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When fibs just aren't cute

Even minor lies undermine science journalism

Philip Strange 11 January 2009

Feel-good factor: John Denver features in yet another case of media exaggeration

People don’t know what to believe or what to trust and I suspect this leads to a general scepticism of science

It’s always interesting to see how science is presented in the popular press, so I was intrigued recently to see the following headline in a UK newspaper:

Music to your heart: listening to John Denver classics can improve your blood flow

The article described work on cardiovascular function and heart health conducted at the University of Maryland in the US. Subjects listened to “joyful music” and this increased blood flow in their brachial arteries, supposedly associated with good heart function. Subjects selected their own “joyful music” and, surprisingly, for most of the subjects tested, this “joyful music” was reported to be “John Denver-style country music”.

This sounded pretty odd to me, as John Denver died eleven years ago and his music features very little on country music lists nowadays. It also suggested that the subjects did not constitute a random sample; how many people do you know that would choose John Denver as their joyful music? Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against John Denver; indeed I once went to a John Denver concert and enjoyed it, but that was in 1975! When I looked at reports of this study in the North American media, I found a slightly different story. Although the subjects did choose country music for their “joyful music”, there was no mention whatsoever of John Denver. I spoke to Dr Michael Miller, who led the study, and he told me that the country singers they chose were current country artists such as Hal Ketchum and Dwight Yoakam.

The study was in fact reported as an oral presentation at the recent American Heart Association meeting in New Orleans and so has not been peer-reviewed. It involved only ten subjects and given their uniform choice of music, this small sample is unlikely to be random or representative. The study is very preliminary and will need to be replicated on a much larger sample if it is to be taken seriously.

What can we learn from this about the presentation of science in popular media? It shows how poor, and potentially misleading, science reporting is in the popular press. Although that is hardly a surprise, I did find it troubling that it was assumed that readers in the UK could not cope with the real names of the country artists and so a better known (in the UK) but incorrect name was substituted. This is dishonest and patronising and it leads you to ask how much else you can trust in reports such as this.

The report is also a classic example of a “cute” set of results, in this case very preliminary, being picked up by the press and blown out of proportion with no attempt being made by the journalist to establish validity. Many reports of this kind appear in the popular press and often no more is heard of the findings. A quick search on newspaper web sites for “heart disease” picks up the following stories: “world’s healthiest wine that cleans out the arteries”; “handful of nuts a day can help prevent onset of heart disease”; “glass of wine with your fish increases the benefits to your heart”; “living with in-laws increases women’s risk of heart disease”. So drinking wine, eating fish and a handful of nuts while listening to John Denver is good for your heart! Just don’t mention the in-laws!

This must be very confusing for non-scientists reading these newspapers. People don’t know what to believe or what to trust and I suspect this leads to a general scepticism of science. But people like to read “cute” stories. “Cute” stories sell newspapers, so they will continue to appear.