NOTICE: Posting schedule is irregular. I hope to get back to a regular schedule as the day-job allows.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

NEWS: Behind the headlines [Full link to blog for email clients.][FT:C44]

Many times I am asked by friends - particularly writers - to comment on sensational headlines in Medicine and Biology.  Examples are recent columns on the "dangerous super flu" ( and the follow-up (,  marijuana treatment of autism (, peer review (  There are many more that I have answered in personal emails and other discussion forums.

Usually when I am asked one of these questions, I first read the headline article, then look for the reference to the actual scientific study.  I then read the study and try to find out what else has been done in the field.

Sometimes I go to Wikipedia.  GASP!  "NO," you say, "not that!"  Well, it's true.  Many research departments have encouraged graduate students to update Wiki articles with references to their professors' research.  You have to treat it with a bit of skepticism, because Wiki authors have biases that blind them to countervailing viewpoints, as well as the obvious (do they ever, just ask Stephanie Osborn!), and there is a tendency to disbelieve anything that the inner circle doesn't originate.  However, wiki articles that contain citations to primary material are a good source... of citations to primary material.  It's a starting point, but you should always do your own investigation.

Well, now there is a tool to help you do just that!

The U.S. National Institutes of Health provides a website called "PubMed Health: Behind the Headlines" (  Doctors, researchers and students around the world probably know PubMed as the gateway to the NIH's National Library of Medicine.  A massive database originally called "Medline" provides the ability to track down just about any biomedical article published (in English) since 1966.  In the last 10 years, PubMed has allowed anyone - not just librarians - to search Medline and many associated databases.  More recently, NIH/NLM started using PubMed to fulfill its public education mission, with articles and news of general interest.

Interestingly, "Behind the Headlines" is not a U.S., product, but comes from England's National Health Services.  Many of the most sensational medical-related headlines seem to appear in The Guardian, The Sun, The Daily Mirror, The Daily Mail, so it is somehow appropriate that "Behind the Headlines" comes from those very same shores.

What this site does, is take current medical headlines apart, showing what is told in the news article (and how it frequently differs from the sensationalist headlines), where the story came from, and what kind of an article it references (i.e. original research, news release or opinion).  When the original source is a research article, it takes time to explain the results, what they mean... what they don't mean, and what conclusions the authors drew from the research.

The founder of Behind the Headlines - Sir Muir Gray - very clearly states the rationale behind the site as "“Scientists hate disease and want to see it conquered.  But this can lead to them taking an overly optimistic view of their discoveries which is often reflected in newspaper headlines."  [Actually, I have found that most scientists really don't like talking to the press, and that most headlines are written by university PR departments.  The disconnection from the actual science is one reason why articles featuring synthetic drugs that could never be found in a cannabis sativa leaf get headlined "Medical Marijuana cures..."]

I've researched a couple of recent news stories - particularly one that seems to claim a looming "flesh eating bacteria" epidemic.  Behind the Headlines, we find that the actual science said that some of the types of drug-resistant bacteria found in hospitals seem to have traded virulence for resistance to drugs.  Thus the really powerful bugs "in the wild" (i.e. in public) can be easily treated with antibiotics, while the drug-resistant bugs in hospitals and nursing homes really don't spread easy between patients. That's a big difference from the headline.

So give it a try, next time you see a news article with a confusing or sensational claim, check out Behind the Headlines and learn the real science. 

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