TM presents some ethical problems (which it does). What also concerns me is how much of the public discourse on medical research, supplied by big research institutions themselves, seem to perpetrate the TM. I’ve seen this so many times in my short career it almost doesn’t register, and my anecdotal impressions are confirmed by empirical evidence.
*Shameless self-promotion alert*
Here’s a link to a recent paper I wrote on the subject:


August 26, 2011 at 11:34 am

It irks me whenever this happens! CNN recently did something similar which I wrote a post about it. You can read it here
What annoys me the most is how these headlines may affect their readers’ health in the long run. After all, most people only focus on the headline and barely skim the full text. Will people who don’t take enough Omega-3 start worrying about suicide? I think that all news sites should have an infographic explaining how research really works. Something like this:
problem- scientists experiment for years- results point them in what appears to be the right direction- experiment some more (could take decades)- get an answer that’s barely solves the problem.
Repeat as many times necessary.