Monday, September 14, 2015

Responsibilities of an academic researcher/writer - new piece at Asthma Allergies Children

New piece at Asthma Allergies Children

Myths abound when it comes to food allergies - no doubt about it. Even worse is when the popular media feeds the myth machine. Science journalism is tough because the work needs to be readable, factually accurate, and give non-scientist readers a sense of its significance and potential impact without over- or under-selling the complicated science itself. In other words, science writers translate what seems like a whole other language (academic journals) into something average human beings can understand and appreciate. When done well, science journalism/writing is a work of beauty. Some days, it feels about as rare as winning a Pulitzer Prize.

Most science writers are knowledgeable about science, but are not scientists themselves. Mistakes happen, and scientists endlessly gripe about how the media seem to get it wrong more than they get it right. Scientists who also happen to write for the popular media are a rare, but powerful voice. I love the branding of The Conversation - academic rigor, journalistic flair - because I want to believe it. Is this finally a media outlet that can marry those two worlds?

Academic rigor, journalistic flair?
By Greek , possibly Athenian (Princeton University Art Museum) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I'm now skeptical after reading "The myth of flying peanuts: not so deadly after all." I expected so much more from author, Tim Spector, who has both serious science and writing credentials. You don't get to be a professor at a well-known institution by making unsupported claims in your peer-reviewed journal articles. Why should it be any different in the popular media? Those rare, mythical Centaurian-like creatures are in a powerful position to influence change for the better in the media. Unfortunately, they are also in a position to do incredible harm when they appeal to their baser media flair side. Scientists shouldn't get to take a vacation when they don't have the threat of peer-review. I wish we lived in a world where regardless of a person's credentials, their work could be judged by the merit of their arguments. We don't live in that world. Appeal to authority speaks loudly because people just don't have the time or energy to vet everything for themselves.

I've vetted "The myth of flying peanuts: not so deadly after all" for you at Asthma Allergies Children in the following piece - “Rigor” Mortis: Post Mortem on an Airborne Allergy Article.

A big thank you to editor, Henry Ehrlich.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Communication Breakdown - No, I Didn't Say Treatments are Cures

What's quoted in the media isn't always what it seems. Unfortunately, I was reminded of this because of a misquote involving me that reared its ugly head after googling "Jessica Martin food allergy." (Always good to occasionally google yourself to make sure all is good with your public, digital self).

The good news? The Food Allergy Sleuth blog is the top google hit (yay! I'm #1)!

The bad news? Discovering a misquote floating on the internet from my foray into being the science interviewee (at least it was on page 2 since most people don't go beyond the first page, right? RIGHT?!). In the words of the infamous Homer, "Doh!"

Photo credit: Flickr user hobvias sudoneighm

So what went wrong?

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

"Allergy Moms" at the center of a food revolution?

As I've gotten older, I've started paying attention to the quirks of marketing. Ha! No more subtle subliminal selling of my soul to big ______________ (fill in the blank with:   pharma, food, agriculture...), right?

In midst of my ten minutes of half-hearted browsing before purging my "Family Fun" into the recycle bin of broken Pinterest Mommy dreams, it was the series of ads that literally leaped off of the page and into my consciousness. Are these ads suggesting that allergy moms are at the center of a food revolution?

Not so fast... the articles are great, but what do the ads say?

Monday, June 29, 2015

Q & A - Clinical Research - Food Allergy Treatment Talk

This past week, I led a question and answer session with the private Facebook group, Food Allergy Treatment Talk. The following Q&A is published with kind permission by the administrators of the group. Much more discussion followed that is not published on this blog to keep responses anonymous. I highly encourage anyone thinking of participating in clinical research to take a look. We only advance our understanding, treatments, and potential cures through those choosing to participate in clinical research - altruism at its best!

This discussion couldn't have come at a better time as FARE announces the beginning of a clinical network that will help organize and speed discovery toward treatments and cures. I'm sure more will follow on how this network will achieve these goals!

