On seeking out the evidence

The running theme of this blog is trying to find the evidence behind some of the stories or claims I come across. This is often tricky, even for someone from a scientific background, as the wealth of slanted and misleading messages in the popular media is sometimes overwhelming. Part of the motivation for this blog was for my benefit in trying to separate fact from fiction, so I hope that by sharing my thoughts, it proves useful to others trying to do the same in the new and scary world of parenting.

There are many great blogs, providing informed, critical analysis of some of the health stories making the news, and I would urge anyone take a look at DiscoverNature, Scientific American, PLoS, Occam’s Typewriter and Scientific Blogging, to name a few. It’s also worth checking stories at science specialist media, such as Discover Magazine and New Scientist, which cast a more critical and cautious eye over the latest scientific research than do some popular news outlets.

As an example of the variability in journalism, see the alarmist headlines reporting the effects of high-dose radiation during pregnancy on offspring:

Frightening stuff, indeed. But the study was actually conducted on mice, which may not be a suitable model for human pregnancy, and the amount of radiation exposure wouldn’t correlate with that of a mum using a mobile phone. The Mail and The Telegraph articles actually include some of this discussion in the body text, but this is only after the sensationalist headlines that do not do the research justice. The New Scientist gave a more reasoned account, pointing out the problems with overly sensational headlines:

So, with this in mind, I wanted to highlight some sites that might be especially useful for parents in getting the facts behind the stories.

                                                    

Science Daily:

Science Daily is a dedicated science news service that provides informative and critical reporting on the latest discoveries from across all scientific disciplines, including health and medicine. The articles are balanced and accurately represent the research findings, which cuts through some of the ideological or politically motivated spin in some media.

One thing worth highlighting about Science Daily is that each article clearly cites the research on which the story is based. This allows readers to go to the source for further reading, to check the data behind the claims and find out whether there are any funding conflicts. This is often severely lacking in many newspaper articles, a deficiency that has previously attracted the ire of ‘Bad Science’ author and Guardian columnist, Dr Ben Goldacre.

Just look at Science Daily‘s reporting of the story I wrote about last month concerning on-demand vs. scheduled feeding, with a clear citation to the original research – “Feeding Your Baby On Demand ‘May Contribute to Higher IQ“. This is in contrast to the reporting of the same piece of research in many major news outlets – the Daily Mail, The Guardian, The Scotsman and Time,  which didn’t include any links to the original research.

                                                    

NHS Behind The Headlines:

This NHS-backed news service provides a critical look at the health stories in the media and teases out the evidence behind the claims. It’s a superb, unbiased resource that gets underneath the hyperbole that is often used to sell newspapers, and provides the information that really matters to people trying to make day-to-day decisions that affect their and their family’s health.

Take a look at the Daily Mail (again), which reported “Babies treated in the womb for obesity: Overweight mothers-to-be get diabetes pill to cut the risk of having a fat child”. The big splash is that obese pregnant women are being treated with the glucose-lowering drug, metformin. The aim of the trials is to reduce the chances of the children being overweight themselves, which the Mail suggests is alarming because ‘fatness’ can be solved simply by diet or exercise and because we shouldn’t be ‘drugging’ overweight but otherwise healthy mothers-to-be.

A visit to Behind The Headlines (“Baby obesity research: no need to panic”) quickly unpicks the evidence. The study is also only half-way through and will ultimately tell us whether this treatment can improve health outcomes for mother and baby. Metformin is already being used safely to help obese mothers control their blood sugar levels, which might otherwise lead to complications in pregnancy such as gestational diabetes, pre-eclampsia, premature birth, caesarean section and a larger than average baby. It may also be the case that an overweight baby is more likely to be overweight as an adult, so an early prevention is likely to be more effective than a later cure and I fail to see this as “controversial”. All of this argues against the claim that the mothers receiving the drug are ‘overweight but otherwise healthy’, given the known worse outcomes of obesity for mother and baby,

The article finishes with some general advice for women in pregnancy, such as what to do if you’re worried about losing weight before getting pregnant and whether you should alter your eating habits when pregnant.

So if you see a story in the news, especially one that may motivate you to take major health decisions, then I would suggest taking a look at Behind The Headlines.

                                                    

More or Less:

Aimed at the more statistically minded amongst us, this radio show/podcast isn’t for everyone. If, however, you enjoy some number crunching to unravel the distorted numbers and statistics used in all walks of public life, then you should find this an engaging listen. Tim Harford is a lucid and entertaining host, and handles the potentially dry subject of statistics in a competently inviting manner. Check out his Undercover Economist blog for more of his analysis.

Hear the More Or Less team discuss the figures behind the claims, Over half of new mothers who die are overweight or obese and Do mobile phone towers make people more likely to procreate?.

                                                    

These are some of sources I am aware of and which I thought might be useful to others. I’ve recently found the Parenting Science website run by biological anthropologist, Gwen Dewar, which I look forward to picking through for some more evidence-based, rational parenting information.

If anyone has other suggestions, then please share!

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One thought on “On seeking out the evidence

  1. Pingback: On opening the door to science | The Skeptical Dad

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