The relationship between the media and science is an uneasy one. Many academic institutions may want to publicise their work but they must surely cringe when they see the degree to which complex findings can be distilled down to a single news 'fact' which often misrepresents their hard work.
The tabloid need to simplify, then simplify again is the reason why everything in this world must either cause cancer or cure cancer. It's the reason a detailed study of female autonomy in sub-Saharan Africa becomes a news story about bossy British women getting less sex.
As such it's long been believed by many that the key to establishing the truth about scientific claims appearing in the tabloids is to simply assume they are all wrong. But if you need a little more substance to this rule of thumb you could do a lot worse than pay regular visits to the NHS.uk 'Behind the Headlines' news pages. It's been running since 2007 and is an excellent resource for anybody in and around the media who thinks there might be more to science than the erroneous interpretation of a press release.
Facebook will grow your brain
Take this story from the Daily Mail which appeared in many other outlets and gained a lot of interest over the weekend:
Researchers at University College London found a link between the number of 'virtual' friends a person has and the size of parts of their brain associated with social skills... Brain scans showed [social networking] increases the size of the amygdala, linked to emotional response.
Like me you probably reached the bit where a Daily Mail journalist was writing about the size of the amygdala and suspected a high likelihood of error in whatever came next. So over to the NHS for its take on this story:
This study measured the participants' network size and brain structure at the same time. As such, it is unable to tell us whether there is a causal relationship between the two factors; that whether having larger social networks caused this part of the brain to grow or the other way around, or indeed whether some other factor causes both… The Daily Mail's assertion that Facebook increased the size of the amygdala is incorrect.
...The media generally reported this study accurately. The Daily Mirror and the BBC appropriately pointed out that the study could only assess a link between the website and brain structures and not assess cause and effect. The Daily Mail, however, reported that, 'brain scans showed it increases the size of the amygdala', which is not correct as the study was not designed to find a causal relationship between the two.
You get the idea. This is just one example. The NHS site has also this week tackled the media's obsession with alcohol. The story arc of red wine alone makes for dizzying reading as it changes from kill to cure on a daily basis.
Is Britain beset by binge boozers? Will wine help you lose weight? Could six cans of lager help you live longer? The media pose questions like these on an almost daily basis, often using and abusing the findings of medical research to back up their headlines.