University press releases exaggerate scientific findings

A new study suggests exaggerations about scientific findings – for example, suggesting causation when a study only found correlation – start at the level of university press releases.

Yesterday Sumner and colleagues published some important research in the journal BMJ that found that a majority of exaggeration in health stories was traced not to the news outlet, but to the press release—the statement issued by the university’s publicity department…

The goal of a press release around a scientific study is to draw attention from the media, and that attention is supposed to be good for the university, and for the scientists who did the work. Ideally the endpoint of that press release would be the simple spread of seeds of knowledge and wisdom; but it’s about attention and prestige and, thereby, money. Major universities employ publicists who work full time to make scientific studies sound engaging and amazing. Those publicists email the press releases to people like me, asking me to cover the story because “my readers” will “love it.” And I want to write about health research and help people experience “love” for things. I do!

Across 668 news stories about health science, the Cardiff researchers compared the original academic papers to their news reports. They counted exaggeration and distortion as any instance of implying causation when there was only correlation, implying meaning to humans when the study was only in animals, or giving direct advice about health behavior that was not present in the study. They found evidence of exaggeration in 58 to 86 percent of stories when the press release contained similar exaggeration. When the press release was staid and made no such errors, the rates of exaggeration in the news stories dropped to between 10 and 18 percent…

Sumner and colleagues say they would not shift liability to press officers, but rather to academics. “Most press releases issued by universities are drafted in dialogue between scientists and press officers and are not released without the approval of scientists,” the researchers write, “and thus most of the responsibility for exaggeration must lie with the scientific authors.”

Scientific studies are often complex and probabilistic. It is difficult to model and predict complex natural and social phenomena and scientific studies often give our best estimate or interpretation of the data. But, science tends to steadily accumulate findings and knowledge more than a model where every single study definitively proves things. This can mean that individual studies contribute to the larger whole but often don’t set the agenda or have a radically new finding.

Yet, translating that understanding into something fit for public consumption is difficult. Academics are often criticized for dense and jargon-filled language so pieces for the general public have to be written differently. Academics want their findings to matter and colleges and universities like good publicity as well. Presenting limited or weaker findings doesn’t get as much attention.

All that said, there is an opportunity here to improve the reporting of scientific findings.

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