Friday, 6 June 2014

"I say Holmes, have you seen this rum story about meningiomas in today's Times?"

The curious case of the mobile phone and the elusive tumour 

I’ve been trying to think of the right word to describe how we should read health stories in newspapers, magazines and online. Sceptically? No, that’s not right.
My thoughts are prompted partly by the fact that I’m judging several journalism awards at the moment, and partly by stories that have appeared in the Daily Mail and the Guardian on new evidence of a link between mobile phone use and brain tumours. This week Cancer Research UK published an excellent analysis of these stories.
The mobile phone stories reported that a new study had found that people who used their phones more than 15 hours each month had two to three times the risk of developing glioma and meningioma tumours. Cancer Research UK has, in turn, provided the context.
The headlines are misleading, it says. The quoted study was small and had several flaws. Many larger, more authoritative studies have indicated that there is no link. No study can be taken in isolation, and all have limitations. Quite right. As Cancer Research UK says: “When the media report small increases in already-small chances as meaning people who do a particular thing are ‘particularly likely’ to develop a disease it not only is a complete misrepresentation of what a study says or means. It also scares people.”
Yet I’ve been there. There are immense pressures on journalists to produce stories that sell or scare. PR people are also constantly selling us stories about health benefits or concerns, often seemingly quoting reputable research – which only on close analysis are revealed to be a distortion of the facts or part of a sophisticated marketing campaign (often from industry) designed to look independent and science-based.
Sometimes journalists peddle out the sell or scare stories. But sometimes – a lot of the time – journalist are very good at revealing the oversimplifications, exagerrations and even deceptions we are fed, not just by industry but by charities and scientists themselves. Don’t just think Thalidomide and MMR, think the current sugar controversy and the way the media has spotlighted clashes in the scientific about the benefits and drawbacks of statins.
So how should we respond, when we read about cancer and mobile phones, sugar addiction, statin side-effects or miracle-working?
With scepticism? No, scepticism is not the word. Not pragmatism either – which sounds as if we shouldn’t care. I wondered about intelligence, but not all of us can immediately access knowledge to help guide our judgement. If only we could all be Sherlock Holmes, capable of using a knowledge-packed, rapier-sharp mind to cut through concealments to recognise the truth for what it is.
The best I can come up with is that we should approach all these stories with curiosity – the very quality that produces the best in health journalism. We can all wonder, ask questions, and refer elsewhere to fill in gaps in our knowledge. In an information-rich world, doing a little bit of your own legwork isn’t that big a commitment on subjects that really matter. We’re all capable of saying: “Really?”; “According to whom?”; “Do other studies have the same finding?”; “What criminal mastermind might be behind this?”
We may not all be Sherlock Holmes, but most of us can be John Watson – diligent, alert to clues, hungry for the truth and prepared to ask someone else if we don’t know the answer.