As research is simplified to suit a mainstream audience, some things get lost in translation
As a molecular biologist, I laugh alongside my colleagues in the lab when we read stories in magazines or hear breaking news reports about the latest “cure” for cancer. We understand that scientific research can be a little dull. And publications in scientific journals can be virtually inaccessible to the general public, both in terms of their jargon and their exorbitant pricing. To sell a scientific story, research findings get spiced up, simplified, over-extrapolated, and even distorted.
For example, I feel like I read a headline about a new “cure” for cancer every week. If I had to meet only the scientific standards of a news corporation, I would have personally “discovered” 57 new anti-tumor drugs during the course of my PhD studies alone.
Ultimately, there isn’t a great deal of danger to stories like these. Sure, they may get people’s hopes up prematurely. But chemotherapy drugs take years of clinical testing, millions of dollars, and pages of legal documentation before they reach the market. We start to approach a gray area, however, when the media promotes unregulated products or makes unclear, and unproven, suggestions about the ways our bodies work.
People shouldn’t be basing their health decisions on an article they read online or something they saw on TV. Health choices should be governed by the best possible scientific understanding available and that’s not something that’s going to be gleaned from sound bites in mainstream media.
BBC recently published a story titled “Skinny genes the ‘secret to staying slim,’” which seems to push the idea that being skinny or fat is largely the result of genetic composition. The story opens with: “Scientists say they have discovered the secret behind why some people are skinny while others pile on the pounds easily.” The problem is that when you dig into the details of the article, this isn’t true. The original research doesn’t assign genes as a causeof obesity but, rather, as a heritable risk factor.
Association does not mean causation.
I write a lot about diet, exercise, weight loss, and body composition. I’ve also worked for almost two years in a mitochondrial bioenergetics laboratory that investigates the molecular processes behind the development of obesity and Type 2 diabetes. Yet, I still think of myself as possessing only a basic knowledge of obesity genetics. So, how did a journalist and their editor handle the task of analyzing the significance of a genome-wide investigation into the heritable risk factors for a lifestyle disease? But, of course, the purpose of the story doesn’t seem to have been to educate; it’s more about drawing in readers.
Science journalism takes some liberties in writing “scientists say” and “researchers concluded,” even when this is not necessarily the case. People trust scientists and doctors and, really, any trained professional in a given field. It’s much easier to sell a story if you put the words in the mouth of a scientist.
Although I disagree with the way science news hits the mainstream, we do need a way to educate people about the latest findings in health science research. Time and again, science journalism takes published research and repackages it into something marketable. And while it’s promising that the general public has taken such an interest in science, to the media, it’s just another product to push.
The BBC article was based on an original scientific article published in PLOS Genetics that suggests the findings are “a valuable resource on which to study resistance to obesity in an increasingly obesogenic environment.” When examining the “genetic architecture” of body weight, there is “evidence of association.” But here’s the problem: Association does not mean causation.
The researchers examined the genetic composition of thousands of people who represent the entire spectrum of human body shapes. This included both obese people and “healthy thin” people, as well as people who fall into the normal range of body weights in between.
The major finding of the study was that certain genes are more common among naturally skinny people, much like there are certain genes more common among overweight and obese people. Based on these results, genetic composition can be used to assign a statistical probability of being skinny and a statistical probability of being fat.
Your genes, however, do not cause you to become fat or thin. A person’s actions, and other physiological factors, are still a major determinant of the outcome. It’s just that certain people will find it easier to stay slim than others.
It’s like getting a tan. Some people have fair skin and have to spend several days in the sun for their skin to noticeably darken. Others, however, can spend 30 minutes outside and come back a shade of bronze. Genetic makeup determines how easily a body produces melanin, but genes do not cause skin to tan—exposure to UV radiation causes that.
Science journalism has been following a dangerous trend of insinuating that people are less responsible for our health than we think.
The root cause of an increase in obesity worldwide is an increased prevalence of sedentary living and changes in eating patterns globally. At the population level, the idea that genes are the primary cause of obesity is not scientifically valid. Of course genetic makeup contributes to individual health. But there is also overwhelming scientific and clinical evidence to support the idea that diet composition and physical activity levels can be used to drive or combat obesity. Although it may not be exciting news, reporters should be focusing on the impact of changing lifestyle habits on global health.
Science journalism has been following a dangerous trend of insinuating that people are less responsible for our health than we think. This idea draws in readers because humans love stories that shift the blame somewhere else. But to combat obesity related health problems, we need to accept responsibility for our own health. Both as a society and through individual choices. Society is responsible for creating a supportive platform and we are responsible for acting wisely on our opportunities.
Rising global obesity rates are the result of a classic case of systemic failure. Individuals are not entirely to blame; the global community is at fault. It’s no secret that we live in an obesogenic world. In order to create a more supportive system, we need to better promote healthy lifestyles by 1) refining educational measures that empower us to make informed decisions about diet and exercise, 2) creating work environments that enable us to act on our health choices freely, and 3) revising institutional policies that deny us the opportunity to act in our best health interests.
While society needs to do a much better job of supporting healthy lifestyle choices, we’re all responsible for the choices we make individually.
When globally renowned news outlets suggest we are not responsible for our health, it is not only misleading but dangerous. It negates personal responsibility and, ultimately, does not create a supportive platform where we can make better choices. If anything, it creates a sensation of helplessness, justifying our decision to not act at all.
By Jeremy Braude, Ph.D.