Stuff that occurs to me

All of my 'how to' posts are tagged here. The most popular posts are about blocking and private accounts on Twitter, also the science communication jobs list. None of the science or medical information I might post to this blog should be taken as medical advice (I'm not medically trained).

Think of this blog as a sort of nursery for my half-baked ideas hence 'stuff that occurs to me'.

Contact: @JoBrodie Email: jo DOT brodie AT gmail DOT com

Science in London: The 2017 scientific society talks in London blog post

Saturday, 2 January 2016

PubMed is not for beginners... well, OK, maybe. Making sense of medical research.

Recently I've seen this image (from BasicBiologyBabe on Facebook) crop up a fair bit on 'skeptic Twitter' (of which I'm a member). We are the people who argue with those who claim that [X] can diagnose or cure [Y] despite no good evidence that it can. We also report misleading advertising to Advertising Standards Authority or Trading Standards etc and sometimes get claims removed and dodgy websites closed. As skeptic blogger Guy Chapman once put it we're at the intersection between science advocacy and consumer protection.

While I do try to be polite to people whose opinion differs from mine I find it pretty difficult not to be terse with people who are putting others' health at risk with their bad advice!


Transcript: "PUBMED IS NOT FOR BEGINNERS. Browsing abstracts on PubMed does not take the place of a university education in a scientific field. Experience and knowledge of context are essential to comprehension as well as reading the WHOLE GODDAMNED PAPER. Stop being dicks. - Scientists Everywhere [fb.com/BasicBiologyBabe]"
Clearly there's a big element of truth to this 'PubMed is not for beginners' idea,  but I'm not sure that this sort of advice will convince the people who might need to be convinced.

People who are promoting dangerous or ridiculous treatments or diagnostic tests (think antivaxxers, homeopathy shills, live blood analysis, tuning fork therapy etc) occasionally cherry-pick a PubMed abstract and promote the idea that it supports their favoured treatment or test. I've collected a few examples in this Storify, some are pretty funny but it's sad to think people are being so badly misled. They seem a lost cause to be honest ;)

But what about non-specialist people who have a health condition, or care for someone who does, who want to find out more? 

I'm hoping to go to an event on 'Communicating risk in health information' (London, Tue 26 Jan) which is for the subgroup of science communicator types who communicate health information. This is partly about helping non-specialist people to make sense of statistical information by helping those communicating it to express it more clearly.

A straightforward translation of 'science' to 'plain English' for an abstract (even for a whole article) will never be sufficient because an abstract or article cannot be read in isolation. Readers need to consider how it fits in with what's already known on a topic and also to know what conclusions can reasonably be drawn from a particular type of study design (how many people were involved, were they randomised etc) and just knowing lots about 'biology', for example, isn't enough. In fact it might give people a false impression of knowing / understanding.

A 2011/12 project, 'Patients Participate!', looked at ways in which patients could be more involved with health information providers (for example, medical research charities) and found that patients and the public wanted the following, which are all very reasonable -
  • To find out about the latest medical research and how it relates to their health
  • Accessible, plain English, searchable summaries of research articles that clearly communicate the implications and limitations of the research findings
  • Information they can trust (credible, reliable and unbiased)
  • To engage with researchers and research funders
  • To be involved
  • To learn more about research because theyare interested and they want to be better informed about the latest developments
  • To help researchers be better communicators
It's hard enough to provide a dedicated abstract translation service, let alone one that takes all this into account and I don't think we've comprehensively solved that problem sustainably, though different health charities do this in their own ways.

Here's a comment I left under the picture on Facebook in response to people asking 'well OK, but where can we find this info then?' -
"Where possible I'd suggest, for medical articles, asking reputable health charities for their take on a study. Many of them have dedicated science communicators (of varying job titles) whose job it is to (a) explain the content of new studies AND (b) put it in context with other information known about the topic, as well as highlighting what conclusions can reasonably drawn from a particular study design etc.

There are certainly many efforts made to 'translate' scientific abstracts into plain English but by itself this might not be very useful, as there is usually a requirement for some background information needed, in order to know how much weight to give to some new finding."
 To which I'd add this patient-facing resource (there are other suggestions in this PDF (also linked above))

NHS Choices' Behind the Headlines - stories covered in the press might be spot on but often the end result can be that the study is a bit overhyped. The text of the newspaper article can be very good and clear, but let down by a dramatic headline. While we might all hope that everyone ignores the headline and reads the entire article I think we'd agree that's unlikely. Behind the Headlines considers the context of the story and explains the science for a non-specialist audience. It's fab.

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Comment policy: I enthusiastically welcome corrections and I entertain polite disagreement ;) Because of the nature of this blog it attracts a LOT - 5 a day at the moment - of spam comments (I write about spam practices,misleading marketing and unevidenced quackery) and so I'm more likely to post a pasted version of your comment, removing any hyperlinks.

Comments written in ALL CAPS LOCK will be deleted and I won't publish any pro-homeopathy comments, that ship has sailed I'm afraid (it's nonsense).