COMMUNICATING SCIENCE NEWS CAN BE CHALLENGING
It may be hard to decide what to write about, but chocolate always sparks some interest
I was asked a rather interesting question this week: “What is the most challenging thing about being in the business of communicating science to the public?”
There is no simple answer here. Obviously, there is the question of what to communicate. Thousands of scientific papers begging for interpretation are published every day, public policy issues arise, there are questions about food, personal care products and environmental concerns to deal with. Then there are the various pseudo-scientific practitioners and fraud artists with whom to contend.
Once a topic is selected from the deluge of potential subjects, there is the question of how best to get the information out. This is the age of sound bites. Many people are not interested in reading long tomes or listening to lengthy discourses. But in science, the devil is in the details.
I recall a couple of years ago being flown to New York for an appearance on NBC’s Dateline about endocrine disruptors and being interviewed for about three hours that turned into 58 seconds on air. My message was incomplete, to say the least.
As I was pondering all this, I thought it would be interesting to look at a few topics that came to my attention in the last little while as candidates for communication.
There was a study from Finland that showed people who took the most saunas were 60 per cent less likely to have a stroke than people who took only one sauna per week, even after compensating for other factors such as high cholesterol, smoking, diabetes, age, sex and physical activity. Interesting, but not of much practical value to most people.
A fascinating case emerged from China about a doctor jailed for calling a traditional health tonic a quack medicine. “Hongmao Medical Tonic” is widely advertised in the Chinese media; the ads claim it relieves ailments like painful joints, frail kidneys, weakness and anemia in women by combining 67 ingredients from plants and animals. Dr. Tan Qindong published an essay with the provocative title “China’s miracle liquor, ‘Hongmao Medical Tonic,’ a poison from heaven” in which he argued that the supposed curative effects of the elixir were unclear at best, and could be dangerous for people with high blood pressure or diabetes. A complaint filed by the manufacturer resulted in Tan’s arrest under an obscure article of the Chinese criminal code that makes it an offence to fabricate and spread claims that seriously damage a business’s reputation. For nearly 100 days, he languished in jail until public clamour led to his release. A captivating story to be sure, but is it of widespread interest? Probably not.
Chocolate, however, interests most of us. Media reports picked up on two small studies at Loma Linda University in California, featuring headlines such as “Dark Chocolate May Boost Brain Function, Immunity, And Mood,” “It’s Official, Chocolate is the Key to Your Happiness” and “Eating Dark Chocolate Will Make You Smarter, Says Best Study Ever.” The studies actually showed none of this. What researchers did was measure brain waves and the activity of certain genes after subjects had consumed a bar of dark chocolate. There were changes in “gamma waves,” such as seen when someone enters a meditative state, and an increase of waves associated with improved memory. Some gene activity involved in the immune response was boosted and genes linked to inflammation had a reduced expression. However, these studies involved only 10 subjects, hardly meaningful statistically, and, more important, no measurements of mood, memory or health status were carried out. Some academic interest here, but no practical significance.
“Rabid dog saliva homeopathic remedy no longer to be sold in Canada.” Now, there was a news item worth getting my teeth into. The background involves a naturopath in British Columbia who used such a “remedy” to treat behavioural problems in a young boy, sparking outrage from the scientific community and garnering headlines around the world. How could the child be exposed to the saliva of a rabid dog ? Since a rabid dog has behavioural problems and salivates excessively, by the tenets of homeopathy, that “like cures like,” its saliva should be therapeutic in the case of bizarre behaviour. Of course, homeopathic remedies are diluted to the extent that they contain none of the original substance, so there was no risk involved. But Health Canada’s banning of that specific remedy implies that it was done to eliminate risk. Instead, Health Canada should have focused on emphasizing the folly of using any homeopathic product.
To cap off the week, President Trump announced that Mehmet Oz would serve on his sport fitness and nutrition council. Oz on his TV show has promoted “Dr. Oz’s Homeopathic Starter Kit.” That should have eliminated him from consideration.
Perhaps the most challenging thing about being in the business of communicating science to the public is answering the question about what the most challenging thing is.
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