Questions and Answers

1)   Clinical studies vs. clinical trials: is there a difference?

Friday, May 29, 2015

Dire Consequences from Health Reporting: Portlandia-Style

I love when humor draws attention to much deeper issues, especially those I'm personally invested in like societal understanding of science. While catching up on past episodes of Portlandia, my stupor from automatic sequential episodes of Netflix'ing  was broken by this brilliant little diddy (by the way, who in the hell at Netflix decided this was a "good" feature. CURSE THEM. I hope Portlandia makes fun of binge watching soon. Oh wait. I think they already did):

Portlandia, Season 4, Episode 1 - Death By Confusion sketch

Working in Portland, Oregon as a biology instructor gives me ample anecdotal evidence that Portland is a health-crazed hotbed of all things "woo" and lifestyle choices based on partial scientific evidence. Then again, maybe this isn't just a "Portland" thing. Many of us in the global food allergy community are continually frustrated hearing the media reports of scientific findings that seemingly contradict each other. Seriously - Is Vitamin D "good" or "bad?" Should children consume or avoid nuts to prevent food allergies?

The deeper issue here is that the scientific process and how scientific findings typically get reported in the media are generally at odds with one another. What the Portlandia sketch highlights is that most people interact with scientific findings through a prettily packaged, media filter based on some personal emotion attached to the topic. "I read it in the New York Times..." or "I heard it on NPR..."  Science is fact-based, but the media is typically emotion-laced facts. Emotion-laced facts are not in and of itself "wrong," but it sets up an inherent bias in that we tend to consume the information that supports our preconceived notions (as if I need an excuse to eat more chocolate, right? More on chocolate science at the end of the post). Well-designed scientific studies aim to take bias out of the equation as much as possible.Where we get into trouble is when media reports on the same topic of research disagree. How many times have media reports presented conflicting science on whether red wine/chocolate/coffee/beer/eggs/etc is "good" or "bad" for you?

And this gets to another point where science and media reports of science differ. Science is a slow and steady process with a whole lot of nuance, whereas media reports of science, rapidly distill partial understanding of natural phenomena as if it were ultimate, irrefutable proof. Any one scientific study is not enough evidence to change behavior/medical advice/etc. Only when a topic has been researched through many different studies through several different approaches do scientists feel comfortable saying, "yes, this is how we believe x, y, or z is happening, and people should do a, b, or c as a result." This is scientific consensus. In the media, however, scientific findings often focus on one novel study at a time instead of the slow steady zigzagging path toward consensus. Nuance and consensus often get lost in translation, and they don't make "exciting" headlines. Consensus may have been a novel report ten years ago along with the three other competing ideas of the day that were subsequently shown to be false. I'm tired of the media making scientists look bad and unreliable.

The great irony of "death by confusion" is that overstating any individual scientific finding in the media as if it were ultimate truth backfires when the next overblown claim gets reported six months down the road. While the skit itself overblows the end result (I hope?) of this back and forth reporting, I do think that the real world effect on people is more stress and anxiety rather than less. I want real hope, not false hope.

Some basic strategies to be a good consumer of science in the media:
1. If you read articles from mainstream media channels, look for the primary source (most likely a scientific journal article). If the article fails to link to the primary source, be very skeptical.
Example media report: People Magazine
Primary source: New England Journal of Medicine

2. Read AT LEAST the abstract (research summary) if not the whole primary source if it is freely available. Do the results/conclusions seem in line with the media report?

3. Do any credible educational, research, and professional organizations with a medical board comment on the topic? In the food allergy world, this means FARE, AAFA and KFA, FAACTAAAAI, and ACAAI. The magazine, Allergic Living, also provides great coverage of scientific findings!

Post script:
A must read published two days ago at io9 showing science reporting without due diligence:
I Fooled Millions Into Thinking Chocolate Helps Weight Loss. Here's How. By John Bohannon

Good coverage by NPR that also highlights the controversy of the "fake" chocolate study.

Love it or hate it, I have a feeling this will be a case-study for science journalism in the years to come.