12 May 2017

Junk reporting of medical research

The Telegraph is a major conventional newspaper in the United Kingdom.

And it spreads fake news.

There's nothing surprising in that. Most conventional news organisations produce some amount of pure nonsense in the course of a year.  The crap content level varies from outlet to outlet and the people who work hard in pretty well every conventional news outlet also work diligently to get stories right.

But excrement seeps through.

It's a Law of Averages thing.


Fake news.

What we are talking about is something that is fairly easy to understand but that is presented in a way that misrepresents, exaggerates, distorts or otherwise presents a misleading version of the information.  You have to conclude they did it deliberately because the story is just too simple to get wrong.

Unless you want to.

In this latest example, the Telegraph published a story a couple of days ago with the headline warning that a new study found that commonly used painkillers increased your risk of having a heart attack by as much as 50%.  What's worse,  the study apparently also said that just using them briefly - a little as a month - could be enough.

If you read beyond the first four paragraphs or, though, you'd start to find some signs that the dire warnings weren't backed up by hard information. Like the admission that the scientists behind the study "cannot say for sure why anti-inflammatories are linked to greater heart attack risk."

You have to get to the end of the story - literally the second last sentence  - to get the crucial fact: "The scientific community has stressed that the new BMJ study does not prove a causal link between painkillers and heart attack, pointing out that there may be other factors connecting to the two."

No causal link.

That means that there is no evidence taking the drugs mentioned in the story causes heart attacks or really that they even increase your risk. The study just showed what it calls an "association" between people who took the drugs who also had heart attacks at a certain rate. You can read the study itself but it is written in such an incredibly dense way that you would need to be an expert to grasp its full meaning.  Go all the way to the end, though, and you will find that the authors can provide no more profound advice than that prescribers should weigh the risks of prescribing these medications in very large doses against the medical needs of the patient.

Well d'uh.  That's been the standard advice about them, and pretty well every other drug,  on the market since the dawn of time.

The Telegraph had access to some experts, though, who deciphered the study.  They also added their own messaging on top and that might be one of the reasons why the Telegraph story went off the rails.

There's also no mention in the story or the study of the reasons people might be taking these medications,  known as non-steroidal anti-inflammatories or NSAIDS.  One of the reasons to take the drugs daily over a long period of time would be arthritis, which also carries with it an increased risk of heart disease even if you don't take any medication at all.

So yeah. The Telegraph story is misleading.  The sad part is that a few knowledgeable people got taken in by the click-bait headline and circulated the story online apparently without reading it.

Fake news is nothing new.

But it is still fake and you are as likely to find it in conventional media as anywhere else.