Saturday 23 May, 2009
So last week the papers were filled with more quirky, prejudice-affirming, untrue science news. Here is just one. “Man flu: it really does exist, girls” said the Daily Star. “Man flu is not a myth: Female hormones give women stronger immune systems” said the Daily Mail. The Daily Telegraph palmed this fantastical assertion off onto “scientists”, saying: “Men succumb to manflu because women have stronger immune systems, claim scientists”. “Women ‘fight off disease better’” said the BBC.
Now, before we get to the details, here is a question: what if the media was no longer the public’s key source of information on health? The NHS Choices website gets about 6 million unique visitors a month, with no publicity. There you will find Behind the Headlines (around 200,000 visitors), a service I played a tiny role in helping set up: they take the biggest health news stories each day, find the real scientific evidence behind them, and precis it, clearly, for a lay audience. Essentially they do the same thing as this column, but without the knob jokes. What’s amazing is that there is a need for this service, and so much material.
Here is what they said about man flu coverage: “The research this story is based on did not look at infection with flu viruses, and cannot prove whether ‘man flu’ exists or not. In addition, the study was in genetically engineered mice, so the results are not necessarily applicable to humans.”
It gets worse, as they explain. These mice were given the active human form of a gene called caspase-12, which can reduce the body’s immune response to certain bacteria (not viruses, like flu). But most people don’t even have a functioning version of this gene: only people of African descent do, generally, and only 20% of them, at that. These mice were then given the Listeria monocytogenes bacteria. This causes a serious form of food poisoning called listeriosis, which again has nothing to do with flu.
The man flu experiment, as the media described it, has so little to do with either flu or men that to continue with the details would be to miss the point. And this story wasn’t a one off.
“Smarter girls have far better sex lives” said the Sun, the Mirror, and the Mail, who went on to claim that this new research on intelligence could also “lead to new ways of counselling the 40% of women who find it difficult or impossible to enjoy sex fully”. But BtH link to, and precis, the actual research: these weren’t women with sexual problems, the study didn’t look at ways to improve sexual problems, and it didn’t measure intelligence, it measured something the researchers called “emotional intelligence”, which makes this all a much less surprising finding.
“Sunshine can add years to your life” said the Daily Express. “Elderly need more ‘sun vitamin’” said the BBC. “Sunshine ‘can help you live longer by cutting risk of heart disease and diabetes’” said the Daily Telegraph. NHS Choices describe the actual research: it’s a Chinese study, and it did not assess exposure to sunlight. It simply found that people with low vitamin D blood levels in an old-ish population also had a combination of conditions that would subsequently increase their risk of diabetes and heart disease. This could have many explanations: perhaps less sunlight (which makes vitamin D); perhaps poor diet (you can eat it too); perhaps being fat causes low vitamin D and higher risk of heart disease; perhaps something you’ve not thought of yet caused this correlation.
Around half of all science stories these days are medical. People are interested in finding out about this stuff, for their own interest, and their own health, and yet they are routinely fed nonsense by the media. When you mention the internet to journalists, they pretend it’s full of angry bloggers making stuff up. In reality there are medical research charities, academics, universities’ own press releases, NHS Choices, and more. These organisations might want to think more confidently, and much bigger: because with figures like 6 million visitors a month, they are now credible publishers, on a subject where information really matters.