[ASC-list] ] Statins and rhetoric and media

Rob Morrison rob.morrison at flinders.edu.au
Wed Nov 6 23:48:52 UTC 2013

This is an interesting exchange. The whole business of reporting on complex scientific matters is worth some
discussion among ASCers, as it is in these complex matters such as statins and climate change that so many media reports are judged wanting.    I am interested in the question because of my involvement in several organisations that have scientific media as their focus, and I am trying to develop for them some points that might help clarify how this can work better.   

Part of this interest involves an argument for evidence-based medicine - a commendable ambition, and fairly easily dealt with when one is contrasting conventional medicine and pseudoscientific health treatments like homeopathy and iridology, but harder with  reports like the Catalyst one which deal with opposing experts, all of whom can cite research in credible, peer-reviewed journals. 

When it comes to matters like statins, which have a direct influence on medical treatments, It is in the nature of science that there will be differing results and interpretations concerning the same medical conditions and research findings. That is no criticism of the scientific method. It is one of its strengths, but it does then beg the question then of what science to believe and apply to patients.

I would love to collect points about how such dilemmas are treated well in the media. Examples already collected are the following:

1. Providing a decent explanation of how  processes like meta-analysis, Cochrane etc assist the application of evidence-based treatments would be helpful to people  when challenges arise  about what "research" is alleged to reveal.

2. Some advice about how the media can legitimately comment in such confused matters and in the face of conflicting views, especially where these come from legitimate experts.

3. Experts should  be those who research or have recently researched in the field and published in credible journals.

4.  A balanced view requires more than simply airing opposing views in a conflict (eg  Professor of Paediatrics versus Anti-vaccination maniac). Conflict is a reliable angle for journos, but muddies rather than clarifies the truth.

5. A balanced view requires arguments that can be defended on the basis of   credible published evidence rather than simply opinion.

6.  A balanced view should reflect where (or if) uncertainties exist rather than pushing the angle of conflict between experts.

7. There should be recognition that the science is never settled (witness some of the absurd comments saying that the science of climate change is 'settled') and that further research will always add more to understanding, sometimes changing our current understanding.

8. Whatever is said or written, people will often take away from a report a message that confirms their existing prejudice (witness the differing reports on what the Catalyst program actually said, covered and advised).

I would love to collect more of these, or comments on them. If people would rather reply directly, feel free to use my email address below

Dr Rob Morrison
rob.morrison at flinders.edu.au
Phone: (08) 8339 3790
Fax: (08)8339 6272

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